It was in Europe during the Middle Ages that people first hit on the idea of having crests that could be passed down for one generation to the next. Towns and boroughs soon wanted them too, and heraldry developed into a highly technical and exclusive art with strict rules and its own jargon, mainly drawn from French, the language of court. By the fifteenth century, there was such widespread use of coats of arms that the King commissioned an inspector known as the King of Arms to tour the country and record the designs being used by the nobility and the many boroughs, and to inspect their pedigree. It is in the records of one of these “Visitations” on 17th August 1619, that Maidstone’s coat of arms first appears. At that time, it was only the central shield that existed, a blue band on a white background with three red dots around it, and a lion.
The horizontal blue band represents the River Medway, a draw for man since Stone Age times. The red dots are from the arms of the Archbishop Courtenay, who built the majority of the Archbishop’s Palace as a resting point between London and Canterbury, as well as All Saints Church and the adjoining college. The golden lion in that particular pose (passant guardant), has been on the Royal Arms of England since the 12th century.
The coat of arms went unchanged for over four hundred years, until 1946, when Maidstone Borough Council asked for official permission to add the Iguanodon and the Lion that now support the shield, and it was granted in 1949.
The Iguanodon is a reference to a skeleton that was found in 1834 during the excavation of a quarry on the Queen’s Road. The quarry owner, Mr. Bensted, knew he had something special, and got in touch with Gideon Mantell, a fossil obsessive convinced that some teeth he’d found in Sussex belonged to a creature hitherto undreamed of (despite well respected naturalist assuring him otherwise). Mantell was able to make a reasonably accurate guess at what the creature would have looked like, though he did make the mistake of placing the thumb on the nose as he thought it was a horn. The discovery was at the beginning of man’s knowledge of dinosaurs.
A horses head was also added to the coat of arms in 1949, and is derived from Kent County Council’s symbol. It has a necklace of hops, a reference to the produce for which Kent used to be famous for. Hop picking was a big job, and Irish travelers, Romany Gypsies, and women and children from the East End of London, came to town each year, looking to make extra money for the winter. It was work with a holiday flavour, where people could mix outside their usual confines, and friendships were renewed annually.
Alistair Crowley said that “we may talk as we please of lilies, and lions rampant, and spread eagles in fields of d’or or d’argent, but if heraldry were guided by reason, a plough in the field arable would be the most noble and ancient arms” I’m glad then that the plough gets a look in on Maidstone’s coat of arms, in the motto “Agriculture and Commerce,” as well as in the reference to hops.
There’s much to be said for the way in which heraldry preserves our heritage. Maidstone’s coat of arms is different from many examples, as despite the nods to feudalism, it’s predominantly of the land, and of the people relationship to it, and is also a reminder that the very same land was once a hunting ground for giant lizards – preman – and prehistory.