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Interpreting the Cantilupe Heraldry

"Gules, a fess vair, three leopards jessant-de-lis or reversed"

Arms of Nicholas de Cantilupe The arms of Sir Nicholas are quite complex. Not only do we have a fur (vair) but also a repeated complicated motif of cat heads and fleurs-de-lis.

Let us start with the vair. Vair represents squirrel fur. It consists of alternating (tessellated) bell-shapes of blue and white. These are said to denote squirrel pelts - the white being the belly, and the blue representing the grey back. A squirrel pelt tends to be this shape, with the larger back legs, and hind quarters, and the narrower torso, forelegs and head. The Greasley Cantilupes were sworn to the service of de Beauchamp, whos coat of arms was simply "vair". Perhaps the adoption of the fess vair by Nicholas' father William, was a recognition of that fact.

As an aside, the word "vair" is from the French for fur. You have heard of Cindarella and her "glass slipper". It is commonly held amongst academics that this is a mis-translation of the French. The word for fur, "vair" and for glass, "verre" are identical in pronunciation. Certainly a squirrel-fur-lined slipper is far more likely than a glass one.

Leopard jessant-de-lis inverted The cat heads and fleurs-de-lis is a more interesting issue, one filled with symbolism. The cat head is, correctly, a leopard, which is also the heraldic term for lion. The "three lions" are an old symbol of England, but in heraldic parlance, they are actually "three leopards".

The correct term for this fairly distinctive combination is the "leopard jessant-de-lis", or usually just jessant-de-lis. "Jessant" means "shooting from", and the fleur-de-lis shoots from, or issues from, the mouth of the leopard.

Other animal heads can be combined with the fleur-de-lis in this way, but they are far less common.

The fleur-de-lis is a long-recognised symbol of France. It is also commonly representative of the Virgin Mary of Christian gospel. This is an appropriate symbol for Sir Nicholas, as we know he was particularly devoted to worship of the Virgin Mary.

So, here we have a leopard surmounting a fleur-de-lis, representing English dominion over France. This is also an appropriate symbol for a man who fought alongside Edward III in the Crecy campaign.

Another theory suggests that the fleur-de-lis actually represents the head of a pike or halberd, which would make sense with an animal head impaled upon it.

Nicholas was not the first or only Cantilupe to use the jessant-de-lis as his charge. His father William is recorded as bearing almost identical arms on Edward I's Scottish campaigns (1296-1302). The evidence is in the Falkirk Roll, the Caerlaverock Poem and other surviving references of the time. Other more distant relatives also incorporate either fleurs-de-lis or jessants-de-lis in their armorial bearings.

The interesting difference between Sir William and his son Sir Nicholas, is that Nicholas bears his jessants-de-lis reversed.

I suspect the most likely reason is that the reversing was a recognition of Nicholas' great uncle Thomas, who was beatified in 1320 as St Thomas of Hereford. St Thomas' arms were "gules, 3 leopards-jessant-de-lis reversed". The only difference between St Thomas' arms, and Nicholas' arms, is the addition of the fess vair.

Alternatively, or perhaps additionally, the reversal is due to some shame on the family.

One possible suggestion for this could be due to Nicholas having an older brother. Sir William's first son, also William, inherited the title after his father's death in 1308/9. He would have inherited the coat of arms. Young William made some fateful decisions in his life, including being amongst the band who killed Piers Gaviston at Scarborough. Fortunately, he signed over the lands of Greasley to his younger brother, perhaps with a sense of foreboding.

Although he was pardoned by Edward II for his part in that affair, history shows us that Edward was not really a forgiving man. In 1322, a number of the nobles who had taken part in the earlier action against the king's favourite, were ambushed and killed at Boroughbridge.

Although we have no evidence of it, other than William's disappearance from records, and Nicholas subsequently inheriting the Ilkeston estates, it is tempting to believe that William was a victim of this revenge.

Nicholas inherited his title in 1321.

Perhaps, due to the very recent shame brought on the family by his brother, he reversed his jessants-de-lis as a public display of his own penitence, and loyalty to the king.

Finally we get to the name "Cantilupe".

As with many medieval names, recording them brought many spellings, as clerks would write down what they heard phonetically.

It is very likely that the name was pronounced in a French manner, as "con-te-loo". This has led to various spellings in a number of contemporary resources, such as Cauntelo, Canteloup, Cantilupe, Cantalou and Countlaw.

Almost certainly, the final "p" was silent. The 14th century was a time when nobles spoke French at court, clerks wrote records in Latin and French, but spoke English. A well-versed clerk would have written the name as though spelled in French - Canteloup, but another clerk would read it in English, and would pronounce it "can-ti-loop". And so another clerk would transcribe it as it was spoken in English...

The most probable meaning of the name is based on "the place where the wolves sing", which is an evocative and romantic image. In Latin, "canti" is "to sing", and "lupo" means wolf. Indeed, contemporary records use the latinized name Cantilupo.

In French, "Cante" comes from "chanter", "to sing", the same root of the words "cant" and "chant". The word "loup" is directly from the French word for "wolf" (cf lupine).

It is intriguing then, that none of the heraldry in the Cantilupe dynasty bears a wolf.

Or does it?

An alternative theory suggest that the original charge was not leopard-jessant-de-lis, but rather, wolf-jessant-de-lis. When looked at face-on, a wolf head and a leopard head could easily be mistaken by a herald or clerk who was recording the banners and blazons for the first time. Subsequent to that, heralds would simply reference the earlier document to find the correct description of the Cantilupe blazon, and so perpetuate the mistake.

In our modern re-creation of the Cantilupe household, I pronounce and spell the name in an anglicized form, hence "Cantilupe". I chose this spelling based on the still-existant village of Watnall Cantilupe, a stones-throw from the site of Greasley Castle. However, Canteloup is probably more correct, and pronounced in the French manner. The latter also helps deter jokes about melons.

Nick Jackson, ©January 2006.

Acknowledgements: With thanks to Gerald "ye herald" Thorpe, of Armis Armorials, for added information on the fleur-de-lis, and proofreading.

An Heraldic Glossary

Fess - A band across the centre of a shield.

Charge - A design placed upon the shield.

Vair - an alternating pattern of bell-shapes, usually blue and white.

Gules - the heraldic term for red.

Or - the heraldic term for yellow or gold.

Fleur-de-lis - a heraldic representation of a lily flower.

Leopard - a heraldic term for a lion or leopard, interchangeably.

Jessant-de-lis - a fleur-de-lis sprouting from the mouth of an animal, usually a leopard