Thursday, 23 April 2015

Queer Achievement : An English Queer Dynasty

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]

Happy St. George’s Day.

Today’s heraldic article is a bit different. It looks at a whole queer family.

There can’t be as many families with so many closely related lgbt members who exemplify all things English than the Benson family. The head of the family was an Archbishop of Canterbury, his widow lived with the daughter of his predecessor, one of their sons wrote the words to the patriotic song “Land of Hope and Glory”, and another wrote as series of quintessentially English humorous novels. In fact, it is widely believed that the Archbishop was the only truly heterosexual member of the family. Here’s the family tree, followed by the family coat of arms (I must apologise for the quality of the scan. I had to buy a new scanner recently and it doesn’t produce images of a quality I’d like) :
I’ll give you a quick tour of the family achievement before moving onto one specific member. The shield bears a version of the Benson coat of arms that dates back to about 1700. Archbishop Benson made several alterations. On the original arms there were three identical black trefoils in a row across the shield. The Archbishop replaced the middle one with a quatrefoil and put the trefoil into the mouth of the white bear in the crest. Another alteration was to double the red bars, increasing them to 4 in total. These arms were inherited by all his children.

On top of the helmet is the crest of a bear, but even though it might look a polar bear it isn’t. In heraldry white is called argent and is meant to represent the metal silver, as does the white on the shield. White is often shown in book and magazine illustrations because real silver is difficult to print. In really posh, elaborate, official documents silver leaf would be used to make the bear’s head, and I can’t afford any silver leaf! The same goes with yellow – it should really be gold leaf!

If I had to choose one member of the Benson family to present for the main heraldic illustration it has to be that of Monsignor Robert Benson, simply because it is the most visually striking and so unlike any previous achievement I’ve drawn. Here it is :
Robert Hugh Benson was the youngest of Archbishop Benson’s children. He was ordained as a priest in the Church of England by his father in 1895, but he converted to Roman Catholicism. He was then ordained a Catholic priest in 1904 and became a Supernumerary Private Chamberlain to the Pope in 1911, giving him the title of Monsignor.

As an ordained priest Robert wasn’t entitled to use a helmet and crest, either as an Anglican or a Catholic. Instead, in both cases, he would have used an ecclesiastical hat called a galero. The Catholic Church had strict rules about how many tassels a priest could show dangling from the galero, and about what colour the galero should be. Monsignor Benson’s position as a chamberlain entitled him to use a black galero with 6 violet tassels on either side.

Monsignor Benson also received two orders of chivalry from the Pope, though he could only display one in his coat of arms. That was the insignia of a Knight Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. There are several insignia which are used. The first is the red badge of the order which is a large red cross and 4 smaller crosses all behind the shield. The other insignia and the shield obscures most of the small crosses. Around the shield in the black ribbon of the order, and from it is suspended the gold and enamel badge of the order fastened to a bow.

Monsignor Benson had another honour from the Pope, that of a Knight Commander with Star of the Order of St. Gregory the Great. As an ordained priest he would not be entitled to show this on his coat of arms though he could wear it’s insignia alongside that of the Holy Sepulchre on his clothing.

The Benson family is such an interesting family, that I’m sure I’ll return to them some time in the future.

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