Detail of the 13th century seal of Dervorguilla of Galloway in red wax, showing Lady Dervorguilla holding up the shields of Balliol and Gallowayl and

Balliol College Heraldry

College arms | Brackenbury arms | Glossary of heraldic terms

College arms

13th century seal of Dervorguilla of Galloway, showing the heraldry from which Balliol's arms are derived

The present arms of the College were only adopted and used consistently from about 1900. They are taken from the impression on the back of the seal of Dervorguilla of Galloway, Lady of Balliol, which is attached to the Statutes she gave the College in 1282, and which survives intact. This displays not only the lion of Galloway and the Balliol orle but two other shields representing Dervorguilla’s august English relatives as well: on the left, three garbs for the Earl of Chester; and on the right, two piles meeting toward the base for the Earl of Huntingdon. 

Heraldic convention is that the arms of a man and his wife are normally impaled with his on the dexter side (left as viewed) and hers on the sinister side. In Fig. 1 the impaling is the other way round proclaiming Dervorguilla’s closer connection the Scot’s Royal family, as a great grand-daughter of King David I. It was through her that her son, also John, claimed the throne of Scotland.

A heraldic shield showing the Royal arms of Scotland
Fig. 4 The Royal Arms of Scotland: Or, a lion rampant within a double tressure flory and counterflory gules
The standard Balliol College arms as currently used
Fig. 1 The College Arms: Azure, a lion rampant argent, crowned or, impaling Gules, an orle argent
A heraldic shield showing the Lion of Galloway
Fig. 3 The Lion of Galloway

The same orle (for Balliol, Fig. 2) and lion (for Galloway, Fig. 3) were combined in several other fanciful ways during the nineteenth century. Combinations of the Balliol orle and the Royal arms of Scotland (Fig. 4) are also found on nineteenth-century Balliol items. The arms generally employed by the College (e.g. to mark silver, or on bookplates) before that were simply Gules, an orle argent (Fig. 2): these are the arms on the gate of the Bodleian Library and faded but just visible on the old doors of the College Chapel. Amongst other odd (mis)uses of heraldry, the Boat Club persisted until the 1950s in using the royal arms of Scotland with the Balliol orle, which is wrong on two counts: the royal arms should not be present, and Dervorguilla is missed out entirely. None of these arms have ever been authorized except by customary usage; nor have any of them had an associated motto.

The misuse of heraldic arms on the blade of a boatclub oar, showing two shields : one the Balliol Orle, the second the Royal arms of Scotland

Brackenbury arms

A sculpted relief of the coat of arms of Miss Hannah Brackenbury on the exterior of Balliol College
  • i. Argent three chevronels interlaced sable (Brackenbury)
  • ii. Sable a chevron or between three swords erect argent (this is said, doubtfully, to represent the Balliol family connection. It does not resemble heraldry that has ever been used by the College.)
  • iii. Argent three bars sables (Illesley)
  • iv. Argent a lion rampant sable (Denton)
  • v. Argent a chevron sable between three crosses crosslet gules (Wycliffe — one pedigree records that at some date in the reign of Henry VIII Agnes Wyclif married Antony Brackenbery of Denton)
  • vi. Or on a chevron sable three stags heads caboshed argent (Ellerton).
The crest of Miss Hannah Brackenbury as it appears sculpted in stone on the Broad Street exterior of Balliol College, consisting of a lion and a tree

Hannah Brackenbury’s crest, which appears just above the shield shown, is: ‘On a wreath of the colours, in front of an oak-tree vert fructed proper, a lion couchant sable. Motto: Oncques Sans Reculer Jamais.’ This is archaic French and means approximately ‘Never ever give up.’

Glossary of heraldic terms

  • Argent: the heraldic colour silver or white 
  • Azure: the heraldic colour blue 
  • Bar: a charge in the shape of a horizontal line
  • Caboshed: a depiction of the head of an animal appearing full frontally with no neck
  • Chevron: an inverted v shaped charge
  • Chevronel: a diminutive chevron of half-width
  • Couchant: Lying down
  • Counterflory = Counterfleury: having flowers on each side set opposite each other in pairs 
  • Crosslet: a cross crossed at the end of each arm
  • Erect: upright 
  • Flory = Fleury: decorated with fleurs-de-lis 
  • Fructed: bearing fruit
  • Garb: A wheatsheaf
  • Gules: the heraldic colour red 
  • Impaling: combined with 
  • Or: the heraldic colour gold or yellow 
  • Orle: a band following the outline of the shield, but not extending to the edge of it 
  • Pile: A downward point, possibly originally representing a stake
  • Proper: coloured as a naturalistic depiction
  • Rampant: rearing or standing with the fore-paws in the air 
  • Sable: the heraldic colour black
  • Tressure: a diminutive of the orle appearing near the edge of the shield 
  • Vert: the heraldic colour green
  • Wreath: a twisted ring-shaped band underneath the crest (to join it to the helmet)

For further information PDFs of the following catalogues by John Jones (Emeritus Fellow) are available by request to library@​balliol.​ox.​uk:

  • Carvings and Inscriptions on Balliol Buildings
  • Balliol Hall Heraldry

- John Jones