John Brooke-Little

CVO, MA, FSA, FSG, FHS, FRHSC Herald and former Clarenceux King of Arms

Born: 6 April, 1927, in Swalcliffe, Oxfordshire.

Died: 13 February, 2006, in Lower Heyford, Oxfordshire, aged 78.

NO-ONE would challenge the talent, devotion and good cheer of John Brooke-Little. He treated heraldry as visual identity, boyishly enthusing over how the ancient science communicates by symbols rather than words. His tendency to be whimsical hid a prodigious scholarliness: his output of papers, articles and lectures included more than ten books including Royal Ceremonies of State; Royal Arms, Beasts and Badges; The British Monarchy in Colour; Beasts in Heraldry; An Heraldic Alphabet and Royal London. His master work proved to be the editing of the indispensable Boutell's Heraldry - a book which ran to more than five new editions under his direction.

Brooke-Little, retired Clarenceux King of Arms at the English College of Arms, was the last survivor of the dozen English heralds who attended on the Queen at her coronation in 1953.

He was also the first English herald to pay an official visit to Scotland since Edward Norgate, Windsor Herald, crossed the border in 1639. In 1986, he was invited to present the St Andrew Lecture of the Heraldry Society of Scotland, and the invitation went to him in his then capacity as Norroy and Ulster King of Arms. Under the terms of the Treaty of Union of 1707, Scotland and England are respected in heraldic terms as foreign nations, and to Brooke-Little went the honour of making the first formal crossing of the Border for three-and-a-half centuries.

Brooke-Little shone as one of the brightest and most innovative English heralds of the 20th century, yet was passed over for the top post of Garter King of Arms. In truth, his talents were creative rather than managerial, and his disordered personal office in the College of Arms in Queen Victoria Street, in London, bore testament to that.

Yet his abilities were never in doubt. In 1947, he and his fellow undergraduate Colin Cole (later Sir Colin, Garter King of Arms) revived Oxford University Heraldry Society, and the same year John founded the Heraldry Society, with his mother, Constance Egan, proving an outstanding early secretary. In 1950, he launched the society's witty and informative quarterly publication The Coat of Arms, editing it for more than half a century, a feat which in 2002 inspired the privately-funded Tribute To An Armorist, a collection of 24 essays written in his honour by leading heraldists from the UK and abroad.

Brooke-Little went from Oxford straight into heraldic practice, serving at the 1953 coronation and in 1956 gaining his first permanent appointment at the College of Arms as Bluemantle Pursuivant. His talent ensured regular promotion, as Richmond Herald in 1967, then to Norroy and Ulster King of Arms in 1980, and then 15 years later succeeding Sir Anthony Wagner as Clarenceux King of Arms. His reputation for accuracy and heraldic inventiveness ensured that he attracted a substantial client list to his practice.

He used his knowledge of ceremonial to write out what the form of the next coronation might take, and was due to have had it commissioned as a published item by one of the London papers. Unfortunately, and perhaps no thanks to his personal filing system, the article is lost.

He wrote the text for the pack accompanying the launch of the 1998 "Queen's Beasts" set of stamps designed by Jeffrey Matthews, one of which portrays the unicorn of Scotland. In 1952, Brooke-Little had been one of the team responsible for creating the original series of beasts for the coronation. He also established and was director of the Heralds' Museum in the Tower of London, as well as serving office with the College as registrar and librarian. In the latter capacity, he so successfully masterminded the restoration and rebinding of some of the ancient records that the conservation section he founded became in demand from outside bodies.

He was the recipient of numerous orders and decorations, including several from abroad, and was chairman of the council of the Harleian Society, as well as heraldic adviser to the National Trust.

A learned and characterful individual who manfully held his own over long lunches in El Vino's in Fleet Street, he devoted his entire life from student days to the promotion of heraldry. His birthplace was his family home of Unicorns House, and when he recorded arms in 1952, he was granted three unicorns' heads on his shield.

John Brooke-Little never failed to take the time and opportunity to educate the next generation in the pleasures of heraldry, and he would sketch in delicious form some of the quainter and more abstruse example of heraldic monsters. One of my treasures from a long lunch with him is a JBL-signed table napkin featuring a ballpoint drawing of his arms.

For all his occasional fancifulness and traditional views, Brooke-Little moved with the times. It's really too bad that he preferred life's convivialities. He would have made a wonderfully revolutionary Garter.

He is survived by his wife Mary (ne Pierce), and three sons and a daughter.