Shrewsbury’s Coat of Arms: a New Argument

I should probably just drop any Facebook page that keeps reviving the argument about whether  the first syllable of Shrewsbury should be pronounced Shrow or Shrew (or even Shoe). Not that the topic doesn’t have historical interest: it’s just that some of the people who engage with the discussion have an unpleasant tendency to dismiss anyone pointing out that there are viable alternative views as stupid or snobbish, and reading their outbursts is bad for my blood pressure.

As I’ve already pointed out in an update to my previous blog on the topic, the BBC did recently (July 2015) report an attempt to ‘settle‘ the debate. Of course, it did no such thing, though a majority of respondents (58%) did vote for ‘Shroosbury’ (it’s not clear whether or how the ballot distinguished between Shroosbury and Shoosbury – 7% of respondents did vote ‘other’). That’s hardly surprising: those are the ways in which most people pronounce it nowadays. And I’m certainly not going to tell them they shouldn’t. However, the point that seems to be missed time and time again is that this isn’t an argument with only one correct answer: it’s a matter of preference, and while I’m pleased that the debate was apparently not only quite civil but raised money for a worthwhile charity, I don’t think it’s ‘settled’ anything, any more than two blokes arguing in the pub can ‘settle’ disputes about foxhunting or immigration with any authority.

It’s perfectly reasonable to pronounce it with an ‘oo’ because that’s how most other people pronounce it. To pronounce it to rhyme with ‘sew’ because there is historical/traditional/etymological precedent is also perfectly reasonable. At least, I always thought so, though to be honest I’m probably also influenced nowadays by my dislike of the sheer bad manners of some of those who disagree.

All that said, I was delighted to read (on Facebook, where else?) that the correct pronunciation is with an ‘oo’ because ‘shrews are on the coat of arms not shrows,’

Well, there has been some discussion about Shrewsbury’s coat of arms (and indeed Shropshire’s, which is similar but by no means identical). Both feature representations of three animal heads, but the argument is usually about whether the heads represented should be those of lions or of leopards (both seem to have been used over from time to time. In fact, an article from 2008 in the Shropshire Star tells us that:

Robert Noel, Lancaster Herald at The College of Arms, who investigated the case using ancient manuscripts, said: “Many, or even most, early heralds did not trouble to distinguish very clearly between lions and leopards.

 However, a document from the reign of William III specifically refers to ‘leopard’s faces’, also according to Mr Noel.

This isn’t the only controversy, mind you. The pub formerly called The Shrewsbury Arms (at any rate since the early 19th century), now better known as The Loggerheads, takes both its names from Shrewsbury’s heraldic arms, featured on the pub sign. The more recent name derives from the use of the word ‘loggerheads’ to describe leopard faces in heraldry. One source speculates that this comes from ‘the practice of carving some such motif on the head of the log used as a battering ram’. However, in 2004 there was a great deal of fuss when the brewery replaced the pub sign with one showing a Loggerhead turtle. Logical (so to speak), but nothing to do with the history of the pub.

So here’s a link to the town’s coat of arms, or at least the representation to be found on Wikipedia. And here’s the Shropshire country flag, also according to Wikipedia. And apparently Shropshire, now a unitary authority as well as a county, still uses this representation of its official blazon, as granted in 1896 to the county council.

Well, I’m no zoologist, but all those faces look more like a big cat than a common shrew to me. But what do I know? After all, I can’t even pronounce Shrewsbury. 🙂

David Harley

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