The Berkshire Coat of Arms
Heraldic Depictions show Town's History

The coat of arms of Reading was granted to the Reading Corporation in 1566 and the crest, supporters and motto added on 20th May 1953. Heraldically, they are described as follows:

Azure, five maidens' heads in saltire couped at the shoulders and vested proper, each crined and wearing a necklace and pendant or, the centre head imperially crowned or, the cap gules (in fess the Letters RE or).

Crest: On a wreath argent and azure, issuant from a circlet of four inverted escallops and as many lyres alternating or, a mitre proper.

Supporters: On either side, a ram argent, armed and unguled or, charged on the shoulder, the dexter with a portcullis chained azure, the sinister with a hurt thereon a plate charged with two bars wavy also azure.

Motto: A Deo et Regina (From God and the Queen).

The emblem of five heads cut off at the neck displayed in the form of a St. Andrew's cross, the central one being crowned, had been used by the Reading Merchant Guild on the town's common seal as early as 1365. However, in these early depictions, the five busts are those of men with short bob haircuts. The king in the centre wears a 'Saxon' style crown. The five have long been locally associated with the old legend of the late 10th century Queen Elfrida (more properly spelt Aelfthryth)'s murder of her step-son, King Edward the Martyr. They may originally have represented King Edward and four of his hunting companions. 

In 1566, an heraldic shield was formally granted to the Corporation by the College of Arms and it was at this time that the men were transformed into ladies. A large golden 'RE' was also added, one letter either side of the central queen. It seems likely that this stood for 'Regina Elizabetha' (Queen Elizabeth) and was supposed to be a mere temporary appendage, given in honour of Queen Elizabeth I who spent much time resident at the Palace of Abbey House in the town. A second grant in 1623 did not include the 'RE' but it was officially reinstated in 1953. The 'maidens' are supposed to represent Queen Elfrida and her ladies-in-waiting, although they are shown as nuns in the illustration arms due to their story:

Once upon a time, there was a good and popular King of England called Edgar the Peacemaker. He had one weakness, and that was women. Despite her wickedness but because of her extreme beauty, he married, as his third wife, the Lady Elfreda.

When good King Edgar died, his Crown was inherited by his son by his first wife, Edward. But Elfreda was insanely jealous of this young lad and wanted her own son, Ethelred, to be King instead. She pretended to be his friend, but, secretly, she was plotting his downfall. When the Royal court next stayed at Corfe Castle in Dorset, King Edward spent his time hunting and generally having fun while Elfreda hid herself away from prying eyes. Then one day, when the King returned exhausted from the chase, his step-mother unexpectedly came to the palace gates to welcome him home with a soothing drink. The King downed it in one; but the drink was poisoned! Seizing his throat, he instantly fell from his horse, but got his foot caught in the stirrup. The frightened horse sped off, dragging King Edward behind it to be battered to death.

Ethelred (the Unready), of course, succeeded his brother as King of England; but eventually the truth came out. He was furious at what his mother had done in his name and banished her to a nunnery that he forced her to build at Wherwell (near Andover) with her own money. But she was very rich indeed, and there was enough to build further nunneries at Reading and Cholsey, where her ladies in waiting were also locked up.

Wherwell Abbey disappeared at the Dissolution of the Monasteries; Reading and Cholsey were destroyed by the Vikings, although some of the original stonework still survives built into Cholsey Church. Reading Nunnery is supposed to have stood on the site of St. Mary’s Church and the town still remembers the story in its coat of arms showing Queen Elfreda surrounded by four of her ladies in waiting. It's a good story, and Queen Elfrida certainly founded a number of abbeys, including Reading, but there is no evidence to suggest that this was because she had killed her step-son.

The mitre crest, of course, remembers the rare honour bestowed upon the Abbots of Reading of being able to wear the mitre usually reserved for bishops. The scallop shells were the cost-effective badges of medieval pilgrims, particularly associated with St. James, for they were gathered on the beach near his Shrine at Compostella (Spain) from where his hand eventually made its way to Reading. The lyres remember Reading Abbey's musical reputation, having been the place were on e of the oldest pieces of English music was written down. The sheep supporters, of course, represent reading's place at the centre of the medieval and Tudor wool industry. They are here illustrated as Berkshire Knot Wethers. The portcullis is for the borough and the double streams of water for the Rivers Kennet & Thames.

See the original grants of arms on the Berkshire Record Office Website


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