Coats of arms designed to identify groups of soldiers in the heat of battle were also used by towns and cities to identify themselves and the source of their authority.
Both symbols on the Norwich coat of arms are martial and point to a long relationship with the crown that conferred certain privileges upon the city. This civic coat of arms is described as: “Gules, a castle triple-towered and domed argent; in base a lion passant guardant Or”. Simply put: red shield, silver castle, gold lion. There are, however, many stylistic variations: as often as not the triple-towered castle isn’t domed.
The castle, of course, is Norman but it was about a century after the Conquest that the city’s lion appeared during the reign of the Plantagenets. The association between the lion and the English crown seems to have begun during the reign of King John but it was John’s older brother, Richard the Lionheart, who is particularly associated with the lion passant guardant ; that is, walking with forepaw raised (passant) and head turned to the left, full face (guardant). This is the version of the animal that figures on all of the city’s heraldic devices. Except … guarding the entrance to the City Hall, Alfred Hardiman’s Assyrian-influenced bronze lions are two of our finest civic sculptures but they are at odds with other Norwich lions in not looking left. This may be because the architects saw a lion exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition of 1936 before they commissioned its twin .
The connection with Richard I relates to the charter of 1194 in which he allowed citizens to elect their own Reeve – equivalent to the ‘president’ of the borough . The foundation of self-government is usually dated to Richard’s charter even though there may have been a degree of municipal independence before this .
The Guildhall, which is the largest medieval civic building outside London, was built 1407-1412 in order to administer the self-governing powers conferred upon the city by Henry IV. The king’s charter of 1404 granted county status to the city and, like London, allowed the citizens to elect a mayor . Documents issued by the council were authenticated with the city’s coat of arms in the form of a wax seal applied either directly or pendent.
The city’s proud status as ‘civitas‘, a form of city state, is acknowledged in Cuningham’s 1558 map of Norwich, which is probably the earliest surviving printed map of any English town or city.
In the top right corner we can see the castle and lion augmented by two supporters who, as we will see, appear in various guises through the city’s history.
A century prior to this, around 1450, the alderman John Wighton – whose stained glass workshop made the great east window of St Peter Mancroft – glazed the window of the council chamber in the Guildhall. He did this for the mayor and wealthy wool merchant Robert Toppes who ran his business from Dragon Hall in King Street [see 7 for a fuller account of the Norwich School painted glass].
Between the two angels is Toppes’ own coat of arms, dwarfing the city coat of arms beneath each angel.
Opposite the rear entrance to Cinema City, the city arms can be seen amongst a series of 13 shields carved at the east end of St Andrew’s church and dated to the rebuilding of the church 1500-1506.
A fine C16 example of the city coat of arms can be seen in Surrey House, the early C20 building designed for Norwich Union by George Skipper. The stained glass is a relic from the Earl of Surrey’s house that previously stood on this site in what is now Surrey Street.
The Earl of Surrey, Henry Howard, son of the Duke of Norfolk, was called “the most foolish proud boy that is in England” and it was pride that led to his downfall. Surrey was brought up in Windsor Castle with Henry VIII’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy. The king came to believe that Surrey – a staunch anti-Protestant – was planning to usurp Henry VIII’s legitimate son, Edward VI, when he inherited the crown. The trigger, though, appeared to be when Surrey flaunted his descent from English royalty by attaching (quartering) the arms of Edward the Confessor to his own. He was executed for treason in his thirtieth year but his father, who was to have shared that fate, was saved when Henry VIII died the day before the planned execution .
Against this background of excessive pride associated with coats of arms, the other armorial glass in the Ante Room of Surrey House  takes on an extra layer of meaning.
Around 1900, three marble mosaics of the city arms were installed in the entrances to civic buildings: the Guildhall, Norwich Castle and the Technical Institute (now Norwich University of the Arts). But I can find no record of the Italian craftsmen living around Ber Street who were reported to have made them.
On the south side of the Guildhall is the Bassingham Gateway, originally from the London Street house of John Bassingham, a goldsmith in the reign of Henry VIII. When London Street was widened in 1855-7 the gateway was bought by William Wilde for £10 and inserted in the Magistrate’s Entrance of the Guildhall .
By comparing this with George Plunkett’s 1934 photograph of the doorway , the crisp carving would appear to be part of a postwar renovation. The lion is now decidedly oriental.
Although there are minor variations in the way they are depicted, the castle and the lion are constants in the city’s arms. More variable are the supporters – the flanking figures that appear on some versions of the arms. In Cuningham’s map of 1558 (above) they appeared as cherubs.
In 1511 the roof of the mayor’s chamber in the Guildhall collapsed and in the rebuilding of 1535-7 the chequerboard of the eastern façade received coats of arms; the city arms of castle and lion were protected by armed angels and an indeterminate shape hovering over the shield .
Above this coat of arms on the east wall is a clock turret dated 1850, dedicated to mayor Henry Woodcock. Flanking the clock face are two unarmed angels, each clasping the city arms.
An illustration in Blomefield’s authoritative book on the history of Norwich  also has two angels as supporters, this time armed, but the object above the shield is difficult to read in this form.
Hudson and Tingey’s 1906 book on Norwich history  also shows the shield flanked by two guardian angels and in this case the object above the arms resolves as a hat. One source describes this as a warden yeoman’s hat (yeoman warder’s?) , another as a fur cap .
The hat also appears on the blue lamp on the police station, which is attached to the west side of the City Hall, but no guardian angels.
The City Hall itself is Coat-of-Arms Central; there were even plans for the tower to be topped with an angel before it was cut for reasons of cost . The city arms appears above the entrance to the City Treasurer’s Department in Bethel Street with all its accoutrements: the hat and Art Deco angels flanking a traditional coat of arms.
Examples of the ‘full set’ can also be seen on the engraved glass window above the stairs leading up from the ground floor of the City Hall…… above the mayor’s chair in the council chamber…
… and on Lutyens’ war memorial, facing the City Hall on St Peter’s Street.
The additional elements (hat and angels) that appeared some time after the original granting of the lion-and-castle arms do complicate what was once a simple and effective design. The College of Arms does not recognise the the flanking angels; by dispensing with the supporters the cartoon-like arms on these two mid-C20 projects marked a return to simplicity (although the question of whether or not to dome the castle is still not solved).
© 2018 Reggie Unthank
- Nobbs, G. Norwich City Hall (a booklet from the City Hall, private imprint and undated but published for the 50th anniversary of the 1938 opening).
- Cocke, R. (2013). Public Sculpture of Norfolk and Suffolk (photography by Sarah Cocke). Pub: Liverpool University Press.
- Hudson, W. and Tingey, J.C. (1906). The Records of the City of Norwich vol 1. Pub: Jarrolds.
- Meeres, F. (2011). The Story of Norwich. Pub: Phillimore & Co Ltd.
- Blomefield, F. (1806). An essay towards a topographical history of the County of Norfolk. Vol III Containing the History of Norwich. Pub: W Miller, London.
Thanks to Clive Cheesman, Richmond Herald of the College of Arms for information about the Norwich coat of arms.