Thursday, February 23, 2023

What We Have Here Is a Failure to ... Identify?

(You must pardon me for borrowing, and slightly modifying, a well-known line from the movie Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman, but I simply couldn't resist. What can I say? I like movies as well as heraldry.)

Further to my last post about partial success in identifying a coat of arms, in King's College Chapel, Cambridge, I ran across another piece of heraldry that, if you can believe it, had even less information I was able to find than Martin Freeman's arms.

I feel fairly confident about the identification of the surname, Davidson, than does, for example, The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive (at, which simply labels this coat as "Coat of arms (for Davidson?)".

I would blazon these arms as: Azure on a fess between three pheons argent a stag couchant gules, a martlet for difference. (The martlet is the cadency difference for a fourth son.)

However, for all of my research, the closest I could come to an actual identification is the entry in Papworth's Ordinary of British Armorials, which gave the base arms (without the martlet) as "Davidson (Grinnant, Scotland)".

Nor did any internet searches for Davidson in relation to King's College Chapel turn up anything beyond the entry at The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive, above.

Assuming that the initials "ID" or "JD" and the date "1825" are meant to help identify the bearer of the coat of arms, we're still (mostly) in the dark. There is a Joseph Davidson listed in the Eton College Register who went on to attend King's College, Cambridge, and became a Fellow there 1769-1798 and who gave £11,000 to the College at some point, but he died in 1828, not 1825. Was this window to commemorate his donation to the College? I'm not sure that's a reasonable assumption to make.

And yet ... that is apparently exactly what happened. According to The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge, and of the Colleges of Cambridge and Eton, by Robert Willis, Vol. 1, 1886, p. 515, "The Rev. Joseph Davidson (A.M. 1774) had given £1000 to the College, 9 Nov. 1825, to be appropriated as thought proper … to the repairs of the Chapel."

So there you go! We went in one giant leap from barely knowing the surname of the individual (the "What We Have Hera Is a Failure to ... Identify") all the way to knowing his name and the reason for his inclusion in the stained glass of King's College Chapel.

Maybe next time I won't leap to conclusions about what is or is not "a reasonable assumption to make".


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