It was extremely pleasant to find your account of college heraldry in Oxford Today! Thank you for drawing attention to one of those traditional aspects of being an Oxonian which this magazine tends to overlook. 

Some years ago I wrote to Oxford Today to complain of flagrant and pretty elementary grammatical solecisms scattered through five separate items in a single issue. Not at all to my surprise the letter was neither acknowledged nor published, but I have not noticed anything quite so bad in recent numbers, so perhaps my criticism – and for all I know that of other readers – has had some effect. Anyway, I suppose I may have put the editors’ noses out of joint by characterising the publication at that time as (if I remember aright) ‘an inflight journal for high flyers’. By which I meant that it seemed to me slick, unscholarly and too concerned with outward success at the expense of eternal values, humanity and the humanities. Your article went some way towards correcting that kind of imbalance.

I became a heraldry nerd at the age of around ten or eleven and the interest has remained, though fluctuating in intensity, until now, when at long last I am in the process of acquiring bearings of my own from the College of Arms. Which brings me to one of my reasons for contacting you! I must protest at your statement that heralds – Richmond and Windsor – granted arms to colleges. Only Kings of Arms are able actually to make grants and they do so not on their own authority but on that delegated from the Crown through the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk.

Another formulation of yours surprised me initially – you write that the arms of Harris Manchester College appear to be ‘unofficial since the torches are variously interpreted’. – Firstly, as a Briton I would immediately assume that ‘official’ would mean recognition by the College of Arms. Relatively few colleges have arms obtained by a normal process. Three colleges use shields that are obvious amateurish (if longstanding) concoctions. The common use of undifferenced founders’ arms (or famous names’ arms as in the case of Keble) cannot be approved by those with a wider understanding of armory. – Secondly there is little in heraldry that cannot be variously interpreted. Interpretation has a very unimportant part to play in both the theory and the practice of the subject. – But of course I grasped your point after a second or two.

Please do not take my remarks amiss. (I would myself be gratified by feedback of any kind concerning something I had published.) I wish much power to your elbow and good luck in spreading armorial enlightenment (if you should wish to do so) elsewhere. We have more than heraldic interests in common. I am not normally much of a surfer or googler but I read in your Linkedin entry that you know classical languages: well, I recently brought out a collection of Latin poetry,–aevum.html written since I retired from teaching five years ago. Using a more old–fashioned means of reference I learnt also that you (surely you, though with another middle name) were an exact contemporary of mine at Trinity while I was at Balliol. I have always felt a sort of love-hate towards the elegant college east of my own so familiar one. I hope you do not despise me too intensely for my irrevocable Balliolism.

Stephen Coombs
(Balliol, 1962)