The Leeds Owl and the City Arms

  • Over the next few months we’ll be featuring several articles from guest blogger Kiera Falgate. Kiera is a student at the University of Leeds and has been using the books and other resources available in the Local and Family History department at the Central Library to find out more about some of Leeds’ most interesting heritage. You can read Kiera’s previous post, on the Leeds Cross, by clicking this link.
29th August 1949. View shows the Leeds coat of arms with “a safety city” sign underneath at the Leeds Boundary at Seacroft. A field is in the foreground and a truck can be seen on the road on the right. Taken from www.leodis.net

The Civic Hall in Millennium Square is flanked by golden owl sculptures on tall, decadent columns. Owls also feature on the war memorial outside the Henry Moore Institute, and in countless other architectural details across the city. But just what does this wise bird have to do with Leeds?

They’re an emblem taken from the official coat of arms of Leeds, and originate from the earliest use of the shield in 1626. They were taken from the arms of John Savile when he was appointed as the first alderman (elected council official) of the city.

The fleece in the centre of the shield is a reference to the main industry of the area – wool. In 1662 the three stars were added, borrowed from the arms of the first mayor of Leeds, Thomas Danby. In 1836, the motto PRO REGE ET LEGE (for the King and for law) was added. Finally, in 1921 the alderman Sir Charles Wilson officially registered the arms with the College of Heralds, and changed the colour of the owls from silver to owl coloured – a sensible decision.

4th January 1952. View shows a Leeds Public Health Department ambulance (a Morris van) after an accident, parked in a Leeds City Transport garage. There is a clear view of the Leeds coat of arms on the bodywork. Taken from www.leodis.net

Heraldry is a fundamentally aristocratic custom, and the Leeds arms arguably holds social issues due to the class of the men whose family shields influenced it. That said, it has over the centuries become a part of the city’s identity, causing some surprising links. The primary colours it uses are blue and gold, the same colours as the kits of Leeds United, Leeds Rhinos, and also the little used West Yorkshire flag.

The Leeds coat of arms is formally described as:

Shield: Azure, a fleece or, on a chief sable, three mullets argent; Crest: On a wreath or and azure, an owl proper; Supporters: An owl proper ducally crowned or; Motto: “PRO REGE ET LEGE.”

Leeds Library’s collection holds a huge capacity for fascinating research in local history, or any other avenue of interest. The building also features a fair few owls, if you can spot them!

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