Colin Cole (officer of arms)

Colin Cole (officer of arms)

Sir Alexander Colin Cole, KCB, KCVO (16 May 1922 – 20 February 2001) was a long serving officer of arms at the College of Arms in London. Eventually, he would rise to the rank of Garter Principal King of Arms, the highest heraldic office in England.


Early life and education

Sir Colin Cole standing with John Brooke-Little on the steps of the College of Arms on the occasion of the Prince of Wales' Investiture in 1969.

Colin Cole was born in Surrey on 16 May 1922, the elder son of Edward Cole, a prosperous staples manufacturer. The family descends from John Cole, a yeoman in the parish of Twickenham, Middlesex, in the mid-17th century.

Cole was educated at Dulwich College (where his portrait stands in the stairwell to the Great Hall), Pembroke College, Cambridge and Brasenose College, Oxford where he read Law. During the World War II he served as a captain in the Coldstream Guards. He was called to the bar at Inner Temple in 1949 and pursued a legal career before aspiring to be an officer of arms.

In 1944 Colin Cole married Valerie Card. They had four sons and three daughters.

Heraldic career

In 1953 Cole was Fitzalan Pursuivant Extraordniary[1] at the coronation of Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Shortly after this, began his migration from the bar to the College of Arms. This came came as a result of the revival, in 1954, of the High Court of Chivalry (which had not sat since 1737) to hear the case of Manchester Corporation versus Manchester Palace of Varieties for wrongfully displaying the city's coat of arms. Cole represented the Palace of Varieties but he lost the case.

After a short term as Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary, Cole was appointed an officer in ordinary (a full member of the College of Arms) as Portcullis Pursuivant of Arms in Ordinary in 1957. He became Windsor Herald of Arms in Ordinary in 1966. Cole also served as the College's registrar and librarian from 1967 to 1974. He was appointed Garter Principal King of Arms four years later, in 1978 and held that position until 1992.

As Garter, Cole liberalised the rules devised by Sir Anthony Wagner for the admittance of new officers to the College. Previously they had always been university graduates who had also served a heraldic apprenticeship. Under Cole's leadership, this rule no longer applied and the majority of the pursuivants appointed had no pretensions to scholarship.

His leisurely conduct of day-to-day business, hampered by the lack of a properly staffed office, sometimes led to expressions of irritation from clients. When a patent for a Knight of the Garter was belatedly presented to the Queen to sign, it came back with a note that read: "Her Majesty prefers to sign these while the recipient is still alive." Likewise, during the time leading up to the wedding of the Prince of Wales in 1981 Cole's inability to find the relevant file of precedents in time, led to the officers of arms not being invited to the wedding.

Cole's strong streak of shrewdness and worldly wisdom was rarely deployed to the benefit of the College; indeed, its role was somewhat curtailed when he was at the helm. By Letters Patent of 4 June 1988 the Queen established a separate heraldic authority for Canada with a new Chief Herald of Canada. From that date all grants of arms in Canada were made through that authority and not, as before, through the English Kings of Arms or the Lord Lyon. This abolition of the Earl Marshal's imperial jurisdiction was a significant development in the history of the English heralds, and marked a serious reduction in the area of their activity.

It was considered at the time that Garter Cole, as the principal heraldic adviser to the Crown, should have tried to prevent this unnecessary diminution of the College's authority, but unfortunately he was hampered by lack of rapport with his Sovereign. Cole would perhaps have better suited the early Hanoverians, many of whose tastes he shared.

It must also be noted that giving such advice would have been difficult. Garter King is a member of the Household of the Queen of the United Kingdom. The Canadian Heraldic Authority is a creation of the Queen of Canada and Her Government in Ottawa. Moreover, there was a political hurdle created in 1964. John Ross Matheson reports on page 121-2 of his book Canada's Flag (1980; ISBN 0-8161-8426-7) the situation in 1964 of a committee of the Canadian Parliament detailed to consider the task of developing a Canadian flag. The committee was asking if Dr. Conrad Swan, then Rouge Dragon Pursuivant (and a Canadian who was planning to be in Ottawa on other business), might be able to appear before the committee. Matheson writes "I did not see the final wording of our request but I have wondered since whether it may have been indelicately worded. ... To the considerable consternation of our committee, a curt reply was received by cable from Sir Anthony Wagner on Monday, 5 October denying permission to Rouge Dragon to appear. Garter stated that he alone would appear for the college. The shocked reaction of the committee when this communication was studied destroyed utterly the influence in Canada of this historic heraldic authority."

Many believe that Cole's chief achievement as Garter King of Arms was the part he played in the restoration of the College building. The structure of the building was overhauled and the brickwork and stone balustrades repaired under the direction of the estate agents Cluttons. This was one of the first times the repair of an important historic building had been entrusted to a such a firm rather than to a specialist architect.

Although a member of the Court of Common Council from 1964, Cole never became an alderman, nor even a member of one of the Great Livery Companies, though he was a Freeman of the Scriveners, Basketmakers and Painter Stainers Companies. He was also a very active freemason.

Coats of arms designed

Honours and appointments

Colin Cole was appointed a Member of the Royal Victorian Order in 1977, was promoted to CVO in 1979, and KCVO in 1983. He was also made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1992.

Military in bearing and vocabulary, Cole was proud of his rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, RARO (Brevet 1973). Until his knighthood in 1983 he called himself Colonel Cole on the strength of his position in the Hon Artillery Company. He was honorary Colonel, 6/7 Battalion, the Queen's Regiment, from 1981 to 1986, President of The Royal Society of St George from 1982 to 1998, and Knight Principal of the Imperial Society of Knights Bachelor from 1995.


See also

Heraldic offices
Preceded by
The Lord Sinclair
Portcullis Pursuivant
Succeeded by
Michael Maclagan
Preceded by
Richard Preston Graham-Vivian
Windsor Herald
Succeeded by
Theobald Mathew
Preceded by
Anthony Wagner
Garter Principal King of Arms
1978 – 1992
Succeeded by
Conrad Swan
Preceded by
Anthony Wagner
Knight Principal of the Imperial Society of Knights Bachelor
Succeeded by
Conrad Swan

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