Sussex Coat of Arms: Martlets (not) in Flight

By Abigail Hartley, Searchroom Archivist

All in azure blue. Features the shield with a white top quarter with a wavy border, then three white birds against a blue background in three rows - three, two, one in each row. A crown with three prongs sits above the shield, and in between are acorns with oak leaves. To the right of the logo reads West Sussex County Council.
West Sussex County Council Logo

It’s hard to miss the numerous badges and arms of a blue shield with yellow birds dotted around West Sussex. You may be surprised to learn, however, that no English county had any arms officially granted to it until after the 1889 Local Government Act. That is to say, only with the establishment of county councils did counties get their coat of arms. Seems obvious perhaps, but why is Sussex associated with birds?

Arms were attributed to and used by many counties and regions long before they were officially acknowledged. Sussex – East and West – both have pictorial representations showing six martlets with the occasional crown. Perhaps to indicate the Sussex had been a Kingdom once, perhaps purely for the flourish of power it represented.

Two black and white shields. The first has a paler band across the top quarter, and six birds - three, two, one - in three rows. The Second has no band, but a small crown above the birds.
Lib 5323 – The Arms of the County Councils of East and West Sussex and the Diocese of Chichester by Francis Steer

It was thanks to the Duke of Norfolk that West Sussex was amongst the first to have their coat of arms approved. As Earl Marshal, one of the Duke of Norfolk’s duties was head of the College of Arms. He footed most of the bill to get the crest approved. West Sussex received the blue and gold badge on 18 May 1889. East Sussex got the red and crowned equivalent on 10 September 1937.

It is worth noting that a shield with six golden martlets has appeared on maps featuring Sussex since the 17th century, and even in 1585 East and West Sussex had been divided for so long it was from “tyme out of mynde”.

So, what are these martlets? And why the connection to Sussex?

Laid out side by side metal blocks.
PH 22685 – Five blocks of various sizes (11-27mm tall) showing the coat of arms of West Sussex

The long and short of it is… we don’t know. But there are many abounding theories!

Martlets themselves are heraldic birds – in other words, they do not exist in real life. Looking akin to swallows or swifts, these birds are distinguishable due to their lack of feet. They therefore spend their entire life in the air… once they have learned how to fly of course. This is perhaps inspired by the swift, which has a similar reputation of not returning to the ground once in flight.

Two labels - one for 5 year old scotch whisky; one for English table wine produced near Horsham. The Sussex Coat of Arms is prevalent on the labels.
WNC/CC17/4/4 – Labels taken from bottles of wine and whisky produced for WSCC’s Centenary featuring the County’s Coat of Arms
Metal impression of the county council seal, used for wax or ink seals.
Figure 6: WOC/CC13/1/2 – The 1974 Common Seal of WSCC

In terms of a metaphor, therefore, martlets represent constant effort, with the six on the badge being said to represent the six historical divisions (known as ‘rapes’) of Sussex: Chichester, Arundel, Bramber, Lewes, Pevensey and Hastings. Additionally, in terms of appearance, a martlet is said to resemble a house martin (indeed, martlet literally means ‘little martin’), as these little birds also have small stubby legs.

Why they came to be associated with Sussex is a mystery. One suggestion is that it is a pun. The French for swallow is l’hirondelle, which, when spoken in a certain way, sounds similar to the Duke of Norfolk’s home of Arundel. This connection is considered somewhat tenuous.

Another theory is that a previous Sheriff had martlets on his own heraldic shield, and this carried over from Sheriff to Sheriff. Who this Sheriff was and why there are six birds specifically is also unknown. It may be that the six birds to rapes comparison is mere coincidence.

A shield with a zig zag banner taking up a quarter of the badge. Three rows of birds - three, two, one in the rows - are underneath. Above the shield is a metal knight's helmet with a golden crown on top. Ribbons as flourishes come out the crown and helmet. In between the three prongs of the crown are two acorns, each with their own two oak leaves. The badge is coloured gold, blue and green for the leaves.
Lib 13115 – A Short History of West Sussex and its Coat of Arms and the 1974 redesign

The final theory is that Sir John de Radynden, a Knight of the Shire (a precursor to an MP) of Sussex, may have had the martlets on his family crest. Indeed, Bodiam Castle, built in the 14th century, features shields with six martlets representing the Raynden family. How one family’s crest grew to represent an entire historic county, however, is unknown.  

With changing county boundaries came a resubmission of design. Both grants from the College of Arms, one from 1889 and one from 1975, are framed and on display at Edes House, West Street, Chichester. West Sussex got a crown of their own, representing the areas from East Sussex that had jumped borders. In between the prongs are oak leaves and acorns – those areas which hopped over from Surrey. The colours are written as Azure (Blue) and Or (Gold) – leftover influences from the Norman invasion.

In heraldic terms, it is described as follows:

Azure, six martlets, three, two and one, and a chief indented or; a sprig of oak proper fructed with two acorns or, within a Saxon crown also or.

Thus, we are left with its current iteration. A shield of unknown origins, featuring birds for unknown reasons, with colours picked for unknown purposes. Such is the way for much of our history!

Stay up to date with WSRO – follow us on FacebookInstagram and Twitter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s