“Where Do We Get Some Of Our Genes From, Grandfather?”

Sir Conrad Swan, KCYO, KGCN, Pill, FSA, Quondam Garter Principal King of Arms

From "The Armiger's News," July 2004


This if the sort of question I get, upon occasion, when sitting around with some of the 20 grandchildren with whom my late wife, Lady Hilda Northcote (1) and I were blessed. One could be Thomas, now up at St. Andrew’s University; or Edward, about to do up to Cambridge (my alma mater) or, yet again, ‘Young Tom’ who plays the bagpipes, and plays them well, despite their being more than half his size!

As an opening response to such a question, I might say, “Well, let us have a look at this bookplate”- always helps to have something upon which to concentrate attention, as years of pedagogy have taught us, would you not agree?

“Now, this bookplate was designed for me, when I first became Garter. It was done by a talented, young herald-painter at the College of Arms, John Bainbridge. He started life as a clerk in the Income Tax Department, but soon discovered that he had a soul, and one with an artistic bent. Miracles, you know, can happen in the most unlikely places! His artistic career was relatively short as, alas, he died prematurely. However, we are fortunate to have some examples of his excellent work of which, I am of opinion, that this is one. If you look very carefully, within the upper curve of the motto scroll, you’ll see his signature: J B 1993.

“Let us start with the line of shields on the right. At the top are the Arms (2) of John of Gaunt (3) son of Edward III of England, founder of the Order of the Garter (4) of which I had the honour to be an Officer, and so my ultimate heraldic title (5).

“Katherine, daughter of Sir Payne Roet, Guienne King of Arms, was asked to come and be the tutor of Gaunt’s daughters. And, it was not the first time, the roving eye of the master of the household fell upon the new addition to the establishment and he decided that she might tutor him in a thing or two. She was already a widow, and soon became his mistress. Incidentally, Guienne had another daughter, Philippa, and she became the wife of Geoffrey Chaucer. So when you have to learn to recite ‘The Canterbury Tales’ in the original English, you know that it was an ‘uncle’ to blame! But to get back to Gaunt, I am glad to say that, in the end, after the death of his second wife, he did the honourable thing and married Katherine (6). You descend from one of their daughters, the Lady Joan Beaufort (7) wife of Ralph Nevill, 1st Earl of Westmorland (8).

“Now you young bucks, remember that the order is: up to the altar first, then leap into bed. Not the other way round. Discipline in all things and especially sex (a hell of a high spirited stead) is essential, or you’ll rue it. That descent from the Plantagenets brings you, ultimately into a cousinage with the young Princes William and Harry.

“The next, and central, shield on the right hand side displays the Arms of Sir Edward Nevill (great-grandson of the above Lady Joan Beaufort). He was beheaded on Tower Hill (9 January, 1539) for wishing to be loyal to the religion of his ancestors, and for denying that his distant cousin, Henry VIII, could be Head of the Church. Nevill’s sister, Jane, married their cousin, Henry, Lord Montague (also beheaded on the same day as Nevill and for the same reasons) which Montague was brother of Reginald Cardinal Pole, the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury (at least for the moment!).

“The immediate blood-link for all these four was Montague’s and the Cardinal’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Salisbury (the last of the Plantagenets) who was also beheaded for the same reasons as the others, some two years later (9). Notwithstanding having had to be helped up onto the platform for the grizzly deed - this time inside the Tower on Tower Green - she said, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong, so if you want to behead me, you must catch me first.’ Hereupon she raced off round the platform with her executioners in hot pursuit - the English are at their best in a tight comer; so bully for that Beaufort! She has already been Beatified and is thus on the way to formal Canonization.

“The last and lowest Arms on that side are those of the family of Lowndes which, by way of St. Kitts, B. W. I., produced Rawlins Lowndes, President of the State of South Carolina, 1778.

“In your case, they are the Arms of your great-grandmother Elizabeth Iddesleigh [Elizabeth Lowndes, Countess of Iddesleigh]. You will recall that her mother was Marie Belloc Lowndes, the author of ‘I too have lived in Arcadia,’ ‘The Lodger’ and many other works in the 1920s and 30s. Apropos the last mentioned (a murder story based on fact on which she had done much research) it is reported that at a dinner party she once remarked, ‘If you had known as many murderers as I have you would not make such a silly remark’(!). Her brother was Hilaire Belloc, author and controversialist of the same time as his sister. Their grandfather was the celebrated portrait painter of the Napoleonic period, Jean Hilaire Belloc, often described as the French Lawrence.

“Over on the left hand side, the first Arms would be described by your Polish ancestors as Orze³ Bia³y (literally: White Eagle) being those of the Piast dynasty (10), from which you also descend. As you will remember with Polish heraldry being based on a clan-like system (somewhat as for the Scots) almost all Arms (herbs in Polish) are simply referred to by a name which eliminates the necessity of blazoning them (11). Just as in English heraldry one can say, for example, ‘France Ancient’ or ‘England,’ as with the Arms of John of Gaunt at upper one knows the design right away, and there is no necessity to blazon it. The last of the Piast dynasty was Queen Jadwiga of Poland - a very tall person for her time, something on the order of six feet - who married in 1386 Jage³³o, Grand Duke of Lithuania (and so the Jage³³onian dynasty of the united Poland - Lithuania Commonwealth). Being converted to Christianity from paganism (12) for this marriage, he gave up seven wives into the bargain - who said that the Grace of God can’t be dynamite?!

“The central Arms on this side are those of the family of Green of Tring co. Hertford (N. W. of London but right into the country) - my mother’s family. One of its members, Herbert Green, served in the Zulu War in South Africa (1879). If that was not enough excitement, he then took part in the last Land Run in United States history (onto the Cherokee Strip, as it was called, 16 September, 1893). Having then settled down in the States, that branch of the family has taken a not undistinguished part in the State Legislature of Oklahoma and also in the Federal Agricultural Service, Washington - out to Guam, mainland China, Taiwan and so on.

“The last on the left side are quarterly Arms of, 1 and 4, the herb Zadora (a lion’s head belching flames) of the historic Polonized family of Dowga³³o of your great-great grandmother; the other herb, 2 and 3, is Pomian (the European bison, Bison banasus, closely related to the American buffalo) transfixed with a sword. Appropriately enough, these were the Arms of Isabella Paulina Besierkierska, wife of Julian Constantine Andrew Œwiêcicki (13) who brought her 5 sons and 2 daughters into the British Empire following the defeat of the Great Rebellion of 1863 against the Russian occupation of their country. It was almost successful and so greatly alarmed the government in St. Petersburg with draconian results. In the aftermath, it was bad enough for the peasants who had risen, but worse for the szlachta (nobility) who had led them. She brought her family to British Columbia. They arrived at a place called Granville which some years later, when the railway arrived (1886), was renamed, and has remained so ever sine, Vancouver.

“In the centre are two shields accouché. That inclining to the dexter marshals the Arms of office of Garter Principal King of Arms with the family Arms of the Garter of the day (me) - rather as a bishop would place the diocesan Arms to the dexter and his personal Arms to the sinister, or a mayor: the Arms of the city and his own Arms. Surrounding the Garterial shield is the gold collar of S’s, insignia of a King of Arms as is the gold crown ensigning the shield. Stylized Arcanthus leaves comprise the latter, with an ermine edged red satin cap inside. Such are worn at coronations. The rim is inscribed: Miserere mei Deus secundum misericordiam tuam - no bad prayer to be uttered by those in high office, I would suggest. A spot of humility does no one any harm: one may know a good deal, but never, everything.

“Behind the shield, arranged in saltire, are two representations of the sceptre of Garter which he uses to marshal processions - and to suggest where Her Majesty might wish to sit. (Note the diplomatic verb used - toujours la politesse, n’est ce pas?!) From behind the shield depends the triple gold chain and Badge of Garter (worn ‘round the neck) on ceremonial occasions.

“My, and so your, Arms are basically the herb Jastrzêbiec (Sparrow Hawk — which will be seen clearly as part of our Crest, at upper right, rising from the coronet of a szlachcic (noble sans titre). Exercising the Royal prerogative on our behalf, these Arms and Crest were the subject of confirmatory and matriculating Patents issued by the Kings of Arms and recorded in Her Majesty’s College of Arms (14). The bordure (compony Or and Gules) was added to the Arms to conform to the English Law of Arms which requires that each male-line family has Arms unique to themselves. By having the technical difference take the form of a bordure, the basic design of the herb Jastrzêbiec was preserved. As will be seen, as [had not yet been knighted when Bainbridge did this design, the helm, beneath the Crest, is that of an untitled, armigerous gentleman and so with vizor closed. As you know, now that I am a KCVO (15) the vizor is open.

“The other accouché shield, placed somewhat behind the Garterial shield, inclines slightly to the sinister. It bears the matrimonial achievement of: dexter our male-line Arms and, sinister, the Arms of Northcote being those of Granny (16). Because of their antiquity they are very simple: Argent 3 Cross-crosslets in Bend Sable.

“Granny’s great grandfather - and so your great great-great grandfather - was Sir Stafford Northcote, 8th Baronet and 1st Earl of Iddesleigh. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Disraeli’s administration but also Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. With the then recent Indian Mutiny and sudden demise of the East India Company very much in the public mind, he was determined that ‘his’ Company should not suffer the same fate. Accordingly he was instrumental in having the Company convey its holding in Canada, Ruperts Land (over ¾ of the total land mass) back into the hands of the Crown and so on to the recently formed Dominion Government at Ottawa (1870). The Company was permitted to continue to trade as a private company and as a result, if you go into any of the major cities and towns in Western Canada today, ‘The Bay’ will be found as one of the main, high-class departmental stores of the place. The same Sir Stafford, also was the one who, on behalf of the British Government, negotiated most satisfactory terms for Britain in the Treaty of Washington (187 I). This required extreme diplomacy as one of the main matters to be settled were Washington’s claims over the Alabama Affair. Of more immediate concern to the family was the fact that his son, Oliver who acted as one of his aides in the negotiations, found time to become engaged to Edith Livingston Fish, daughter of the Hon. Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State of the United States, and the vis-à-vis to Sir Stafford in the treaty negotiations. Queen Victoria declared it not just to be a marriage but an alliance! Cousin Mary Northcote, living in London today, is their granddaughter.

“As will be seen the motto of our male-line family is Nunquam cedamus. Let it always remind us: Never surrender - to the untrue, the second- rate and the easy compromise.

“I think that that must be all for today, Darlings. There goes the bell for tea, so let us go and enjoy some that excellent fruit cake the cook has made, full of an interesting mixture - as are the histories of all families, would you not agree?”

  1. Tragically killed by a ‘hit and run driver’ just outside one of the entrances to our property, 4 December, 1995.
  2. France ancient and England quarterly differenced with a label of three points Argent Ermined Sable.
  3. b. 20 January, 1340.
  4. c. 1348.
  5. Rouge Dragon Pursuivant of Arms, 1962; York Herald of Arms 1968; Garter Principal King of Arms, 1992.
  6. 13 January, 1396/97.
  7. Legitimated by Act of Parliament, 1397. Vide “The Complete Peerage” by G.E.C., ed., By H.A. Doubleday and Lord Howard de Walden, 1929, Vol VII p.415 (i).
  8. For the Royal descent of the family of Swan vide College of Arms Records: Arundel IV.3.
  9. Beheaded 27 May 1541.
  10. For the Royal descent of the family of Swan see Note 8 at supra, and Dworzacek, W. Genealogia. Institut Historii Polskiej Akademii Nauk. Warsawa, 1959, Tables 1 & 5; and Louda, Jiri and Maclagan, Michael. “Lines of Succession” Orbis Publishing, London, 1981, Tables 45 and 132.
  11. Swan, Sir Conrad. “Arma Poloniae - a consideration of some aspects of the Polish Heraldic Experience” being the 1991 Constance Egan Lecture for the Heraldry Society. “The Coat of Arms” N. S. Vol. XI No.169 pp 2-14, and ibid., N. S. Vol XI No 170 pp 46-57.
  12. Lithuania was the last country in Europe to embrace Christianity.
  13. The history of this family is dealt with in some detail in the forthcoming autobiography of the author, “King from Canada” to be published by The Memoir Club, Stanhope Old Hall, County Durham, DL13 2PF, England. This includes the mutation of the family name from Swiecicki to Swan - a gallant, if not wholly accurate, attempt of kind Anglo-Saxon neighbours to grapple with the first syllable of the ancestral name.
  14. College of Arms records: Gts 130/67 and 159/29.
  15. Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.
  16. The Lady Hilda Susan Mary Northcote, Dame of Honour and Devotion of the SMO of Malta. Serving Sister of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem; yr. dau. of Henry, 3rd. Earl of Iddesleigh and 10th Baronet, Major, The Welsh Guards.