At both the main entrances to Tullie House are mosaics showing a coat of arms for the city of Carlisle made up of two shields. Inside, many of the railings around the building have shields with different designs on. On the outside of the rotunda, is yet another design. So, why does Carlisle have so many coats of arms?

This shield is the ‘old’ coat of arms for Carlisle. It was used from the Middle Ages and is thought to have been based upon the family arms (red cross on a gold background) of a Sheriff of Carlisle during the early years of the city’s history. The red roses were symbols of the Virgin Mary (nothing to do with Lancashire, as is sometimes thought) who was patron saint of the priory of Carlisle (of which the cathedral was part). This also explains the name of traditional home of the Bishop of Carlisle – Rose Castle.     

This design, featuring the castle, is the ‘new’ coat of arms for Carlisle. It first appeared on a map of Carlisle drawn by the well-known mapmaker John Speede in 1610. Speede seems to have invented this design - either because he did not know about Carlisle’s old arms or because he thought he could do better! Carlisle was not the only town Speede created new arms for – others include Kendal and Lancaster. The main new features of the Speede design are a lion (representing England), plus a castle and rivers.
Over the following decades, Speede’s new coat of arms was often copied by local printers and designers. An early example of the use of this design was as part of an inscription on the front of the Carlisle Corporation’s King Garth Fish House at Cargo, dated 1751 (although in this case it is possible that the coat of arms was added later than the inscription below it). It also appeared for many years on the front of the Carlisle Journal newspaper (launched in 1798) and on the notes issued by some local banks during the early nineteenth century.
It may have been that the new design was used simply because it became better known than the ‘old’ design. However, there is also a suggestion that it was sometimes chosen as a symbol by people who wanted to see political reform in the city. Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there was a great deal of resentment at the way that political power in Carlisle was concentrated in the hands of members of the city’s trade guilds, which were generally closed to newcomers.
As the city grew, many people, including important factory owners and bankers, found that they had no voice. For these people, the old coat of arms used by the ‘closed corporation’ represented a corrupt and anachronistic system that needed to be swept away. Instead, they preferred to use the new design as it represented the ‘new city’ that they wanted to set up. An example of this political use of the ‘new’ coat of arms can be found on this design produced by the Carlisle branch of the Cotton Spinners Friendly Society (a precurser to the trade unions), probably dating from the late 1820s. The existence of a political dimension to the choice of coat of arms is supported by the fact that in 1835, when the Corporation Reform Act finally abolished the old council, one of the first acts of the new Carlisle Corporation was to officially adopt the ‘new’ design.
The old shield was not forgotten. Later in the nineteenth century, an interest in local history encouraged some people to ask for a return to Carlisle’s ‘traditional’ coat of arms. In 1885, to help celebrate 50 years of the new Corporation, a compromise was reached and a joint coat of arms showing both ‘old’ and ‘new’ design was devised. The shields were linked with a ribbon bearing the motto (‘Be Just and Fear Not’). This line was taken from the Shakespeare play ‘Henry VIII’ and had been adopted some years earlier. Although heraldic purists disliked this arrangement, the double design was used throughout the later Victorian and Edwardian period and can be found on many documents and buildings, including the Tullie House mosaics.
The double shield was used until the 1920s, when the College of Heralds (officials appointed by the Crown to oversee the issuing of coats of arms) suddenly declared that the design was ‘illegal’. They insisted on an altogether new coat of arms for Carlisle. First issued in 1924, this is the design still used today. It can be seen in the stained glass above the museum reception desk and on the outside of the rotunda. The modern design features the old shield in the middle, plus the castle from the Speede version. Either side are wyverns – dragons that were included to represent the ancient connection between Celtic Wales (Cymru) and Celtic Cumbria.
Today, coats of arms are not used as much. Instead, a more business-like modern logo is preferred, with the arms reserved for formal civic uses.
Walking around Carlisle, each of these different coats of arms can be seen. The design used will help you date when it was put up. Here are some places to look:
* The market cross
* The front of the old town hall
* The front of the Civic Centre
* On the litter bins and benches