The Stafford Knott

Below is an illustration of the heraldic standard of Henry Stafford, second Duke of Buckingham, at the College of Arms.  Its date is around 1475.

The standard shows the cross of St George in the hoist, as was normal in the Middle Ages, the Stafford family livery colours of red and black, the Knot badge and the de Bohun swan badge, differenced with a red crescent, plus the motto humble and loyal.

It was normal for families who used a badge to have a standard too, as a flag to which their supporters would rally when called.

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A Knotty Puzzle

A Visitor’s Guide to the Stafford Knot

Any visitor to Stafford or Staffordshire will soon become familiar with the Stafford Knot.

The knot appears on public buildings, traffic bollards, stationery and almost everywhere.

Often erroneously called the Staffordshire Knot, this simplest of all knots has become the widely recognised badge of Staffordshire.

In fact, it was and remains the heraldic badge of the barons Stafford from at least the fifteenth century and probably earlier.  

Badges were adopted by prominent families in the Middle Ages to be worn by their servants and retainers who would not be permitted to use the family coat of arms.

The sixth earl of Stafford, created duke of Buckingham in 1444, is known to have used the knot as his badge but there is good reason to believe it was adopted by his grandfather, the second earl, who died in 1386.

The duke of Buckingham’s mother, Lady Anne Plantaganet, Countess of Buckingham, was the daughter of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and youngest son of King Edward III, and of Lady Eleanor de Bohun, daughter and co-heiress of the seventh earl of Hereford.

Lady Anne married the fifth earl in 1398.  A clerical vestment now in the Victoria and Albert Museum bearing the coat of arms of the Stafford family (a red chevron on a gold shield) and the royal arms of England and France within a silver border, borne by Thomas of Woodstock, is believed to have been worn by the priest who solemnised this marriage.

The vestment, a chasuble worn by a priest to celebrate the Eucharist (Mass or Holy Communion), also depicts the swan badge of the de Bohun family and the Stafford knot.  If the chasuble was indeed worn by the priest who performed the marriage rites of the fifth earl and Lady Anne, the knot muct have been the badge of the Stafford family half a century or more before they were promoted to their dukedom.

The second duke of Buckingham, Henry Stafford, helped King Richard III to usurp the throne of his nephew, King Edward V.  When they arrived in London escorted by thousands of Buckingham’s retainers in 1483, it was said the capital had never seen so many men all wearing the same badge – the Stafford knot.

The first proven use of the Stafford Knot by anyone other than the Stafford family as an heraldic device was by the Borough of Stafford in the late sixteenth century.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the borough or burh of Stafford was founded by Aetheflaed, Lady of the Mercians, in AD 913 as part of a campaign to reconquer England from the Danes.  Stafford was one of three Staffordshire boroughs listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 and received its earliest surviving royal charter in 1206 from King John.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, heralds from the College of Arms toured the counties of England recording the coats of arms actually in use and checking on the right of those bearing them to do so.  These heralds’ visitations remain some of the most important sources of heraldic history.

No arms for the borough of Stafford were recorded in the first visitation of Staffordshire in 1583, although a seal was then in use depicting a four-towered castle between five lions.  King William the Conqueror had built a royal castle in the town near Broad Eye but this was described as “now destroyed” in Domesday, 20 years later, and was superseded by the Stafford family’s castle outside the town, to the south-west.

By the second heraldic visitation of 1614, a coat of arms was recorded depicting a silver four-towered castle with two gold Stafford Knots above and a gold lion below, all on a red shield.  The heraldic blazon for this is: “Gules, a quadrangular castle in perspective the towers domed argent, each surmounted by a pennon or, between two Stafford Knots in chief and a lion passant guardant in base all or”.

These arms remained in use for 360 years until local government reorganisation in 1974.  However, a sizable body of evidence exists to show that another armorial shield, never authenticated by the heralds, also existed from at least late the 16th century until the middle of the 17th century.

In 1588 William Smith published A Particular Description of England which includes the coats of arms of noblemen and bishops in each county.  The entry for Staffordshire also attributes to the borough of Stafford a coat the same as that borne by the Stafford family with the addition of a silver Stafford Knot at the apex of the chevron.

The same arms are depicted in John Speed’s map of Staffordshire in his Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain, published in 1612.  They also appear on the fly-sheet of an order book of the borough council beginning in 1648 and can still be seen on the bowl of the mayor’s silver-gilt great mace, which was altered in 1655.

One can only speculate why these arms remained in use for at least 67 years but were not recorded in the heralds’ visitations of 1583 or 1614.  

Perhaps the heralds were reluctant to recognise the borough’s right to use a coat of arms identical to that of the Stafford family, except for the addition of that family’s own badge as a difference.

In contrast, the council could demonstrate long use of its seal depicting the castle and lions.  Ancient usage was then recognised as establishing a right to a coat of arms.

Some people, however, seem to have regarded the earlier coat of arms as being the proper arms of the borough of Stafford for many years after the College of Arms approved those which remained the only authentic coat until 1974.

Whatever the explanation, it is clear that the borough of Stafford had adopted the Stafford Knot as one of its armorial bearings at least by 1614 and probably by 1588.  This was to have profound consequences for the knot as an emblem of Staffordshire as a whole.

In 1794 a regiment of volunteer soldiers was raised at the Swan Hotel in Stafford which was later named the Staffordshire Yeomanry.  The Stafford knot was soon adopted as its badge.

At some time during the Napoleonic Wars, the South Staffordshire Regiment also adopted the knot surmounted by a crown as its badge.  Later in the 19th century, the North Staffordshire Regiment also adopted the knot, with the addition of the three ostrich feathers of the heir apparent, as its badge.

By the middle of the 19th century, the knot was being used widely by commercial enterprises based in Staffordshire.  The North Staffordshire Railway Company (commonly known as the Knotty Line) used the arms of the Borough of Stafford (quite improperly) from soon after its foundation in 1845.

Many pottery firms based in North Staffordshire also used the knot as their trade marks, often with the addition of a set of initials in the three loops of the knot.

By the early 20th century, several local authorities in Staffordshire had the knot incorporated into their coats of arms granted by the College of Arms.

When Staffordshire County Council was created under the Local Government Act of 1888, the need for its own common seal immediately arose.  At its first meeting on April 1st, 1889, the task of designing a seal and ordering it to be made was entrusted to three members – the chairman, the Earl of Harrowby, the vice chairman and Lord Wrottesely.

The design they chose incorporated the arms assumed by the Borough of Stafford in the late 16th century, but never approved by the College of Arms, within an octofoil.  Four of the eight lobes of this figure contained Stafford Knots linking roundels bearing emblems representing the four principal industries of Staffordshire – a wheatsheaf for agriculture, the alchemical symbol of iron for iron-founding, a lozenge for coalmining and a jug for pottery manufacturing.

The Latin legend around the rim read: “SIG: COM: CONCILII COMITATUS STAFFORDIENSIS” meaning “common seal of the council of the county of Stafford”.

A coloured representation of this seal appeared at the top of certificates issued to special constables during the First World War.  At the bottom appeared a Stafford Knot with the initials SCC within its loops – rather like the makers’ marks used by minor pottery manufacturers in North Staffordshire at the time.

The county council did not apply for its own coat of arm until 1930 when a member offered to pay the fee for a grant by the College of Arms and a committee was set up to consider various designs.  Some complicated proposals involving devices used by long established county families were quickly discarded and the arms used on the common seal advanced with the addition of a red chief (a broad stripe across the top of the shield) bearing a golden lion passant guardant, taken from the arms of the Borough of Stafford approved in 1614.  The heralds later insisted that the chief should be blue rather than red, probably to avoid too close a resemblance to the royal arms of England.  The blue chief also gives a more pleasing overall effect.

The crest above the shield was quickly agreed on as a Stafford Knot arising out of a mural crown, indicating a civic authority.  Supporting the shield were a red lion and a golden gryphons, two of the Stafford family’s many other badges.

The motto selected was: “The Knot Unites”, demonstrating how deeply ingrained in the consciousness of Staffordshire folk the emblem had become.  This achievement was approved by the College of Arms in January 1931 and is still used on the county council’s common seal, in place of the earlier unapproved shield.

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