Arms, seals, insignia, and plate

A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.

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A P Baggs. Beryl Board. Philip Crummy. Claude Dove. Shirley Durgan. N R Goose. R B Pugh. Pamela Studd. C C Thornton, 'Arms, seals, insignia, and plate', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994) pp. 277-279. British History Online [accessed 24 May 2024].

A P Baggs. Beryl Board. Philip Crummy. Claude Dove. Shirley Durgan. N R Goose. R B Pugh. Pamela Studd. C C Thornton. "Arms, seals, insignia, and plate", in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994) 277-279. British History Online, accessed May 24, 2024,

Baggs, A P. Board, Beryl. Crummy, Philip. Dove, Claude. Durgan, Shirley. Goose, N R. Pugh, R B. Studd, Pamela. Thornton, C C. "Arms, seals, insignia, and plate", A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994). 277-279. British History Online. Web. 24 May 2024,

In this section




Gules, a jagged cross vert, its arms and foot pierced with three nails, and three golden crowns,the bottom one encircling the foot of the cross [Recorded 1413, regranted 1976]

The earliest known representation of the borough arms, a red shield with a green jagged cross, its arms and foot pierced with three nails, and three golden crowns, the bottom one encircling the foot of the cross, appears in the initial letter of the charter of 1413. The cross and nails probably refer to St. Helen's legendary discovery of the true cross and passion nails; the crowns may refer to her alleged discovery of the bodies of the three magi. The same arms appear on the early 15th-century common seal of the borough. (fn. 1) There appear to have been several variants in the 16th and 17th centuries, but in the version recorded at the heralds' visitation of 1558 and used until the corporation decided to revert to the medieval form c. 1915, the cross is silver and there are no nails. (fn. 2) In 1976 a full armorial achievement was granted to the new Colchester district. The medieval borough arms were retained, supported by a Roman soldier and a fisherman, and surmounted by a crest showing St. Helen holding the cross, with the motto 'no cross, no crown'. In 1989 the full achievement had never been used. (fn. 3)

SEALS. (fn. 4)

The first, probably 13th-century, common seal of the borough, in use by 1317, was round, 3¾ in. in diameter. On the obverse was a triple-towered castle, masoned and embattled, its round-headed doorway having half-opened doors, below it, a stream spanned by three arches with a fish naiant under each arch, and round the circumference the legend, lombardic: [SIGILLUM C]OLCESTRENSIS S . . . BU[R]G1 C[OMMUNE]. On the reverse was St. Helen, crowned and seated on a canopied throne, holding a long cross and the three holy nails, with the legend, lombardic: QUAM CRUX INSIGNIT HELENAM C[OLCESTRIA GIG]NIT. The seal continued in use until 1379 or later. (fn. 5) The brass matrix of the second common seal, in use by 1462, was with the borough plate in 1989. The seal is round, 3½ in. in diameter. On the obverse is St. Helen, enthroned under a canopied niche, with Christ half length in a niche above; on each side is a smaller, canopied, turreted niche with an angel holding a shield, that on the left bearing a cross and that on the right the 15th-century royal arms; below, under an arch, are the borough arms supported by lions or ravens. The legend, black letter, is SIGILLUM COMMUNE BALLIVORUM ET COMMUNITATIS VILLE DOMINI REGIS COLCESTRIE. On the reverse is a castellated town, in front of it a river crossed by a bridge or steps, on each side a lion statant surmounted by a flowering branch, with the legend, black letter: INTRAVIT IHC IN QUODDAM CASTELLUM ET MULIER QUEDAM EXCEPIT ILLUM, an adaptation of Luke 10. 38 apparently referring to St. Helen. (fn. 6) The seal remained in use until 1891 when it was replaced by an embossing seal of the same design as its obverse but bearing the modern royal arms and with the legend THE COMMON SEAL OF THE MAYOR ALDERMEN AND BURGESSES OF THE BOROUGH OF COLCHESTER MDCCCXCI. (fn. 7) That seal was replaced in 1976 by a new one bearing the borough arms and the legend THE COMMON SEAL OF COLCHESTER BOROUGH COUNCIL. (fn. 8) The bailiffs' seal, the silver matrix of which survives, is round, 2¼ in. in diameter; it depicts a castle or walled town with St. Helen standing in the doorway of a central tower. Outside the legend, which is black letter SIGILLUM OFFICII BALLIVORUM VILLE COLCESTRIE, is a broad border of roses and fleur-de-lis. The seal appears to be 14th-century although no impressions survive before 1546. (fn. 9)

Another seal described as a common seal of the vill survives on a chantry foundation deed of 1348. It is circular, 2 in. in diameter, with a raven facing to the right, and the legend SIGILLUM CUSTODIS PORTUS CO[L]ECEST'. (fn. 10) 'Custos portus' is presumably a translation of port reeve, and the seal may be an early 13th-century reeves' or bailiffs' seal. It was still one of the borough seals c. 1450. (fn. 11)


In 1515 two maces, presumably one for each bailiff, were carried before Catherine of Aragon when she arrived in the town. (fn. 12) By the mid 17th century, probably from 1635 when Charles I's charter substituted a mayor for the bailiffs, the town possessed a great mace which was replaced in 1698 by one weighing c. 100 oz. and surmounted by a globe and cross. (fn. 13) That mace and most of the borough plate were sold in 1730 to pay for a new silver gilt great mace still in use in 1989. (fn. 14) The mace is 58 in. long, ending in an open arched crown surmounted by an orb and cross; it has the royal arms and the letters GR on the flat plate at the top. Four caryatides separate the bowl into compartments which bear the borough arms, a crowned fleur-de-lis, a crowned thistle, and a crowned harp. The shaft is richly ornamented, and the hallmarks are for London 1729-30. (fn. 15) Three maces mended before Queen Mary's visit in 1553 may have been serjeants' maces. (fn. 16) Serjeants at mace were recorded in 1463- 4, by which time the office was already well established, and in 1635 each carried a mace bearing the royal arms. (fn. 17) In 1989 the borough insignia included four silver gilt serjeants' maces, each c. 12 in. long and bearing the Stuart royal arms, which were carried in civic processions by special constables. Three of the maces probably date from c. 1633, but the fourth, which has a maker's mark on the stem, may have been made to replace the mace missing in 1687. (fn. 18)

The mayor's gold chain, of 506 links in 6 separate chains each of diminishing length, was presented in 1765 by Leonard Ellington, a London merchant. The mayor's badge, worn separately from the chain, is a silver gilt replica of the 15th-century borough seal in a carved ivory mount. When it was presented to W. Gurney Benham in 1935 the then mayor's badge, a golden jubilee medal of 1887 in a gold border of oak leaves and figures from the 15th-century seal, was assigned to the deputy mayor. In 1909 the Colchester pageant committee presented the mayoress's gold chain and badge showing Boudicca in her war chariot, and in 1922 a St. George's Day medal was given for the mayoress. (fn. 19) In 1825 and probably earlier the treasurer's badge of office was a silver key, but the 19th-century one had been lost by 1905 when a silver gilt key bearing the borough arms in coloured enamel was presented by C. R. Gurney Hoare. (fn. 20) The water bailiff's oar was recorded in 1689; (fn. 21) in 1989 there were two silver oars, one, 8½ in. long and hallmarked 1804-5, may have been in use in 1825; the other, 10 in. long, was hallmarked 1827-8. (fn. 22) By 1689 the water bailiff was using a gauge to check the size of oysters taken from the town's fishery. (fn. 23) In 1748 the gauge was brass, (fn. 24) but in 1825 a silver gauge was being used. That gauge, lost by 1895, may be the one hallmarked 1804-5 which was given back to the borough in 1905. In 1950 there were three gauges, two brass and one silver but by 1966 only one silver and one brass gauge remained. (fn. 25)

The bailiffs' livery gowns were first recorded in 1372. Aldermen were probably given robes c. 1404 and councillors received hoods from 1411- 12. (fn. 26) By 1578 bailiffs and aldermen had to provide their own scarlet robes with black velvet tippets and caps, (fn. 27) and common councillors their own mulberry coloured gowns and caps. In 1598 councillors' gowns were changed to black cloth faced with lambskin, with black and scarlet hoods. (fn. 28) By 1548 salaried officials were provided with a livery which in 1665 was blue. By 1843 the councillors' gowns were purple, the town clerk's and the treasurer's black silk. (fn. 29) In 1895 the mayor's robe was scarlet with sable trimmings and black facings (fn. 30) but by 1901 it was black with gold trimmings. The change was probably made on Queen Victoria's death. Since local government re-organization in 1974 chairmen of committees have worn red robes with fur facings, honorary aldermen purple with black velvet facings, and councillors blue with fur facings. (fn. 31)


In the 17th century several items of plate were given to the borough mostly by men who held office in the town. (fn. 32) In 1680 the 20 pieces of town plate included silver beer and wine cups, salt dishes, and a caudle cup and cover. (fn. 33) In 1730 nineteen pieces were sold to pay for a new mace. The one remaining piece, a large, two-handled, silver gilt loving cup given in 1679 by Abraham Johnson, (fn. 34) was still in the borough's possession in 1989. Plate acquired since 1730 includes the 18thcentury mayor's theatre ticket, a circular silver plaque 2 in. in diameter; four Elizabethan silver spoons and a Charles II apostle spoon presented by the Essex Archaeological Society in 1926, 1927, 1928, and 1948; a tankard, a chocolate pot, and a punch ladle by R. Hutchinson, a 17th-century Colchester silversmith, acquired in 1955 and 1961; and a silver replica of the Colchester obelisk, presented in 1962. Three of the most remarkable pieces were in the mayor's parlour in 1989: a 25½ in. long silver decanter in the shape of a 16th-century three-masted warship, given in 1913; an 18thcentury punch bowl given by the United States army air force in 1945; and a silver casket with a statuette of St. Helen on the lid and enamelled side panels depicting the town hall and St. Botolph's Priory with the borough arms between, which was given to Dame Catherine Hunt in 1935 and bequeathed by her to the corporation in 1948.


  • 1. Arch. Jnl. lviii. 378; E.R. ix. 202-20; xxiii. 1-8.
  • 2. E.R. ix. 219; xxiii. 112-13; press cuttings of 28 Oct. 1842, 25 Apr. 1915 E.C.L. Colch.; Visit. Essex (Harl. Soc.), i. 6.
  • 3. Colch. Boro. Council, Policy Cttee. Mins. 27 July 1976; inf. from the town serjeant.
  • 4. The following section is based on a draft by the late R. B. Pugh, revised by Janet Cooper.
  • 5. B.M. Cat. of Seals, ii, no. 4825; Colch. Arch. Rep. i. 82; E.R.O., D/DRg 6/2; Proc. Soc. Antiq. 2nd ser. x. 343. The missing letters after S on the obverse are given as UI in Oath Bk. of Colch. ed. W. G. Benham, 226-7, which assumes an error for UM.
  • 6. B.M. Cat. of Seals, ii, no. 4827; Colch. Arch. Rep. i. 82-3; E.R.O., D/DRg 6/5; the letters IHC represent the Greek letters beginning the name Jesus.
  • 7. E. A. Blaxill, Boro. Regalia, 30.
  • 8. E.C.S. 30 July 1976; inf. from the mayor's secretary.
  • 9. E.R. ix. 204; Blaxill, Regalia, 15; Bull. of John Rylands Libr. xxx. 268.
  • 10. B.M. Cat. of Seals, ii, no. 4831; Colch. Arch. Rep. i. 82; the seal is illustrated in Colch. Guide (1982), 63.
  • 11. E.R.O., D/B 5 R1, f. 179v.
  • 12. Ibid., f. 118.
  • 13. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb7, f. 217; D/B 5 Aa1/35.
  • 14. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb7, f. 264; E.R. xviii. 170.
  • 15. L1. Jewitt & W. H. St. John Hope, Corp. Plate and Insignia, i. 193-8.
  • 16. E.R.O., D/Y 2/2, p. 31.
  • 17. Ibid. Acc. C 104, box of papers 1425-1893; ibid. D/B 5 R1, f. 99v.; Colch. Charters, 91.
  • 18. Inf. from town serjeant; Jewitt & Hope, Corp. Plate, i. 124, 193-8; Blaxill, Regalia, 12; E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb5, f. 281.
  • 19. Blaxill, Regalia, passim.
  • 20. T. Cromwell, Hist. Colch. ii. 400-1; Blaxill, Regalia, 25.
  • 21. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb5, f. 320.
  • 22. Cromwell, Hist. Colch. ii. 400-1; Blaxill, Regalia, 15.
  • 23. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb5, f. 320.
  • 24. Morant, Colch. (1748), Bk. I. 92.
  • 25. Cromwell, Hist. Colch. ii. 400-1; Blaxill, Regalia, 15-17; L. E. Dansie, Colch. Boro. Regalia, 2.
  • 26. Britnell, Growth and Decline, 224-5.
  • 27. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb1, 7 July 1578.
  • 28. Britnell, Growth and Decline, 224; E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb1, 30 Oct. 1598.
  • 29. E.R.O., Acc. C210, J. B. Harvey Colln. iv, p. 97.
  • 30. Jewitt and Hope, Corp. Plate, i. 198.
  • 31. Inf. from the town serjeant.
  • 32. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb2, f. 132; Gb3, f. 214; Gb5, f. 157.
  • 33. E.R. ii. 16.
  • 34. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb5, f. 157.