6 April 2021

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The much–loved Emma lion has served as the embodiment of the college for more than four centuries. The feisty feline can be seen on carvings and painted plaques, etched into windows, and emblazoned on the flag that flies over the main college entrance.A handwritten Elizabethan charter (left) with gold writing, a signauture and a crest, and a detail of the crest (right): a blue lion, holding a wreath and a flag reading 'Emmanuel' proceeding from its mouth

(Emmanuel College’s grant of arms [L], with [R} detail of the lion device)

It features on mugs, bags, scarves, sweatshirts and blazers, and is even the inspiration for the name of ECSU’s newsletter, ‘ROAR!’. The lion emblem is derived from the college’s coat of arms, as is widely known, but it might well be asked why that particular device had been chosen, and by whom.

Although Emmanuel College opened for business in November 1584, it was not until 1 January 1588 that it was granted a coat of arms, shortly after it had held a formal dedication ceremony. The choice of a blue lion rampant for the arms was almost certainly that of Emmanuel’s Founder, Sir Walter Mildmay; for one thing, he was the founder and it was his prerogative; for another, the device chosen was an adaptation of his own coat of arms, which comprised three blue lions rampant on a silver field. Sir Walter evidently paid for the grant of arms out of his own pocket, since the college accounts record no such outlay.

Sir Walter had only sported the ‘blue lions’ device since 1583. For most of his life he had been content with the arms granted to his father, featuring three greyhounds’ heads, but after four decades of high office and distinguished royal service, he must have felt it was time for something grander and more venerable. He therefore sought authorisation from Robert Cooke, Clarenceux King of Arms, to use the ancient escutcheon of the Mildmays of Gloucestershire, supporting his application with documentation purporting to show his descent from that family. His genealogical claims were, in fact, completely bogus, but Cooke is unlikely to have asked any awkward questions, being notorious for granting arms to any Tom, Dick or Harry, including ‘base and unworthy persons for his private gaine onely’. Not that Sir Walter was base, of course, but he was undoubtedly a shade nouveau riche.

Since Clarenceux had armorial jurisdiction over all counties south of the river Trent, Emmanuel’s coat of arms was also authorised by Robert Cooke. The grant of arms is written in Latin with the exception of the passage describing the device itself, which employs heraldic French, a lingo almost as flowery as its menu cousin: Un Lyon Azur rampant en Champ D’argent Langué et Armé Gueul, supportant en la patte dextre un Chapeau Triumphant de Laurier, et sort de sa bouche ce Dicton EMMANUEL (A blue lion rampant on a silver field, with tongue and claws of red, holding aloft in the right paw a triumphal wreath of laurel and with the word EMMANUEL proceeding from its mouth).

Emmanuel is the only Cambridge college whose name is included on its coat of arms. This was not so much an identifier, though, as a declaration of the college’s character and purpose, for the word Emmanuel, meaning ‘the Lord with us’, was a pious salutation popular at that time among Puritans, and Sir Walter intended his college to be a training ground for godly (i.e. Puritan) clergymen. The laurel wreath flourished by Emma’s lion, another embellishment presumably requested by the Founder, is a symbol of victory or honour frequently associated with seats of learning.

A close inspection of the grant of arms shows the fine detailing and robust characterisation with which the unknown artist has endowed the lion (some Kings of Arms are known to have executed their own heraldic artwork, but Cooke is not one of them). It should be noted that the tail hangs inwards, not outwards; some later representations have been careless in this respect. The field would originally have been bright silver in colour, but over the centuries the precious metal has oxidized and blackened, while a few small areas of blue paint have run, or been abraded. Overall, though, Emma’s lively leo is in fine fettle for a beast who recently celebrated his 433rd birthday!

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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