City Arms, Plate, Seals, and Insignia

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1979.

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'City Arms, Plate, Seals, and Insignia', in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford, (London, 1979) pp. 340-342. British History Online [accessed 29 February 2024]


The city arms, showing an ox passing over a ford, were recorded at the heralds' visitation of 1574, (fn. 1) but the rebus had been used extensively by both town and university in the Middle Ages. (fn. 2) The crest and supporters may have been granted when Elizabeth I visited the city in 1566. The crest, a crowned demi-leopard holding a double rose, alludes to the royal arms, while the supporters, an elephant and a beaver, allude to the crest of Sir Francis Knollys, the city's high steward, and to the supporter of the arms of Henry Norreys of Rycote, captain of the city musters; the motto was 'fortis est veritas'. A version of the arms appears on a carved panel of 1577 in the town hall, and there were many later variants. (fn. 3) An exemplification of the arms was obtained from the college of heralds in 1926. (fn. 4)

City of Oxford

Argent, an ox gules horned and hoofed or fording water barry wavy argent and azure in the base of the shield.

The town's common seal, in use in 1191 and thus the earliest municipal seal in Great Britain was round, c. 27/8 in., and depicted a triple-towered walled city with an ox superimposed, passant from dexter to sinister, and the legend, lombardic: SIGILLVM COMMVNE OMNIVM CIVIVM CIVITATIS OXENEFORDIE. (fn. 5) It was used until 1662, (fn. 6) when the council decided that it was 'dishonourable to the city' because of its 'absurd, ill, and unhandsome cutting'. It was replaced by a round seal, 2½ in., depicting the city arms with supporters, crest, and motto, but no legend. (fn. 7) That seal was replaced by another, again showing the armorial achievement of the city, in 1682; the new seal remained in use until the late 19th century, when an embossing stamp, in use in 1975, was copied from it. (fn. 8) The earliest known counter-seal, in use in 1598, depicted the city arms with crest and supporters but no motto; (fn. 9) in 1619, 1678, and 1700 a round counter-seal, 1¼ in., was used, depicting an ox passant in a ford, with the legend, humanistic: SIGILLVM CIVITATIS OXONIE. (fn. 10) The 19th-century counter-seal bore the city arms on a shield without legend. (fn. 11)

A mayor's seal was in use by 1244; it was round, 1¼ in., depicting an ox passant from dexter to sinister before a conventional bush or tree, with the legend, lombardic: SIGILLVM MAIORATVS OXONIE. (fn. 12) The seal was used in 1418 but by 1424 was replaced by a round seal, 1½ in., depicting an ox passant in a ford, in the background an oak-tree and, on the sinister side, a shield bearing a cross, the background replenished with sprigs of foliage; the legend, black letter: SIGILLVM MAIORIS OXONIE. (fn. 13) The seal was used in 1498 (fn. 14) but was superseded before the 19th century by an oval mayor's seal bearing the city arms. (fn. 15) An embossing stamp copied from the late medieval seal was made in the late 19th century, and the seal itself was used 1973 and 1974. (fn. 16)

Oxford was granted a Statute Merchant seal in 1306. (fn. 17) In 1318 a merchant was accused of forging the first seal, of Edward I. (fn. 18) The seal of Edward II was round, 15/8 in., depicting the king's bust, full-face, crowned, with a border of annulets on the neck, lion of England couchant guardant on the breast, a tripletowered, embattled castle in the field on each side, and the legend, lombardic: SIGILLVM EDWARDI REGIS RECOGNICIONEM [DEBITORVM] APVD OXONIAM. The Statute Merchant seal of Richard II, of which the silver matrix survived in 1975 in the city plate room, was made from a cast of that of Edward III in which the letters of the king's name had been re-cut; it resembled that of Edward II with the legend, lombardic: SIGILLVM RECARDI REGIS ANGLIE AD RECOGNICIONEM DEBITORVM APVD OXONIAM. (fn. 19) Fragments of two impressions of the seal of Elizabeth I on documents of 1597 show that it depicted a crowned Tudor rose with the letters ER and the legend, humanistic: SIGILLVM REGINE ELIZABETH. . . . (fn. 20) Statute Merchant bonds required two seals, and appointments of clerks to keep the smaller seal were made regularly from 1306 to 1415, by which date it was kept by the town clerk. (fn. 21) The clerk's seal of Edward II was ¾ in. in diameter showing an ox stant guardant in a ford, its tail recurved over its back, and in the field the legend, lombardic: BOS OXONIE; those of Edward III and Richard II were similar, depicting the ox passant. (fn. 22) The silver matrix of the clerk's seal, dated 1597 and similar to the earlier seals, survived in 1975. (fn. 23)

A seal of the husting of Oxford was recorded in 1327, (fn. 24) and other seals were referred to from time to time: in 1670–1 the 'ox seal' was engraved in silver, and in 1704 and 1705 the 'council chamber seals' were mended. (fn. 25) Four 19th-century matrices, bearing the city arms, survived in 1975; one was presumably the sheriff's seal. (fn. 26)

In 1298 a bailiff involved in a scuffle with clerks at Carfax had his mace with him, (fn. 27) and in 1451 the two bailiffs for the year gave a second mace, of silver, for the bailiffs' serjeant to carry. (fn. 28) In the late 15th century two maces, one bearing fleurs-de-lis and lions, were kept by the bailiffs' serjeants. (fn. 29) The office of macebearer in the town of Oxford, to which Edward III appointed in 1346, (fn. 30) may perhaps have been that of mayor's serjeant, first recorded, without reference to a mace, in 1321. (fn. 31) There were two maces in 1405, (fn. 32) and one was presumably the mayor's. A mace was carried before the mayor in 1556, (fn. 33) and in 1573 the mayor, Roger Hewet, gave the first 'great mace', the earlier mayor's mace having been no bigger than a serjeant's. (fn. 34)

The city's charters of 1605 and 1684 provided for up to four serjeants-at-mace, who were to carry before the mayor gold or silver maces decorated with the royal arms. (fn. 35) In 1975 the city possessed a silver-clad iron mace or marshall's staff 11 in. long, with the initials of the town crier, Baldwin Hodges, and the date 1606, and two much altered early-17th-century maces of silver-clad iron, 11½ in. long; all three bore the Stuart royal arms. (fn. 36) There is no record of their acquisition, unless one was a new mace made in 1634–5. (fn. 37)

In 1651 the great mace was altered from a royal to a Commonwealth mace, a silver mace being sold to cover the cost. (fn. 38) At the Restoration a new great mace was made (fn. 39) and was used at the coronation of Charles II. (fn. 40) It was repaired and re-gilded several times, once, in 1723, at the expense of Francis Knollys, M.P. for the city, (fn. 41) and remains the city mace. It is 5 ft. 4½ in. long, of silver gilt, surmounted by an open crown with an orb and cross, bearing on the bowl the royal arms of Charles II and on four panels the letters CR with a Tudor rose, thistle, harp, or plume of feathers; the inscription records its making in 1660.

The mayor's chain, given by James Hughes, mayor in 1884, is of gold, with the letters of OXENFORD alternating with enamelled roses; the enamelled badge is of the city arms and civic emblems. Silver-gilt chains and enamel badges of the city arms were presented for the sheriff, the mayoress, the sheriff's lady, and the deputy mayor in 1897, 1924, 1953, and 1960. Scarlet and crimson gowns were worn by senior councillors from at least the mid 15th century. (fn. 42) In the late 19th century the mayor and aldermen wore dress gowns of scarlet trimmed with sable, the sheriff a scarlet gown with black velvet facings, (fn. 43) and such gowns continued in use in 1975.

Pieces of city plate were sold in 1550, in order to buy land, and others had been pawned by 1581. (fn. 44) Gifts, including three silver tankards and a silver-gilt salt, were made by prominent councillors in 1581, 1620, and c. 1636, (fn. 45) but all the city's plate seems to have been sold during the Civil War to the high steward, Thomas, earl of Berkshire; three councillors were ordered to be arrested in 1652 for their part in the transaction. (fn. 46) Two silver tankards dated 1651, given by John Whicker Morton, two cups given by John Davis in 1659, and a tankard given by Andrew Potter in 1659 were altered or exchanged for other pieces in 1676, 1694, 1714, and 1715; (fn. 47) a gold porringer and cover given in 1681 by the high steward, George, duke of Buckingham, and twelve silver plates, dating from 1679 and 1687, given by Nathaniel, Lord Crewe, and his wife Dorothy between 1700 and 1715, remained in the city's possession in 1975. Other noteworthy pieces were two silver-gilt coronation cups and covers presented to mayors at the coronation banquets of Charles II and George IV and acquired by the city in 1684 and 1946; (fn. 48) a boxwood cup with silver mounts, presented to one of the bailiffs at the coronation of George IV, bought in 1974; silver-gilt grace cups with covers given by Willoughby Bertie, earl of Abingdon, in 1775 and by Peregrine Bertie, M.P., in 1781; and a large hunting scene, modelled in silver, presented to James Morrell in 1857. There were also large silver almsmen's badges of 1674 and later, worn by recipients of the charities of John and Charles Harris, and of the Cutler-Boulter charity in St. Clement's, (fn. 49) and three smaller silver badges of unknown derivation, but perhaps worn by the Trinity men, (fn. 50) inscribed with the ox passant in a ford.


  • 1. Oxon. Visit. (Harl. Soc. v), 119.
  • 2. E. A. Greening Lambourn, 'Armorial achievement of the city of Oxf.', N. & Q. cxciv. 134.
  • 3. Ibid. 134–6; Bodl. MS. Top. Gen. c 61, f. 10.
  • 4. Westgate Libr. pamphlet OXFO 929.6 (ROG.). For another version of the arms, see C. W. Scott-Giles, Civic Heraldry, (2nd edn. 1953), 311.
  • 5. R. H. C. Davis, 'An Oxf. Charter of 1191', Oxoniensia, xxxiii. 54–5. For illust. see above, facing p. 00.
  • 6. e.g. it was used on a lease of 1638: Bodl. MS. Twyne iii, p. 127.
  • 7. City Arch. I.22.3; O.C.A. 1626–65, 290.
  • 8. O.C.A. 1666–1701, 139–40, 148, 334, 339; B.M. Cat. of Seals, ii, p. 147; LI. Jewitt and W. H. St. J. Hope, Corpn. Plate and Insignia, ii. 248.
  • 9. City Arch. K.4.4.
  • 10. C 219/88; City Arch. I.22.3; K.8.1.
  • 11. Jewitt and Hope, Corpn. Plate and Insignia, ii. 248; B.M. Cat. of Seals, ii, p. 147.
  • 12. Bodl. MS. d.d. Par. Oxf. All Saints a 2, no. 38; Oriel Rec. pp. 31, 494.
  • 13. Bodl. MS. Top. Oxon. c 396, ff. 215, 301; B.M. Cat. of Seals, ii. p. 147. For illust. see above, facing p. 61.
  • 14. City Arch. H.2.4–5.
  • 15. Jewitt and Hope, Corpn. Plate and Insignia, ii. 249.
  • 16. Documents in city plate room on 'twinning' of Oxford with Bonn and Leiden. The matrix was in the city plate room in 1978.
  • 17. S.C. 1/26/4; Cal. Pat. 1301–7, 461.
  • 18. Sel. Cases on the Law Merchant, iii (Selden Soc. xlix), 43–7.
  • 19. B.M. Cat. of Seals, i, pp. 146, 148; Proc. Soc. Antiq. 2nd ser. xxv. 160–3.
  • 20. Bodl. MSS. Ch. Oxon 737*, 739* (seal drawer 17).
  • 21. Cal. Pat. 1301–7, 461; 1334–8, 4, 502; 1361–4, 91; 1413–16, 46, 328; Cal. Close, 1385–9, 210; 1389–92, 311.
  • 22. Bodl. MS. Ch. Oxon. 2729 (seal drawer 41); B.M. Cat. of Seals, i, pp. 146, 148.
  • 23. Proc. Soc. Antiq. 2nd ser. xxv. 160–3. It is in the city plate room.
  • 24. Mun. Civ. Oxon. p. 59.
  • 25. O.C.A. 1666–1701, 325; 1701–52, 31–2, 34, 36.
  • 26. Jewitt and Hope, Corpn. Plate and Insignia, ii. 249.
  • 27. Medieval Arch. Univ. i, p. 55.
  • 28. Bodl. MSS. Twyne xxiii, p. 186; MS. Wood F 26, p. 43.
  • 29. Bodl. MS. Twyne xxiii, p. 185. For the date see Mun. Civ. Oxon. p. 233.
  • 30. Cal. Pat. 1345–8, 201.
  • 31. Bodl. MS. Twyne xxiii, p. 315.
  • 32. Ibid. p. 354.
  • 33. City Rec. 247.
  • 34. Bodl. MS. Wood F 26, p. 60.
  • 35. Ogle, Royal Letters, 243–4, 291.
  • 36. Descriptions of the maces and city plate were kindly supplied by Mr. Gerald Taylor of the Ashmolean Museum and Mr. Peter Payne.
  • 37. O.C.A. 1626–65, 418.
  • 38. Ibid. 1626–65, 182, 436.
  • 39. Ibid. 260, 443.
  • 40. M. Toynbee, 'Oxf. City and the Restoration of 1660', Oxoniensia, xxv. 80.
  • 41. O.C.A. 1701–52, 136.
  • 42. City Rec. 415, ref. to gift of Thomas Bailey, mayor 1440–2.
  • 43. Jewitt and Hope, Corpn. Plate and Insignia, 252.
  • 44. City Rec. 203, 413–14.
  • 45. Ibid. 414–15, 417; City Arch. E.4.2; O.C.A. 1626–65, 210.
  • 46. O.C.A. 1626–65, 192, 210.
  • 47. Inscription and hall-mark evidence, compared with O.C.A. 1626–65, p. xxxiii; 1666–1701, 251.
  • 48. O.C.A. 1666–1701, 317; Oxoniensia, xxv. 84–92; Collectanea, iv (O.H.S. xlvii), 230.
  • 49. V.C.H. Oxon. v. 266; and see below, Public Services (Hospital Services and Homes).
  • 50. See below, Charities (Other Municipal Charities).