Bravebenbow Admiral John Benbow, biography, mutiny, script, screen play, art, documentary

March 4, 2010

Benbow Arms: College of Arms

Filed under: — W.A.Benbow @ 10:45 am


The primary authority for Heraldry in England is the College of Arms, which was established in 1485. Henry V, in 1417, proclaimed that:

no man of what estate, degree, or condition soever should assume arms unless he held them by right of inheritance, or by donation of some person who had the power to give them, and that all persons should make it appear to officers to be appointed, by whose gift they enjoyed such arms.

Consequently, approximately once in a generation, the College issued a summons to all of the gentry of an area to appear before its Heralds in order that their pedigrees might be duly recorded, and their right to the arms and to the consequent title of “gentleman” be certified and any irregularities corrected. All gentry so summoned were assessed a fee to help with the Heralds’ expenses.

The gentry were compelled to present ‘proofs’ or their right to bear arms: ie. ancient documents, seals, monuments, Church windows, pedigrees, etc. If such proofs were lacking, a gentleman could pay a fee of about 20 pounds to have his Arms officially registered by the Herald. The Heralds had the authority to break down any coat of arms that failed their test, and published a list of ‘disclaimers’ after each Visitation, which publicly proclaimed those who had failed to establish their right to claim to be ‘gentlemen’ and bear a coat of arms.

Pedigrees were critical in establishing the right to bear coat armour because the right passed through the eldest son. Other members of the family could apply for coats of arms with a slight ‘difference’, again, for a fee.

What the gentry hoped for was a confirmation of their right to coat armour based on the evidence they provided to the Heralds. If so confirmed, the Herald would not require any additional fee and would make notes copying out the pedigree and describing the Coat of Arms in Heraldic language. These notes or papers became an unofficial record of the Visitation and were sometimes copied. If the Herald deemed that a registration was in order, the considerable fee would be charged and an official record made, either as a confirmation of long usage or as a new Grant of Arms or new Grant of Crest. Those wanting to establish Arms with a ‘difference’ would pay the required fee and an official registration would be made of the ‘Augmentation of Arms’.


Admiral Benbow’s first biographer, John Campbell, asserted that the Admiral had been granted an Augmentation of Arms by King William in recognition of his service in the West Indies in 1698-1700:

who, as a mark of his royal favour, was graciously pleased to grant him an augmentation of arms, by adding to the three bent bows, which he and his family already bore, as many arrows. (Lives of the British Admirals, 1817 edition, vol.iv, p.212)

Campbell based his information, in part, on personal interviews with the Admiral’s daughter, Katherine, and her husband, Paul Calton, of Milton.


The editors of The Naval Chronicle for their biography of Admiral Benbow, in 1808, had the College of Arms searched for details of Admiral Benbow’s Arms and this Augmentation.

Their researchers could find no record of any official Augmentation of Arms.  All that they did find was Arms used by the Newport branch of the Benbow family. They concluded, regarding Campbell’s assertion, that:

This is altogether an erroneous statement. The Newport branch of the Benbow family, from which the Admiral sprang, bore two bows, and two bundles of arrows, as far back as the year 1623; and, on dilligently searching the books in the Herald’s Office, we find that no augmentation whatsoever has been granted to any of the family since that period. (The Naval Chronicle for 1808, “John Benbow”, vol.xx, p.192.

The Naval Chronicle published an engraved portrait of Admiral Benbow with the Newport Benbow Coat of Arms. However, they erred in the depiction of the Arms, by showing the bows counterposed, or bows front to front, grip to grip; rather than as described in the Visitation as ‘endorsed’, ie. bows back to back, string to string. Thus:

Admiral Benbow, Engraved by H.R. Cook, Naval Chronicle, vol. XX, 1808

Note: bows mistakenly counterposed front to front.

OWEN AND BLAKEWAY, 1825 search results:

Just a few years later, apparently unaware of the Chronicle’s efforts, in 1825, Owen and Blakeway, for their “History of Shrewsbury” also had the College of Arms searched for Campbell’s claim that there was an Augmentation of Arms granted by King William to Admiral Benbow.  They were unable to find the original grant of arms, or any augmentation.

However, the Herald’s College has been searched, and no such grant as is described by Dr. Campbell was ever made to the admiral: and this is another proof of the extreme incorrectness (to give the lightest term) of Mr. Calton’s communications. A History of Shrewsbury, London, 1825, p.392.

Owen and Blakeway argue in favour of the Admiral being part of the Cotton Hill Benbow line, and so discount the Newport Arms and lineage.


Peter Burke, author of the 1866 “Celebrated Naval and Military Trials” also requested a search of the College of Arms records.  He refers to a search  made by the Lancaster Herald, who also failed to find the original grant, and only found the record of the Newport Benbow Coat of Arms in the unofficial Vincent papers:

My friend, Albert W. Woods, Esq., Lancaster Herald, informs me that no registry or entry of these augmented arms is to be found in the Heralds’ College. The only Benbow arms there are those of the Benbows of Newport, viz., ” Sa. two string-bows endorsed in pale or garnished gu., between two bundles of arrows in fosse, three in each bundle, gold, barbed and headed erg., and tied up proper. Crest—A harpy close, or, face proper, wreathed round the head with a chaplet of roses gu.”


Recently, two modern researchers have again had the College searched for Benbow Arms: W.R. Benbow approached the College directly in 1998, and Katherine Benbow commissioned Dr. John A. Dick of Belgium to make enquiries of the College in 2000.

P.L. Dickenson, Richmond Herald, responded to Mr. W.R. Benbow in February 1998. He indicated that he searched the official registers of the College of Arms from 1530 to the present, and found only one formal reference to armorial bearings:

A shield and crest were recorded for John Benbow(e) of Westminster, Deputy Clerk of the Crown (under Sir Thomas Edmunds) in February 1621 (1622 by modern dating). John Benbow(e) was stated to be the son of Thomas Benbow(e) of Newport in Shropshire. The coat of arms may be described heraldically as follows:

ARMS Sable two longbows palewise endorsed (no tincture is given for the bows, but Or seems the most likely)

CREST On a wreath Or and Sable A harpy Or pierced through the neck by a broad arrow (there are two entries of this crest in our registers, one giving the tincture of the arrow as Argent, and the other as Or)

It appears that the arms were already in existence at that time, although we have no earlier record of their usage. The crest, on the other hand, was newly granted to John Benbow(e), by William Camden, Clarenceux King of Arms.

Benbow Arms as registered at College of Arms 1622

Benbow Arms as registered at College of Arms, 1622, drawn by W.R.Benbow and W.A.Benbow

Mr. Dickenson remarked on the Vincent Papers with the notes on the Visitation of Shropshire in 1623. He refers to the Newport Benbow arms:

The shield has two longbows, as in our registers, but on either side of them is a sheaf of three arrows bound together, their points downwards. The crest comprises a harpy, but instead of an arrow through the neck, it has a wreath of roses around the head… is of course possible that the Benbow(e) family – or at least some members of it – used this version of the shield and crest, but the official design is the one registered here in 1622.

Newport Benbow Coat of Arms: in use 1623

Benbow Arms with arrows added and Harpy with wreath of roses

W.G.Hunt, Windsor Herald of Arms responded to Dr. Dick in October 2000:

“The records of Grants and Confirmations of Arms from the Tudor period to the present day have been examined for any references to the surname in which you are interested. The following entries were discovered:

1. A Grant of Arms was made to Benbow of Westminster, under clerk of the Crown, by William Camden, Clarenceux King of Arms from 1597 – 1623. The Arms were Sable two bent Bows opposite [sic]. The Crest being On a Wreath of the Colours A Harpy Or transfixed with an Arrow also Or. (Camden’s Grants 3.3)
2. A Grant of a Crest is also recorded. It was made to John Benbowe, deputy clerk of the Crown to Sir Thomas Edmunds, and son of Thomas Benbowe of Newport, co: Salop. The Crest being On a Wreath Or and Sable A Harpy Or shot through the neck with a broad Arrow Argent. The Grant was dated February 1621. (Misc. Grants 5.36)

What is particularly significant is the similarity between the official registered Benbow Arms of two bows and no arrows, and Paul Calton’s description of the Admiral’s Arms as just three bows before the Augmentation of arrows. Calton errs only in the number of bows: ie. three instead of two. It would be quite logical for the Admiral to have discovered the discrepancy between the traditional Newport Benbow Arms and the offical registered Benbow Arms.

The simplest explanation is that of a clerical error on the part of the scribe who recorded the official Benbow Arms for the College of Arms in 1621/2, particularly given the correct depiction of the Newport Benbow Arms in Vincent’s Visitation notes of 1623.

No doubt Admiral Benbow submitted a request to King William to correct this error and inconsistency with an official Augmentation of two bundles of arrows. Probably the College of Arms has no official record of the requested augmentation because of the untimely deaths of Admiral Benbow and William in 1702.

Owen and Blakeway erred in not noting this remarkable consistency of the Official registered arms and Paul Calton’s description of the arms to Campbell.

We are left with the Newport Benbow Arms as depicted on the Milton Alms dish as the Arms used by Admiral Benbow: ie. two endorsed gold bows, between two bundles of three arrows each, pointing downwards; with the more official version of the Benbow Crest, ie. having an arrow in the Harpy’s neck or breast.

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