Sunday 16 April 2017

A Queer Achievement For Easter

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

The reason I’ve chosen to write about Sir Roger Casement (1964-1916) this Easter weekend is because he was such a prominent figure of the 1916 Easter Rising. His trial for treason has gone down as one of the most sensational of the 20th century. What is also particularly appropriate for the present Easter weekend is that his family coat of arms was originally granted on 17th April in 1826 (for the record, Easter Sunday in 1826 was March 26th).

Coats of arms are full of symbolism. They indicate the significant events or ideals that are important to the original grantee. These may be forgotten over the succeeding generations. Take, for instance, the arms of Sir Elton John. We know the symbolism behind his arms, but his adopted children (who add a small symbol to denote adoption) will pass them on to their own descendants who may never know what the symbolism means had it not been for people like myself who wrote it down.

The same can be said of Sir Roger Casement’s arms (above). Very little of the symbolism in his coat of arms applies to his life and career. Yet it gives perfect hints to the life and career of his ancestral cousin who was granted the arms on 17th April 1826. His name was Maj-.Gen. Sir William Casement (1778-1844). So, to explain Sir Roger Casement’s coat of arms we need to look at the life of Sir William.

On look at various elements on the shield we can see a military theme – the lion, the sword, the tower and the battlements. All are common elements for a military man like Sir William. We can also deduce where he saw his military service. The elephants give it away. Sir William served with the 23rd Bengal Native Infantry. He later became Military Secretary to the Governor General of India, and a member of the Supreme Council of India. To represent the latter his crest contains what is called a mural crown, a crown made of masonry, which is a common heraldic symbol of a political or municipal connection.

The motto “Dum spiro spero” translates as “While I breath, I hope”.

As is customary Sir William’s new coat of arms was granted to himself and extended for use by the appropriate male descendants of his paternal grandfather. The star you see on the lion’s chest probably indicates Sir William was not the eldest son, as it is a common mark to indicate a younger son, which he was.

The tiger in the crest is a “red herring”. It wasn’t part of Sir William’s 1826 coat of arms. He had a lion just like the one on the shield. In 1860 Sir William’s cousin, Thomas Casement of County Antrim (the senior heir to the afore-mentioned paternal grandfather), was given a confirmation from the Ulster Office of Arms of Sir William’s arms with several alterations. Perhaps in recognition of William’s military service Thomas chose a Bengal tiger for his crest. One other alteration was the background to the elephants. Sir William divided his background into red on the left half and blue on the right. Thomas adopted a complete red background.

This confirmation of arms was given to Thomas Casement and his branch of the family is the one inherited by Sir Roger Casement. To distinguish his full coat of arms from the other male members of his family who also inherited these arms Sir Roger was entitled to display the badges of his honours below the shield. In 1905 he received the CMG (Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George). Behind the shield he would have shown the circlet of the order bearing the order's motto, "Auspicium  Melioris Aevi", which translates as "Token of a Better Age". Honours given in the Order of St. Michael and St. George are specifically awarded for services to British foreign interests or diplomatic relations. Sir Roger received his CMG for services in respect of the report which revealed human rights issues in Belgian Congo. The badge of the order is shown below the shield on the right-hand side.

To its left is the badge of a Knight Bachelor, which Roger received in 1911 for part in revealing the atrocities inflicted on native Peruvian tribes. Also, as a knight, he could show his helmet with the visor open.

We know what happened subsequently. For his participation in the Easter Rising of 1916 Sir Roger Casement was arrested and put on trial for treason. He was found guilty and executed. All of his honours, his knighthood and CMG were annulled as if they had never been given. They would have been removed from his coat of arms.

Even though Sir Roger has never been pardoned and his honours have not been restored posthumously I feel it is right to show the full achievement he would have been entitled to use before his conviction. When his remains were repatriated to Ireland in 1965 he was referred to in the UK government records as “Sir Roger Casement”. To some extent this gives us the authority to restore his honours.

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