Sexey in Somerset

THE RIVER BRUE flows through the Somerset town of Bruton. In the Domesday Book (1086), its name was recorded as ‘Briuuetone’, which is derived from Old English words meaning ‘vigorously flowing river’. In brief, this small town is picturesque and filled with buildings of historical interest: a church; several long-established schools; municipal edifices; an alms-house; shops; and residences. On a recent visit, we drove past a Tudor building that was adorned with a crest labelled “Hugh Sexey” and the date “1638”. At first, I thought it was a sort of joke, rather like ‘Sexy Fish’, the name of a restaurant in London’s Berkeley Square. I walked back to the building after parking the car.

I looked at the sign, and my curiosity was immediately aroused. The crest bears a pair of eagles with two heads each, double-headed eagles (‘DHE’). Now, as some of my readers might already know, the DHE is a symbol that has fascinated me for a long time. This bird with two heads has been used as an emblem by the Seljuk Turks, the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires, Russia (before and after Communism), the Indian state of Karnataka, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and some people in pre-Columbian America, to name but a few. In the UK, several families employ this creature on their coats-of-arms. These include the Godolphin, the Killigrew, and the Hoare families, to name but a few. Each of these three families has connections with the county Cornwall, which, through Richard, Earl of Cornwall (1209-1272) and King of the Germans, had a strong connection with the Holy Roman Empire, whose symbol was the DHE.  Until I arrived outside the building in Bruton, Sexey’s Hospital, I had no idea about the existence of the Sexey family nor its association with the DHE.

Sir Hugh Sexey (c1540 or 1556-1619) was born near Bruton. He became royal auditor of the Exchequer to Queen Elizabeth I and later King James I, and amassed a great fortune. After his death, much of his wealth was used for charitable purposes in and around Bruton. Two institutions that resulted from his money and still exist today are Sexey’s Hospital, outside of which I first spotted the crest with two DHEs and Sexey’s School (www.sexeys.somerset.sch.uk/about-us/the-sexeys-story/). The school, which is now housed in premises separate from the hospital (now an old age home), was first housed in the same premises as the hospital.

According to the school’s website:

“…a two headed spread eagle is taken from the seal used by Hugh Sexey later in his life which can be seen on his memorial on Sexey’s Hospital …”

The article then considers the DHE (‘spread eagle’) as follows:

“Traditionally the spread eagle was considered a symbol of perspicacity, courage, strength and even immortality in heraldry. Prior to notions of medieval heraldry, in Ancient Rome the symbol became synonymous with power and strength after being introduced as the heraldic animal by Consul Gaius Marius in 102BC (subsequently being used as the symbol of the Legion), whilst it has been used widely in mythology and ancient religion. In Greek civilisation it was linked to the God Zeus, by the Romans with Jupiter and by Germanic tribes with Odin. In Judeo-Christian scripture Isa (40:31) used it to symbolise those who hope in God and it is widely used in Christian art to symbolise St John the Evangelist. An heraldic eagle with its wings spread also denotes that its bearer is considered a protector of others. Sexey’s seal and crest may have included the spread eagle to symbolise the family’s Germanic heritage.”

Some of this is in accordance with what I have read before, but I need to cross-check much of the rest of it, especially the Greek and Roman aspects. The final sentence relating to Germanic heritage seems quite sound, as the DHE was an important symbol in the Holy Roman Empire.

There is a sculpted stone bust of Sir Hugh Sexey in the courtyard of his hospital (really, almshouses), which was built in the 1630s. This portrait was put in its position in the 17th century long after his death. Above the bust, there is a carved stone crest bearing two DHEs, which was created by William Stanton (1639-1705) from London. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (‘DNB’):

“ Later in the seventeenth century a stone bust of Sexey, together with a coat of arms (that of the Saxey family of Bristol, with which he had no known connection), was placed over the entrance hall…”

The plot thickens as I now wonder whether the DHEs are related to the Sexey family or that of the above-mentioned Saxey family. A quick search of the Internet for the coats-of-arms of both the Sexey and the Saxey families revealed no DHEs except on crests relating to Bruton’s two Sexey foundations.

One family that was involved in the history of Bruton and whose crest bears the DHE is Hoare. They took over the ownership of the manor from the Berkely family in 1776. This is long after Hugh Sexey died and is therefore unlikely to be the reason that William Stanton included the DHEs on the crest above Sir Hugh’s bust. So, as yet, I cannot discover the history of the DHEs that appear all over Sir Hugh’s hospital and neither can I relate them to any other British family that uses this heraldic symbol. But none of this should mar your enjoyment of the charming town of Bruton.

Two heads in Cornwall

BIRDS WITH TWO heads have fascinated me ever since I first became interested in Albania when I was about 15 years old. Just in case you did not know, the flag of Albania (and several other countries) bears an eagle with two heads. Another place that uses this imaginary bird with two heads as a symbol is a place I visit frequently: Karnataka State (formerly Mysore State) in the south of India. Currently (June 2021), unable to visit either Albania or India, we are on holiday in the English county of Cornwall. At least two Cornish families have employed this imaginary double-headed creature as a symbol: the Killigrews and the Godolphins.  The famous banking family, the Hoares, also use the double-headed bird on their crest. A branch of this family might have originated in Cornwall (www.houseofnames.com/hoare-family-crest).

In the Kings Room at Godolphin House, Cornwall

I do not know for sure when or why the two-headed bird was adopted by these leading Cornish families, but here is my theory. John (1166-1216), King of England from 1199 until his death, had a son, his second, called Richard (1209-1272). His older brother, who became King Henry III, gifted him the county of Cornwall, making Richard High Sherriff of the county as well as its duke. The revenues collected from his county made Richard a wealthy man. Cutting a long story short, Richard of Cornwall was elected King of the Germany in 1256, often a position held by candidates being considered for becoming Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This allowed him to become known as the ‘King of the Romans’. He was the ruler (but not the emperor) of the Holy Roman Empire, a position he held until 1272, when he was replaced by Rudolf I of Habsburg (1218-1291). Richard hoped to become emperor, but never made the position. His crest bore a single-headed eagle, but that of the realm to which he aspired, The Holy Roman Empire, employed an eagle with two heads. At this point, I enter the realm of speculation. I suggest (with no evidence to back this up) that some noble families in Cornwall, who might have been associated with Richard, might have borrowed the double-headed eagle of Richard’s German kingdom for use on their family crests to enhance their family’s importance. Or, they might have used it in deference to Richard.  But, as my late father-in-law often said, I am only thinking aloud.

Recently, we visited Godolphin House, a National Trust maintained property just over 4 miles northwest of Helston. Set in lovely gardens, the house is what remains of a building that dates to about 1475, built by John I Godolphin. It was part of a far larger building, much of which is in ruins. It has a good set of stone outhouses. Godolphin built his house about 7 years after the death of the Albanian hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu (1405-1468), also known as ‘Skanderbeg’, whose coat of arms, helmet, and seal includes a double-headed eagle. I do not know whether Skanderbeg was aware of the Godolphins, but it is possible that the reverse might have been the case, as much was written about the Albanian hero, even soon after his death, and many members of the Godolphin family were well-educated.

The name ‘Godolphin’ is derived from several earlier versions of the family’s surname. In 1166, there was reference to ‘Edward de Wotholca’. A record dated 1307 mentions the family of ‘Alexander de Godolghan’, who died in 1349. It was he who built the first fortified residence at Godolphin, the name that the family eventually adopted. John I Godolphin demolished the first dwelling and replaced it with what was the basis for the existing building.

The Godolphins of Cornwall included several notable figures. Sir Francis I Godolphin (1540-1608) constructed extensive defensive works to protect Cornwall and The Scilly Isles against Spanish incursions, as well as improving the efficiency of his tin mines. His son William Godolphin (1567-1613) was a loyal supporter of royalty during the English Civil War. It was said that the future King Charles II visited Godolphin House and stayed in what is now known as the ‘King’s Room’.  

Sidney, 1st Earl of Godolphin (1645-1712) was involved in the Court and Parliament during the reign of Queen Anne, which ran from 1707 to 1714. His most important position was First Lord of the Treasury. During both Anne’s reign and that of her predecessor, King William III, he was strongly associated with the military career of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Sidney’s son, Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin (1678-1766) was also a politician and a courtier. Although he was born in London, he represented the Cornish constituency of Helston, which is not far from Godolphin House. Francis worked his way up the governmental hierarchy to become Lord Privy Seal in 1735. a position he held for five years. In 1698, Francis married Henrietta (1681-1733), eldest daughter of the 1st Duke of Marlborough.

The Godolphins were spending hardly any time in Cornwall by the 18th century. From 1786, Godolphin House was owned by the Dukes of Leeds, who never lived there. Despite its now distant connection with the Godolphin family, their double-headed eagle can still be spotted around the house. There is a fine example in the Kings Room and several more on the hopper heads at the top of the rain collecting downpipes.

Whether or not birds with two heads fascinate you, a visit to Godolphin House, remote in the Cornish countryside, is well-worth making, not only to spot the mythical birds but also to enjoy fine architecture and wonderful gardens.