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Heraldry
in the A'Bear Family

The coat of arms of the A'Bear family of Wargrave in Berkshire are recorded on a small heraldic plaque in the possession of the head of the family, John Burton George A'BEAR of Malmesbury, Wiltshire. It appears to be painted in an 18th century style and is heraldically described as follows:


Azure, a bend or cottised between six martlets argent. 

Crest: Out of a ducal coronet or, a plume of five feathers argent.
 

The only known public use of these arms by the A'BEARs was by John A'BEAR (1745-1795) of Hill Farm, when he became a subscriber to Thomas Pride's Map of Reading in 1790 and was allowed to display his arms around the border as a result:

It is possible that the plaque was produced for the map's illustrators to copy.

These arms are, almost, identical to those used by the well-known De La Bere family of Southam in Gloucestershire: as displayed today at the De la Bere Hotel and on the monuments in the nearby church at Bishop's Cleeve. Their predecessors from Herefordshire & South Wales would appear to be A'Bear ancestors too [See The Name of A'BEAR].  The arms are first recorded of Simon De la Bere in the St. George’s Roll  of 1285: Azure, a bend argent, two cottises and six martlets or. The colours of the bend and the cotisses & martlets are thus reversed. This was a common devise used to differentiate between different branches of a family. 

The martlets, prominent on the arms, are mythological birds with no feet which are condemned to a life of perpetual flight. They are based on the swallow. As with many early heraldic arms, they may be a punning reference to the name 'Bere'. In Welsh or Breton, from where the family probably originated, this word relates to high places and can refer to high flying birds, specifically the kite. Eagles might have been more expressive however and it seems an alternative explanation might be offered.

The earliest De la Beres appear to have been lived in Sussex, a county most closely associated with the symbol of the martlet. It was used in the arms of the lordly Norman family of Arundel as  a pun on their own named, for the birds are alternatively known as ‘hirondelles’. It was common for retainers to adopt similar arms to their lords in order to show their allegiance and the De la Beres may have been amongst them.

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Over the centuries, the De la Beres have married numerous heiresses of other heraldic families. Their arms have become added to the that of De la Bere in a system known as 'quartering'. The earlier the marriage to the De la Beres, the closer the arms appear to their own. Thus the first arms is labelled as that of De Hever, for Joan daughter & heiress of Stephen De Hever  who married John De la Bere in the reign of King William II. It is described as: Azure, three boars' heads couped or, between nine cross crosslets argent. No confirmation has been found of such arms being attributed to the De Hevers, yet the same arms were in use by a John le Bere who apparently went to the Holy Land on Crusade in 1270 - hence the smattering of crosses on his shield. It is possible that this man used his ancestress's arms upon inheriting her estates. However, it would perhaps seem more likely that this is an earlier and alternative De la Bere arms. When heraldry first began to emerge in the late 12th century, members of the same family often used arms bearing no relation to one another. Their heirs would sometimes quarter these in order to consolidate an otherwise confusing situation. Each boar would presumably be a pun for 'Bere' and reminds us of the suggestion that the name derives from the Saxon word for 'swine pasture' [See The Name of A'BEAR]. Presumably, the early heralds agreed with this explanation.

 
 

    © David Nash Ford 2001. All Rights Reserved.