John Brooke-Little

Former Clarenceux King of Arms who founded the Heraldry Society and first officiated at the Coronation
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The Independent Online

John Brooke-Little did more than anyone else in the last century to popularise the study of heraldry. He lectured widely on the subject, and numerous books and articles flowed from his fertile pen. Probably his greatest achievement was the creation of the Heraldry Society, an organisation founded by him when barely out of his teens, and still flourishing very nearly 60 years later. He also served for over 40 years as an Officer of Arms, participating in numerous state occasions from early in the Queen's reign through to the 1990s.

By dint of his productivity Brooke-Little became in the 1960s probably the best-known of the heralds. In 1969, along with three other uniformed colleagues, he had the distinction of appearing on the front cover of Private Eye. A few years later he was one of Roy Plomley's castaways on Desert Island Discs (expressing the hope that a passing mermaid would manifest herself during his incarceration).

Born in 1927, the only son of Raymond Brooke-Little and the children's writer Constance Egan, he was educated at the Oratory Preparatory School in Caversham and at Clayesmore School in Dorset. It was as a schoolboy that he acquired his interest in heraldry, and he paid his first visit to the College of Arms early in the Second World War.

After leaving Clayesmore, he taught for a time at a prep school in Worcestershire. While there, during the snowbound winter of 1947, he had the idea of setting up the Society of Heraldic Antiquaries. Initially conceived as a society for young enthusiasts, it recruited many of its first adherents through publicity in The Children's Newspaper but its membership soon bestraddled all age-groups and it was re-named the Heraldry Society in 1950. The same year saw the commencement of its quarterly magazine The Coat of Arms, which Brooke-Little himself edited for a long period. He was chairman of the society from its inception until its 50th anniversary in 1997, when he became president for life.

Partly on account of National Service (he was rumoured to have been a sergeant but never spoke of it), it was not until 1949 that he went up to New College, Oxford, to read History. There he was a noted figure in what may roughly be called the Ned Sherrin generation, and edited Cherwell, the undergraduate newspaper. He retained a great affection for Oxford, and one of his first publications was a guide to the university and colleges written for the Pitkin Pictorials series.

He had toyed with the idea of going on the stage (even seeking John Gielgud's advice at one point) but on going down from Oxford he joined the Earl Marshal's staff in the run-up to the Coronation, acting as general factotum to Sir George Bellew, Garter King of Arms. He had a hand in the selection of heraldic animals chosen to represent "The Queen Beasts", the spectacular creatures placed to great effect outside the entrance to Westminster Abbey. At the ceremony itself he and one of his fellow Gold Staff Officers had the task of putting in position the two faldstools on which the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh knelt to take communion. He later claimed that after carrying the stools back behind the altar screen he and his companion celebrated the success of the manoeuvre by taking a swig from a bottle of brandy strategically hidden between the legs of the effigy on Richard II's tomb.

Following the Coronation he went to work at the College of Arms, serving on the staff of Anthony Wagner, then Richmond Herald, and acting as part-time library assistant, for which he was paid 25 shillings a day. In 1956 he was appointed Bluemantle Pursuivant. The happy conjunction of Brooke-Little and Bluemantle inspired one of his colleagues to refer to him ever after as Bluebottle (the bizarre character created by Peter Sellers on The Goon Show, then at the height of its fame).

In time-honoured fashion he set about building a practice in heraldry and genealogy. He displayed considerable ingenuity in the designing of coats of arms but his ways of doing business were somewhat erratic. A client calling to see him one afternoon was understandably disconcerted when Brooke-Little nodded off to sleep in mid-conference. But he was much assisted for most of his career by his vigilant Clerk, Mary Rose Rogers, who in course of time became doyenne of the college's staff.

From 1963 he was responsible (at first jointly, then from 1970 solely) for successive editions of Boutell's Heraldry, a manual originally published in 1863. Though now out of print, it remains the textbook most often turned to by heraldic practitioners. He also produced an annotated edition of Arthur Fox-Davies's Complete Guide to Heraldry, for which he did the preliminary work while crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth. His lecturing took him far and wide, and he made frequent trips to America.

Brooke-Little was a witty and accomplished speaker, and well-turned letters often appeared over his signature in the press. In 1969, in a laudable attempt to puncture one of A.L. Rowse's hare-brained hypotheses, he light-heartedly suggested in the columns of The Times that Shakespeare's Mr W.H. could safely be identified as Nicholas Dethick, Windsor Herald in the 1590s.

For most of his adult life he looked about 10 years older than he really was. Round-figured and round-faced, bald and bespectacled, he had a somnolent appearance that masked a considerable energy. In his middle years he was a natty dresser; the bow ties he regularly sported in the 1960s gave way in the following decade to colourful shirts and ties. These sartorial habits sometimes spilled over into eccentricity. For a lengthy period he swept around in a Sherlock Holmes-style cape. And at least once he was spotted on the London Underground wearing a wig.

He was a convivial man, who enjoyed his food and wine. In common with other heralds of his generation, he was an assiduous patron of El Vino's in Fleet Street, to which he and his longtime colleague Colin Cole donated a "Heraldry Society" chair. He and Cole also formed a heraldic dining club, which they named the Bullicorn (unicorns and bulls figuring in their respective coats of arms).

Promoted to the office of Richmond Herald in 1967, Brooke-Little helped to organise the Investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarvon in 1969, being appointed MVO in the special honours list that followed the ceremony. At the College of Arms he held the posts of Treasurer and Librarian for many years. His financial skills were not of the highest order but he deserves the credit for setting up a conservation department that over the last 30 years has ensured that adequate care is given to the college's remarkable collection of manuscripts.

A high point in his ceremonial career came in 1976. As part of the celebrations of the bicentenary of the Declaration of Independence, the coat of arms originally designed for the Virginia Company in the early 17th century was formally devised by the English Kings of Arms to the State (properly speaking the Commonwealth) of Virginia. The Queen presented the resulting document to the Governor of Virginia at a ceremony in Williamsburg, Brooke-Little attending in tabard, the first time an Officer of Arms had worn full uniform on the mainland of America.

The dressy side of his job undoubtedly appealed to him, and he managed to supplement it with an exotic range of insignia. A committed Roman Catholic, he was a Knight of Malta, and he accumulated a clutch of obscure foreign orders - according to reference works he held the Cruz Distinguida of the Spanish Order of San Raimundo de Peñafort and was also a Knight Grand Cross of the Constantinian Order of St George.

This enjoyment of the outward trappings was mirrored in a harmless predilection for titled folk. An inclination to emphasise his familiarity with peers of the realm extended to the episcopacy. Thus, an antipodean archbishop encountered at heraldic conferences would be referred to as "Tommy Adelaide" (causing a mischievous colleague on one occasion to draw Brooke-Little's attention to the sad death of "Geoffrey Western Australia").

In 1980 he gained regal status of his own when he became Norroy and Ulster King of Arms. He was delighted to establish that he thereby held the office of King of Arms and Registrar of the dormant Order of St Patrick. Four years later, in the College of Arms's 500th anniversary year, he was made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. A stroke suffered at the College of Arms in 1994 seriously impaired his mobility but this did not prevent his becoming Clarenceux King of Arms (the second senior office in the college) following the death of Sir Anthony Wagner a year later. He retired on his 70th birthday in 1997.

In 1960 he had married Mary Pierce, and a few years later they purchased Heyford House, a former rectory in Oxfordshire. There they raised a family of three sons and a daughter, and it remained Brooke-Little's home until his death. He crammed it with heraldic artefacts, some of which were re-deployed to decorate the Marsh Goose, a successful restaurant established in Moreton-in-Marsh by his middle son, Leo, in 1990.

A frail figure in his last years, Brooke-Little none the less paid regular visits to the College of Arms until the end of 2004 and maintained an active interest in armorial matters. The 50th anniversary of The Coat of Arms was marked in 2000 by the publication of a Festschrift volume, Tribute to an Armorist, comprising 24 essays written in his honour.

John Brooke-Little's funeral will take place in Oxfordshire on Thursday, the same day, appropriately, as the Heraldry Society's annual luncheon.

P. L. Dickinson