OBITUARY : Sir Anthony Wagner

Michael Maclagan
Wednesday 10 May 1995 00:02 BST

The death of Sir Anthony Wagner, Clarenceux King of Arms, deprives the College of Arms of its greatest scholar for several generations. His name must be added to those of William Camden and William Dugdale in earlier periods, though he himself might have urged the addition to the list of John Anstis, a biography of whom he co-wrote, with A.L. Rowse, three years before he died. He was 86 years old, and had been Clarenceux King of Arms since his retirement from the office of Garter in 1978; he had been blind since 1984.

The family was of Saxon origin. Melchior Wagner came from Coburg in 1709 and became hatter to King George I. But he married a Huguenot lady, which inspired in his descendant a lifelong interest in the pedigrees of this French group of exiles, as well as in his German forebears. At an early age he developed (with his lifelong friend Marc Fitch) a taste for genealogy, and invented an imaginary realm which he could people to taste. His father ran an admirable day-school at 90 Queen's Gate, in London, which I had the honour of attending: a conspicuous feature was the horse-drawn omnibus which bore us all to Battersea for games.

Scholarships took Anthony to Eton and then to Balliol, but his studies of the classics only ended in a Third. Perhaps Clio had already claimed him for her tribe; a positive influence in this may have been his acquaintance with Vivian Galbraith, who remained a friend and later became a neighbour at Aldeburgh. In any case he entered the College of Arms as Portcullis Pursuivant in 1931.

It would probably be fair to say that through his productive life genealogy occupied the foremost place in Anthony Wagner's affections, but his earliest publications made highly important contributions to the study of heraldry. Ceremonial perhaps came third. His Historic Heraldry of England (1939) derived initially from an exhibition of panels in America, but drew a stern and scholarly line between those great men who were truly armigerous and those who were not. On the other hand, his Heralds and Heraldry in the Middle Ages (also 1939) shed new light on the development of the functions of the earliest officers of arms. Many years later he traced the whole story of the College of Arms in a massive and magisterial volume entitled Heralds of England (1967).

In his widespread genealogical work, he developed a strong interest and many contacts in the United States, as well as building up a formidable library of English reference works (many now in the Guildhall Library). Wagner delighted in lateral pedigrees which demonstrated how persons in disparate walks of life could none the less be linked. A prized example testified how Dr Johnson and the Lord Chesterfield whom he vituperated had a common cousinly kin in the Reverend Cornelius Ford and his wife Judith.

Of all Wagner's genealogical writings, his English Genealogy (1960, and since revised) ought to be on a shelf in any well- conditioned public library and on many a private shelf to boot. Many of his conclusions were rehearsed and reinforced in Pedigree and Progress (1975), where an important group of essays is annotated and brought up to date. Always he stressed the mobility of social life and class in the course of English history, and in maintaining this view ran contrary to the opinions of some professional English historians.

Wagner joined the College of Arms in 1931: he became Richmond Herald in 1943 and Garter Principal King of Arms in 1961; in 1978 he retired to the subordinate position of Clarenceux King of Arms. He was a firm believer in the view that appointments to the college were for life. As a herald he enjoyed a very large practice and was able to train up a number of skilled and well-qualified assistants who later became officers of arms.

His professional library was enormous, but he was also able to build up an important collection of early heraldic manuscripts from the Clumber and other sales.

During the Second World War he served in the War Office for four years, and then moved to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, where he rose to be Principal Private Secretary to a series of ministers. Although he contemplated remaining in the Ministry, he returned to the College of Arms in 1946 and took over the extensive practice of Alfred Butler, Windsor Herald.

Wagner had many interests outside the world and work of the College of Arms. He belonged to the Vintners' Company, serving as Master in 1973- 74, and was a member of a number of important dining clubs including the Society of Dilettanti, the antiquarian Cocked Hats and the bibliophilic Roxburghe Club.

A number of large projects engaged his attention and enthusiasm. One, which arose from the Harleian Society, was an endeavour to list and describe the surviving English Rolls of Arms: to this series (CEMRA) Wagner contributed the first volume.

Another long-drawn-out project, connected with the Society of Antiquaries, was a revised edition of the Ordinary of Arms (that is, an index of shields by the devices on them) originally produced by Papworth. The first volume appeared in 1992.

Yet another idea, which he pursued persistently, was the establishment of a museum in which to display the treasures of the College of Arms itself. Initially it was hoped to erect a building adjacent to the college, and a most interesting design was commissioned from Raymond Erith; this became impossible because of the increasing financial demands of repairs to the college itself. For it has to be remembered that the Heralds, as a body corporate, receive no subvention from any national source; their own stipends were fixed in the 17th century and have not been raised since. But in 1979 the Heralds' Museum was at last opened in part of the Tower of London. To those who wish to gain some idea of the resources of the college, Wagner's own Records and Collections of the College of Arms (1952) is an invaluable short guide.

Wagner did not marry until he was 44, but then (1953) made an enormously happy alliance with Gillian, daughter of Major H.A.R. Graham. In addition to taking over his father's house in Chelsea Square - he was very much a dweller in Kensington and Chelsea - they acquired a country cottage at Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Wagner himself did not sail - indeed he was never much interested in games - but his growing family thoroughly enjoyed the seaside life. He has two sons, one of whom is a distinguished artist, and a daughter.

Sir Anthony Wagner was of distinguished mien and carried himself well on ceremonial occasions. He was naturally shy and withdrawn, and could be forbidding on slight acquaintance. But his scholarship and width of learning were formidable, and he enjoyed a wide friendship among kindred spirits both here and in the United States. His closing years were shadowed by his blindness, seemingly a by-product of one or more internal operations.

His office had been highly mechanised from an early stage, but, making every use of the aids of modern science, he bore his affliction with patience and dexterity. His autobiography, A Herald's Way, published in 1988, he dictated.

Wagner continued to visit the College of Arms and attend meetings of its chapter. With his departure the world of heraldry and genealogy has lost a scholar of majestic stature. His numerous works will keep his memory alive.

Anthony Richard Wagner, herald: born 6 September 1908; Portcullis Pursuivant 1931-43; General Editor, Society of Antiquaries' Dictionary of British Arms 1940-95; Richmond Herald 1943-61; Secretary of the Order of the Garter 1952-61; CVO 1953; Registrar of the College of Arms 1953-60; Joint Register of the Court of Chivalry 1954-95; Garter King of Arms 1961-78; KCVO 1961; Kt Principal, Imperial Society of Knights Bachelor 1962-83; KCB 1978; Clarenceux King of Arms 1978-95; Director, Heralds' Museum, Tower of London 1978-83; married 1953 Gillian Graham (DBE 1994; two sons, one daughter); died London 5 May 1995.

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