Need A Coat Of Arms? First Pass The Test Of Eminence

Originally published on April 29, 2011 12:47 pm

It takes a lot to prepare for a wedding and even more when you're marrying royalty.

Because Kate Middleton is a commoner she needed to get herself an official coat of arms before she could marry Prince William.

So, Middleton and her family went to see Thomas Woodcock, Garter Principal King of Arms at the College of Arms in London.

But, not just anyone gets a coat of arms. For starters, you have to be a subject of the British crown. And then there's a test — the test of eminence — that determines if you deserve one. To pass, you basically just need an important job or a university degree.

Once your eminence has been determined, Mr. Woodcock asks you what you want on your coat of arms.

"The Middleton family wanted to have acorns on it, particularly as a reference to fact that the part of Berkshire in which they brought their children up, there are a lot of oak trees," he tells Mike Danforth and Ian Chillag of Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!

They wanted acorns, but really, they could have asked for anything.

And people do ask for weird things.

"I once did a coat of arms for a surgeon who particularly wanted to have a colon on it ... he didn't really see, as it was his speciality in surgery, why he shouldn't have it. But it's not a very attractive design, the colon, and it looks rather like a red worm," he says.

Mr. Woodcock designed a shield for the Middletons with the acorns. There's also a chevron — which is like an upside down V — to represent the mountain.

It's much simpler than Prince William's, which is the shield of the House of Windsor. That coat of arms has a harp, at least three lions, some fleur de lis and at the bottom, another lion, and then a unicorn.

"That's what's known as the supporters, where you have the lion and the unicorn supporting the shield," Mr. Woodcock says.

And here's the important part: Once Kate and William are married and she becomes a princess, their shields merge.

Then they will get a new shield, with all of his stuff on the left and her stuff on the right, and they lose the unicorn.

"So the lion will stay there holding up one side of the shield, and then they will have to think of some animal to replace the unicorn, something relating to her," Mr. Woodcock explains.

So to recap, the way you get a coat of arms is first, be a subject of the British crown. Then prove your eminence and finally, give Thomas Woodcock a call.

Mike Danforth and Ian Chillag are producers for Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! You can follow more of their adventures on their podcast, How To Do Everything.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

It takes a lot to prepare for a wedding, but bride Kate Middleton has a special challenge - creating a coat of arms. That's a must in Britain for a commoner marrying a prince. And here to tell us how you do that is Ian Chillag and Mike Danforth. They produce NPR's "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me" and host the podcast How To Do Everything.

IAN CHILLAG: I'm Ian.

MIKE DANFORTH: And to help us answer the question how do you get a coat of arms, we're joined by Thomas.

MONTAGNE: My name's Thomas Woodcock, and I'm Garter Principal King of Arms, but perfectly acceptable for you to call me Mr. Woodcock.

CHILLAG: So, just like anyone who wants a coat of arms, Kate Middleton and her family went to Mr. Woodcock at the College of Arms in London.

DANFORTH: But not just anyone gets a coat of arms. For starters, you have to be a subject of the British crown.

CHILLAG: And then there's something called the test of eminence.

DANFORTH: Yeah, which basically means you need an important job or a university degree.

CHILLAG: So once your eminence has been established, Thomas...

DANFORTH: Mr. Woodcock...

CHILLAG: ...asks you what you want on your coat of arms.

MONTAGNE: The Middleton family wanted to have acorns on it, particularly as a reference to the fact that the part of Berkshire in which they brought their children up, there are a lot of oak trees.

CHILLAG: So the Middletons wanted acorns. But really, they could've asked for anything.

DANFORTH: And people do ask for weird things.

MONTAGNE: I once did a coat of arms for a surgeon who particularly wanted to have a colon on it, and he didn't really see, as it was his specialty in surgery, why he shouldn't have it. But it's not a very attractive design, the colon, and it looks rather like a red worm.

DANFORTH: Mr. Woodcock designed a shield for the Middletons with the acorns.

CHILLAG: And if you're having trouble picturing what this looked like, we'll make sort of an audio version of the coat of arms for you.

DANFORTH: So, there's the acorns.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS TWEETING)

CHILLAG: Now, those are not actual acorns you're hearing.

DANFORTH: A chevron...

CHILLAG: And no colon.

DANFORTH: It's much simpler than Prince William's.

CHILLAG: That's the shield of the house of Windsor, which has three gold lions.

(SOUNDBITE OF LION ROARING)

DANFORTH: It has a harp.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARP MUSIC)

CHILLAG: Some fleur de lis, and at the bottom, another lion.

(SOUNDBITE OF LION ROARING)

DANFORTH: And then, a unicorn.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)

MONTAGNE: That's what's known as the supporters, where you have the lion and the unicorn supporting the shield.

CHILLAG: And here's the important part. Once the two are married, and she becomes a princess, their shields will be merged.

DANFORTH: They sort of move in together. Katherine gets a new shield, with all of his stuff on the left.

(SOUNDBITE OF LION ROARING AND HARP MUSIC)

DANFORTH: And her stuff on the right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS TWEETING AND HARP MUSIC)

CHILLAG: And they lose the unicorn.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)

MONTAGNE: So the lion will stay there holding up one side of the shield, and then they will have to think of some animal to replace the unicorn, something relating to her.

DANFORTH: Should it be a beast that, like, eats acorns? Would that make sense?

MONTAGNE: Well I agree, if you had a beast which ate acorns then you could have a squirrel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUIRREL)

MONTAGNE: But whether it would look quite martial or heroic enough balancing a lion - because a lion and a squirrel, although you could make it the same size, they might not balance quite as well as some others. I can't think of other animals that eat nuts.

CHILLAG: Or like a dinosaur? A herbivore.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAGON)

MONTAGNE: I've never seen a dinosaur on a coat of arms. Of course it has slight connotations of being extinct.

CHILLAG: Yeah, I bet that's pretty touchy, regarding the royal family.

MONTAGNE: I think it might be a bit touchy. But that apart, there's no reason why you could not have a dinosaur.

DANFORTH: So that's pretty much it. That's how you get a coat of arms.

CHILLAG: Yep. Be a subject of the British crown and prove your eminence.

DANFORTH: And give Thomas Woodcock a call.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.