Sussex Martlets

martlets shield
Emblem of Sussex: The Sussex Martlets

Under English Heraldic law a Coat of Arms cannot be granted to a County, but only the administrative body. As Sussex has consistently existed as a geographical territory rather than a corporation, the six gold martlets on a blue shield isn’t an official coat of arms and is more of an emblem, very much the same as the Yorkshire Rose. A martlet is an heraldic and mythical bird, like a swallow without feet.

In 1959, archivist and librarian, Francis W. Steer records that “…long before the creation of county councils…we find in Sussex that a shield bearing six martlets was in fairly common use and surmounted by a crown which defies any other description than theatrical”. It is this general depiction of the county’s ‘coat of arms’ that can be found used without sanction by Sussex’s local authorities at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.  


Examples of such usage included the East Sussex Constabulary, the county’s ‘Clerk of the Peace’ and the memorial plaque which can be found in Market Square in Horsham, which is displayed in honour to the women who worked at the Horsham War Hospital Supply Depot during the Great War 1914-1918.


The first known recording of the six gold martlets on blue being used to represent the county was in 1611 when cartographer John Speed deployed it to represent the of the Kingdom of the South Saxons (Sussex) in his atlas, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine.

john speed title

 The first known recorded representation of Sussex using the martlets from 1611.

Very little was known regarding the origins of Sussex’s martlets in the years up to 1611. That was until the summer of 2016 when further research was initiated to unearth the origins of Sussex’s famous emblem and to find the answer to the crucial question, 

Why did Speed choose to represent Sussex with the martlets?


Although heraldry did not actually appear until the period of the Middle Ages, mediaeval heralds commonly attributed arms to people and places of high repute from the pre-heraldic era, a practice duly followed by John Speed in his Atlas. Kent’s association with its white horse had been described in a 1605 work, suggesting a linkage dating back to the foundation of the kingdom turned county by Jutish invaders;  Speed’s use of this emblem was obvious but the Sussex martlets have a more nebulous origin. It has often been the case that the arms of families of great repute or status have become strongly associated with the counties where they reside; the checks of Surrey and the swan of Buckinghamshire are typical examples, both now deployed as the respective flags of those counties. Sussex’s martlets probably arose in like manner as the personal arms of a man of high importance locally, although there are several viable contenders as the source of the Sussex arms which John Speed depicted in his atlas.

One common theory regarding the origin of the Sussex martlets was that the emblem was linked to the Norman family, de Arundel, who bore arms that were black with six silver or white martlets.


The arms, featuring swallows, which in French is “hirondelles”, are an example of a punning or canting practice, whereby objects on arms are used because they sound similar to the name of the family or locality bearing them. The family name being ascribed to the town and locality of Arundel, which comprised a large portion of the county of Sussex, the family and its arms duly became strongly associated with the county. However, aside from the similarity of the arms this theory lacks substance; the name of the town is more likely to derive from the Celtic name of the “River Arun”, combined with Anglo-Saxon “dell” and the family’s major holdings were in Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire, linkage with Sussex is negligible.

W.S.Ellis in Volume 37 of the Sussex Archaeological Collections (pages 177-183) (1880) offers a view that the Sussex martlets appeared on the seal of an early Sheriff of Sussex, a “seal” being a device used to seal letters and documents with hot wax, which features a distinct emblem or pattern that is embossed into the hot wax and so indicates who sent the letter or signifies the authority of a document. The arrangement of the martlets on the seal being subsequently retained by his successors as an insignia of this important local office, a tradition grew that the county was represented by six martlets and that these were in effect the “official” county arms.

An early appearance of the six martlets in the county is on the gatehouse of Bodiam Castle, built in 1385, the furthest right of the trio of shields.


In his 1831“A Graphical and Historical Sketch of Bodyam” William Cotton attributes these arms to the Wardeux /Wardieu family of Bodiam and describes them as six gold martlets on black.


John Wardieu’s daughter and heiress, Elizabeth, married Sir John (de) Radynden, born about 1274, whose own arms were described by eighteenth century antiquarian Sir William Burrell, who conducted widespread research into the history of Sussex, as having six silver martlets on blue.


In its 1990 guide to Bodiam Castle, the National Trust (page 31) whilst agreeing on the colour scheme described by William Cotton, states that the arms are those of Sir John de Radynden. John de Radynden’s daughter Alice married the castle’s owner Sir Roger Dallingridge and the martlets likely appear in consequence of this union and Dallingridge’s inheritance of a great estate from his wife’s father. It has been a matter of some debate whether the arms carved into the masonry at Bodiam are those of Wardieu or de Radynden; notwithstanding William Cotton’s assertion, it does seem more likely that they represent de Radynden, the castle owner’s immediate benefactor and father-in-law. However, given that the de Radynden and Wardieu familes were themselves so closely connected, in the words of W.S Ellis, “Possibly this coat had a cognate origin with that of Wardeux”.

John de Radynden was a man of some significance in Sussex. An account of his life was provided by Sir Charles Thomas-Stanford in 1921 in “The Manor of Radynden” Vol 62 of the Sussex Archaeological Collections (pages 64-92).  From 1316 he served as commissioner of array, with a remit to gather inhabitants and ready them for military service. He was then selected as Knight of the Shire for the county in 1319 and sat in various parliaments until 1329. In 1325 he was part of the enterprise which provided 20 men-at-arms from Surrey and Sussex to serve in Gasconny and was instructed to organise the lighting of signal beacons and deployment of watchmen. The following year he selected 140 armed Sussex footmen and 400 archers for battle in France and was still active in county affairs aged seventy. With the troops he mustered for battle gathering under his coat of arms, there was likely to have been a well developed association of the de Radynden insignia and the county where he was so influential. As Charles Thomas-Stanford conjectures, continuing W.S.Ellis’s proposition, “It may be that a seal of the Knight of the Shire was affixed to some document relating to county affairs, and that the use continued.” A plaque was affixed to a pillar, apparently in the 1930s, to mark the site of the ancient Radynden Manor which is now covered by Brighton’s Preston Park, a public space.


The plaque reads,



unequivocally declaring de Radynden as the source of the county arms.

Interestingly, the de Radynden arms themselves appear to have undergone something of a development. Several works of heraldry refer to the de Radynden arms bearing ten martlets. This is recorded in both the 1828 Enyclopaedia Heraldica by William Berry


and the 1830  “The British Herald” by Thomas Robson


alongside twelve martlets for a similarly named individual in Gloucestershire who was presumably related, perhaps cousins sharing a basic theme in slight variations. Although it should be noted that in the genealogical work “Plantagent Ancestry” by Douglas Richardson and Kimball G. Everingham, page 230, there is a reference to a 15th century “Dallingridge”, Knight of Bodiam and Knight of the Shire for Sussex, who also held the position of Sheriff of Gloucestershire.


Given that de Radynden married the daughter of an earlier Dallingridge and inherited Bodiam Castle and estates from the Dallingridge family and that de Radynden was also Knight of the Shire for Sussex, it is not inconceivable that members of these two closely linked families shared or inherited these identical roles alternately over time, including the office of Sheriff of Gloucestershire, therefore the de Radynden named in the above works is indeed the one and the same individual from Sussex. If true it would suggest that the arms he used in Gloucestershire bore twelve martlets whilst those he used in Sussex featured ten, which is certainly unusual.


The 1829 publication “A Roll of Arms, of the Reign of Edward the Second.” by Nicolas H. Nicholas reproduced a heraldic roll from 1312, “The Great Roll” or “Bannerets Roll”, which includes details of the arms of a Gloucestershire “Ratendene”


but none for Sussex, suggesting that perhaps the Gloucestershire version was the original. Notably, the description here is “semée” meaning distributed across the field. 


Generally “semé” suggests a wide, unordered distribution but it’s not a great stretch from there to an arrangement of twelve or ten martlets


and from there a reduction to the six noted by William Burrell which may simply have been more practical to reproduce.


The simplification of arms isn’t completely unusual in heraldry, one of the most famous examples was from 14th century France. In 1376 the Royal Arms of France were simplified from a semé field of fleur-de-lis (stylised lilies), to a charge of just three fleur-de-lis.


A comparable simplification could easily have been practised for the arms of de Radynden, especially if you consider that a simple arms of six martlets are found on the gatehouse of Bodiam Castle built in 1385, only 9 years after the French Royal Arms were simplified! 


Sussex’s six martlets are today held to symbolise the county’s six ancient territorial divisions (termed “rapes”) of Chichester, Arundel, Bramber, Lewes, Pevensey and Hastings.

sussex map

The six rapes (ancient territorial divisions) of Sussex

Of course the Sussex martlets are yellow (gold) but white and yellow are probably easily mistaken from a distance or even a simple aging process could make the white martlets on a coloured version of the arms appear yellow with the patina of age, the error being compounded through repetition over the following centuries.

The evidence for a de Radynden origin of the Sussex emblem therefore is strong, however one further candidate for the source of the Sussex arms can be considered. Amongst the work of Nicholas Charles or Carles, a seventeenth century officer of arms, are notes about the arms decorating “Wythiham” Church in Sussex.  His account, which preceded the church’s near destruction by lightning strike in June 1663 where the martlets noted by Charles were lost, was included in the 1837 publication, “Collectanea Topographica Et Genealogica, Volume 4”: it includes a reference to a coat of arms described as “Azure, six martlets, 3,2,1, Or.”


that is , identical to the modern emblem and flag of Sussex!. Also part of the description, with a question mark, is the name Appleby.


The De Appleby arms were recorded on Segar’s Roll, a record of arms dating from c.1282 which was copied in the seventeenth century and would certainly have been known by Nicholas Charles but the De Appleby family was based in Leicestershire and appears to have had no link with Sussex. Markedly however, Bolebrooke Manor in the adjacent parish of Hartfield was owned by the de Radynden family and it does seem more likely that the device illustrated in the church was the arms of a locally important family, who once owned an estate only 1.7miles away, rather than a distant set of people with no obvious link to the county.


A map showing the ancient parishes of Hartfield and Withyham, and the close proximity between the de Radynden’s Bolebrooke Manor and Withyham Church where Nicholas Charles found the martlets.

If these arms were, in fact, de Radynden’s this would indicate that the martlets had become yellow or gold by the early 1600’s, shortly before Speed depicted them in this colour, in fact.


With all the evidence taken into account, it heavily suggests that the origins of Sussex’s martlets do in fact lie with arms of the 14th century ‘Knight of the Shire’, Sir John de Radynden. This would make the martlets one of the oldest county emblems in Britain!