[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]
For the last heraldic achievement this year I’ve chosen a
woman who could have been entitled to an English and a German coat of arms. Her
name is Sybille Bedford (1911-2006).
Her full maiden name was Baroness Sybille Aleid Elsa von
Schoenebeck. In 1935 Sybille became a British citizen, and above is the
armorial achievement she may have been entitled to use in her lifetime. There’s
no indication that she petitioned the College of Arms for an official grant. It
is my personal interpretation of her heraldic heritage.
First, the shield. Ignoring the little blue shield in the
centre this design was used by the von Schoenebeck family since the mid-1600s,
probably after the marriage of Gerhard von Schoenebeck to Sybilla von der
Lippe. The von Lippe and von der Lippe families have been using a rose as their
emblem since the 11th century. With this marriage came estates belonging to the
von der Lippes and Gerhard may have adopted the rose to honour his wife’s
family. This borrowing of emblems was common in medieval heraldry. Sybille
Bedford was directly descended from Gerhard and Sybilla.
German heraldry has several different rules to English
heraldry. The German states that were part of the Holy Roman Empire had no
central heraldic authority like the English College of Arms. German families
were free to adopt any design they wished. As a consequence there were an
estimated 3 million German families who were using coats of arms by the time
the Holy Roman Empire ended in 1806. There were a handful of unofficial
authorities who registered coats of arms for a fee. Only around 4,000 of the 3
million German arms had been registered by 1806. I assume the von Schoenebeck
arms were one of them as they appear in several German heraldry books in the
1820s. Since 1916 German arms and achievements have been registered with a
number of specific authorities being licensed for the purpose.
Another difference between German and English heraldry is
that German coats of arms can be used by all members of the family without
alteration, whereas in England a coat of arms, specifically one displayed on a
shield, must be individual and not like those of any other person (except when
it appears in what is called a “quarter”, as in the arms of multiple heiresses).
In England unmarried women display their coat of arms on a lozenge. In Germany
Sybille Bedford she could have used the von Schoenebeck coat of arms on a shield
like her father. She could also use the full achievement with helmet and crest,
which she couldn’t in England. German coats of arms are also always shown with
the crest. This is because there are so many coats of arms and some may be
identical. A distinctive crest helps to distinguish one from the other. Before
she became a British citizen her achievement would have been the one
In the 1920s Sybille Bedford moved to England to get away
from the emerging fascist regimes in Germany and Italy. When the Nazi’s
discovered her family’s Jewish ancestry all her bank accounts were frozen and
she was refused a passport. Living penniless in England and unable to travel
she had to find a way of obtaining a legal passport. It was suggested that she entered
a marriage of convenience with a gay Englishman.
In 1936 Sybille married Walter Bedford. The marriage didn’t
last long, obviously, and not a lot is known about her husband. However,
there’s no record of him having a coat of arms which, at the time, would also
mean that Sybille didn’t either – women were not entitled to use their father’s
arms after they got married, unless they were an heiress. Fortunately, Sybille
Bedford lived to see a change in English heraldry. If we assume that she
applied to the College of Arms to have her German arms officially approved then
her heraldic achievement would be the one at the top of this article.
In 1997 the College of Arms ruled that married women could
still display their father’s coat of arms even if their husband hasn’t got one
by placing them on a shield with the addition of a smaller shield. This smaller
shield could be in any colour and in any position as long at it followed
establish heraldic rules and can be seen clearly. That’s why I’ve chosen to put
a blue shield in the centre. It would look wrong to put a yellow shield on one
of the roses.
The blue bow and garland around the shield are customary for
a woman, regardless of marital status (peeresses and dames can replace them
with various other insignia). As far as I can tell Sybille Bedford did not
divorce her husband and was still married to him when she died. This would make
a difference, because on becoming a widow Sybille would have to take the shield
away and show her arms on a lozenge. Until we know for sure, let’s assume her
husband was still alive.
Sybille was awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the
British Empire) in 1981. The gold badge of the order is shown below her shield
with the ribbon tied into a bow, as it is worn by women.
Finally, I will just say that even though I finish my blog
officially (full-time) at the end of the year I intend to produce another
heraldic alphabet article for International Heraldry Day on 10th June 2019. By
then I may also have produced a small book for sale with all the heraldry
articles expanded and amended. It is one of several products I plan to produce
to help finance displays and exhibitions for LGBT History Month, Pride,
International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, etc.