The Leeds Coat of Arms is one of those emblems you might see without thinking too much about it. Just about every city in the UK has something of the kind, whether they emblazon it on street light poles or whether they hide it away on official documents. To those in the know, every coat of arms tells its own story about the town’s history, its source of pride and its ambition.
Leeds’ coat of arms has an interesting history, although possibly more people nowadays would associate the Leeds United emblem more closely with this Yorkshire city. The arms as we see them today were finalised in around 1835, but their beginnings were started originally some 200 years earlier by the people of Leeds. The arms also caused a fright to city counsellors in the 1920s, because no-one had actually bothered to register them with the College of Heralds.
It all started with the little shield with the sheep and the owls. In 1626, Sir John Savile, MP for Yorkshire under Charles I, became the first alderman of the area when the Borough of Leeds was incorporated. The new area needed a seal, and the owls from Savile’s own coat of arms flew across to join the fleece, a symbol of Leeds’ trade, to form the basis of the arms. Later, the design borrowed more from the arms of first mayor of Leeds, Thomas Danby, with the addition of three silver stars.
Coats of arms are based on a formal code, and the Leeds one is pretty interesting:
- The fleece. Central to the shield is a sheep hanging from a support. This image doesn’t actually mean sheep so much as the fleeces they provide. It relates not just to trade but to the golden fleece of Jason and the Argonauts.
- Owls. These fine birds symbolise wisdom. Originally two owls, a third joined in the fun in the 1800s when the arms were formalised. The owls brightened from silver to their more natural colours in the 1920s. The crowns they wear have the obvious royal meaning.
- Stars. These are ‘mullets’, or specifically straight-sided, five-pointed stars. These don’t represent the heavens, but rather spurs.
- Colours. Azure (blue) and sable (black) are the strongest colours on the arms, and these also have meaning. Sable stands for sadness, but also knowledge, sincerity and work. Azure is related to sincerity, piety, and, somewhat poetically, the colour of the eastern sky on a clear day.
Why the blazon?
The blazon, which is the formal description of a coat of arms, sets out every element of the arms in set language. Even a snippet can be impossible to interpret to the layman: a snippet of Leeds’ coat of arms is ‘on a chief sable three mullets argent.’ This seems like a long way to say ‘three stars on black’ – certainly nowadays in the days of text-speak!
To modern eyes these descriptions look like elaborate code, and in a way they are, but they’re easy enough to crack. More interesting though, is the reason behind such a formal description – arms are set out this way so that they can be recreated accurately from the description alone. When coats of arms were an important signal throughout British culture, this saved any confusion.
It might seem a little dramatic to say that Leeds still aspires to be what its coat of arms represents. The knowledge of where the city has come from, however, is present everywhere the arms are displayed. The combination of regality and practicality really does sum Leeds up perfectly.