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Bethlem’s Boardroom: Part Two

14 October 2016

The coat of arms of the Hospital was also in the committee room. Over the centuries it has been changed, added to and subtracted from. In this photograph one can see the coat of arms which was based on that of Simon Fitzmary. He was sheriff of the City of London twice. He was a rich man with great influence. In 1247 he gave some of his land in Bishopsgate in the City of London, to the Bishop of Bethlehem to establish a priory, which was the origin of Bethlem Hospital. The coat of arms of Simon Fitzmary was later added to, to represent Christ’s five wounds, and also the star of the Order of St. Mary of Bethlehem. The Star, which was related to the Crusades, was a favourite emblem of Simon Fitzmary. Also part of the coat of arms was a chalice, the Host, and a basket of bread.

When the second Bethlem Hospital was built at Moorfields in 1676, the Governors of the Hospital wanted formal evidence of the arms of the hospital, and wrote to the Royal College of Arms for confirmation of its correctness. This was confirmed, but a mistake was made, in that the bread disappeared and was replaced by a skull. Displaying arms with a grinning skull in a cup was not quite the image the Governors had in mind for the country’s only mental hospital!


Picture: Property marker for Bethlem Royal Hospital arms featuring the skull. LDBTH2.19.7

It took a long time to persuade the College of Arms to change the coat of arms to its original and correct form. The matter was formally resolved only when the new joint hospitals – Bethlem and the Maudsley- applied for arms, and the opportunity was taken to correct the 275 year old error. The new arms were granted on 1st August, 1951. 


Picture: The corrected coat of arms, replacing the skull with the bread. LDBTH2.19.9

On the walls there are ninety-eight plaques or Armorial Shields. They were made in the nineteenth century. In the top row are the coats of arms of the Presidents of the Royal Hospitals and in the row below are those of the Treasurers of the Royal Hospitals of Bridewell and Bethlem, from 1557 to 1948, and of the Chairmen of the Board of Governors of the Bethlem Royal Hospital and The Maudsley Hospital, from 1948 onwards. The arms of the hospital were used where an individual did not have his own coat of arms. The majority of the plaques or shields were manufactured by Thomas Jones of London, herald painter and house decorator. The shields all have an associated caption or name plate. You can view them when you visit the museum - try and find the oldest one! 

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