Is it a chough or a moorcock on the coat of arms?

An interesting question this. Is the bird on Lord Williams’s coat of arms used by the school a Cornish chough or a moorcock?

The red-billed chough is a member of the crow family (and those familiar with an earlier post will recall that Queen Elizabeth I called Williams’s daughter ‘my black crowe’).

The moorcock is more commonly known as the Red Grouse but the male can come in a black form.

The moorcock is a heraldic device that had been taken up by families with the names More, Moor, Moore and so on, including the celebrated Sir Thomas More.

The Coat of Arms with the chough is the one featured in John Howard Brown’s history of the school in 1927 and was the one used on many school materials up until 1999 when it was redrawn by John Sermon who changed the chough into a decorated moorcock.

What we do know is that the coat of arms that Lord Williams used was an amalgamation of his mother’s and father’s: of More and Williams. This is typical of course (and indeed coats of arms became more complex over time because of the practice of incorporating the devices from related families). In JHB’s history he too writes that the chough came from John Williams’s mother’s side, the More family. Howard Brown certainly believed the birds were Cornish Choughs as stated in his comments on the illustration of the arms in his Short History (1927). This in effect repeats what he wrote in the Tamensian of September 1925, in ‘Notes on the History of Thame School, III, the Old School House (p20): basing his remarks on the list kept by Anthony Wood. “The east window contained the Royal Arms together with those of Lord Williams (organ pipes) and his mother More (choughs).”

Wood was writing in the mid 1600s and certainly while the window has long gone, the carved coat of arms over the front door of the old grammar school show birds that defy any description. (Interestingly, these do mimic the birds carved on Lord Williams’s tomb in the chancel of St Mary’s.)

The school magazine, The Tamensian, changed its cover in September 1931 from the brass of the first headmaster Edward Harris to Williams’s Coat of Arms. The Harris cover also included a small drawing of the arms, in which the birds are not at all cock-like having no crest. The editor in the School Notes (p.1) explains the reason for the change: “Edward Harris has become rather worn from constant use since 1900, so that a new block – an accurate copy of the Founder’s Arms made from the painting executed by the College of Arms – has been substituted”

Do we know how these two interpretations came about?

I have found a reference on pages 49 and 50 to the More coat of arms containing a Moorcock. (Coats of Arms in Berkshire Churches, P S Spokes MA. 1931.) In various heraldic books this is is further confirmed.

However, the final and most definitive proof is from the Visitations to Berkshire  or more specifically, “The four visitations of Berkshire made and taken by Thomas Benolte, Clarnceuc, anno 1532; by William Harvey, Clarnceux, anno 1566; by Henry Chiting, Chester herald, and John Philipott, Rouge dragon, for William Camden, Clarenceux, anno 1623; and by Elias Ashmole, Windsor herald, for Sir Edward Bysshe, Clarenceux, anno 1665-66” edited by W Harry Rylands FSA and published in 1907 by the Harleian Society. These both show the Williams arms and describe the bird as a moorcock.

Further more, the text suggests that the Coat of Arms was devised possibly by Lord Williams’s father, John Williams Snr and/or Reginolde Williams the eldest son (and elder brother of our John Williams.) I have also seen that Reginolde’s (also spelt Rainould) Williams and More shields also appear on the tomb of Anthony Forster, Reginolde’s son in law.

In which case it is correct to describe the bird as a moorcock, although what the correct representation is cannot be determined, other than assuming that the College of Arms painting is the closest. There are so many and we have to accept the artistic licence comes into play here. As noted earlier, the very earliest representations can be found on the old grammar school building in Thame and on Lord Williams’s tomb. In both instances the bird is relatively upright. (NB: the number of coats of arms around the tombs edge is interesting – it is assumed that they include the arms of his first wife’s family.)

So how did John Howard Brown come to make his error – or indeed perhaps he was using accepted wisdom or some earlier research and so whether the error originated with him or with Anthony Wood is not clear at the moment.

The appearance of the chough in various Arms taken by families called Williams is not unusual. For example, the Williams family of Herrington in Dorset had a coat of arms that featured three choughs. It is perhaps possible that when research was undertaken (particularly as a wholly unconnected John Williams also used the chough) the two very different families were muddled and the bird in our John Williams family was thus described as a chough.

Of course, having now identified the bird it should be noted that the school has no legal right to use the Coat of Arms but as Lord Williams has no direct descendants, its use is unlikely to be challenged.

An update! Some months later we received this from the College of Arms (February 2017):

I have just looked through our records relating to the family of Lord Williams of Thame. The College’s copy of the Visitation of Berkshire in 1532 does not have a drawing of the arms, but simply a pedigree. However, the Harleian Society published a copy of the manuscript held in the British Library, which has an image of the arms and with the bird blazoned as a Moorcock. Elias Ashmole’s copy now at the Bodleian library also has an image of the arms, which the transcriber seems to think is a Moorcock as well. What seems to me to be the most definitive evidence is that this quarter was one Lord Williams had inherited from his Moore ancestors, and canting (punning) allusions are extremely common in heraldry, and thus a Moorcock would be a very likely charge for someone surnamed Moore.

Yours sincerely,

Mark Scott, MA
Research Assistant to Rouge Croix Pursuivant

College of Arms
Queen Victoria Street
London EC4V 4BT



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