The Harvard Law School Shield: Royall, Chaucer, and Coke

  • Color image of la Rose shield with three sheaves of wheat and part of quote by Coke

    Chaignon la Rose shield on Caspersen Room display case, 2014

    Courtesy of Brooks Kraft

  • View of colored La Rose shield on green wine bottle

    Detail of wine bottle belonging to Archibald Cox, circa 1990

    Historical & Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library

  • Close up view of red silk tie with la Rose shield

    Detail of Harvard Law School silk necktie

    Historical & Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library

  • Book jacket of Griswold memoir

    Ould Fields, New Corne: The Personal Memoirs of a Twentieth Century Lawyer

    Erwin N. Griswold

  • View of the Treasure Room, Langdell Hall with men and women sitting at tables. Bookcase pediment is blank, prior to the addition of the painted shield.

    Treasure Room, Langdell Hall, 1948

    Historical & Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library

In 1936, the Harvard Governing Boards had shields designed for all the schools and college houses as part of the university’s celebration of its tercentenary. The shield for the Law School used the sheaves of wheat from the Royall crest. After World War II, under the direction of then-dean Erwin Griswold (1946–1967), the display case that you are looking at was made. The pediment at the top of the display case connects the sheaves of wheat in the shield with lines from Geoffrey Chaucer’s late-fourteenth century poem, ‘The Parliament of Birds’ (1:22-25). In modern English:

 For out of old fields, as people say,

Comes all this new grain [‘corne’ in Chaucer’s original] from year to year;

And out of old books, in good faith,

Comes all this new knowledge that people learn.

Making this connection was appropriate, perhaps even brilliant. Other than its connection with the Royalls, there is nothing particularly appropriate for a law school in the common heraldic device of sheaves of wheat. A connection may, however, be made with a quotation that is said to be one of Sir Edward Coke’s favorites. Coke, in turn, was the most distinguished English lawyer and judge of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the author of Coke’s Reports and of Coke’s Institutes, and ultimately the opponent of the autocratic tendencies of King James I. We may not all think today that our new knowledge comes out of old books, but we owe our intellectual origins to men who thought that it did. Unfortunately, the connection of the shield with the Chaucer poem was largely forgotten, and the shield was increasingly used in the kinds of kitsch that you see displayed in this case.

A further word is in order here about Dean Griswold’s connecting the Law School shield as it then existed with Chaucer and with Lord Coke. That Griswold thought that the Chaucer quotation was important is clear enough from the fact that he used it in the title of his memoirs, which were not published until 1992. What was going on in his mind in the late 1940s when he had the Chaucer quotation coupled with the shield is not documented, but the following chain of thought seems plausible. There seems to be no connection with the sheaves of wheat and a law school other than the fact that sheaves of wheat were used in the Royalls’ heraldry. Sheaves of wheat might be an appropriate symbol for a school of agriculture but not one of law. Griswold may not have been as uncomfortable as we are today with the fact that the Royalls were slave-owners, although his views on civil rights were quite advanced for his time. He certainly, however, would have been uncomfortable with the fact, which he certainly knew, that the Royalls were widely believed to have been on the wrong side, from the American point of view, of the Revolution.

American law does, however, owe a great deal to Sir Edward Coke, and the Harvard Law School has always celebrated that fact. Coke is said to have quoted to James the First’s face from the 13th-century English treatise Bracton: the king is “Not under man, but under God and the law.” That quotation, in Latin, is now, and was when Griswold was thinking about the problem, carved in stone on the frieze of Langdell Hall. The quotation from Chaucer’s ‘Parliament of Birds’ is said to have been one of Coke’s favorites. It illustrates Coke’s method well. To oppose James I, he quotes from an ‘old book’, Bracton’s thirteenth-century treatise on the laws and customs of England. Coke’s applications of Magna Carta, written in 1215, to the political and legal problems of his own day are well known. He seems to have genuinely believed that the learning found in the medieval Year Books could solve most, perhaps all, of the numerous problems with which the English legal system of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was faced. As he says at the end of the preface to the first volume of his reports: “To the Reader mine advise is, that in reading of these or any new Reports, hee neglect not in any case the reading of the old Books of yeares reported in former ages, for assuredly out of the old fields must spring and grow the new corn.” Chaucer’s simile is apt: Just as new grain comes out of old fields, so new knowledge comes out of old books.

Eureka! Here is a way to disassociate the sheaves of wheat on what was then the Law School shield from the Royalls and connect it with something much more respectable, Sir Edward Coke and his opposition to autarchy. Indeed, we might imagine that Griswold thought the poem would be an appropriate motto for the law school. That, however, did not happen. All that remains of the association that Griswold tried to make is the pediment on the display case and the title of Griswold’s memoirs.

-          Charles Donahue, Paul A. Freund Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

The HLS Shield: Royall, Chaucer, and Coke exhibit objects

Shield on display case pediment, circa 1948

View of north wall of Caspersen Room, Langdell Hall

Shield on display case, circa 1948
Courtesy Brooks Kraft, 2014

The painted shield visible on the top of this display case was designed by Pierre de Chaignon la Rose (Harvard College, 1895) of the University’s Standing Committee on Seals, Arms and Diplomas. It was one of twenty shields created for Harvard College’s Tercentenary Celebration. Chaignon la Rose devised a uniform system for the graduate school shields where the top of each shield included the three Harvard books and the area beneath incorporated the “arms used by or attributed to the founder or the chief benefactor of the School.” In his report to the Director of the Tercentenary Celebration, Chaignon la Rose wrote, “For the Law School, the arms of Isaac Royall were used. He founded the first professorship. His arms, as shown on his bookplate were: Azure, three sheaves gold.”


Wine bottle belonging to Archibald Cox, circa 1990

Full length view of green wine bottle with embossed former HLS shield

Wine bottle belonging to Archibald Cox, circa 1990
Heitz Wine Cellars, St. Helena, California
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Vintage 1986, Bottled August 1990
Glass bottle, 750 ml
Accession 2012.51

Although the recently retired HLS shield can be found on Law School publications dating back to the 1950s, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that it came into wider use. This bottle, with its unique use of the shield, came from the office of Professor Archibald Cox circa 2000. The reason for its creation and how it came to be in his possession remains a mystery.

Harvard Law School silk necktie

Red Harvard Law School necktie with La Rose shield

Harvard Law School silk necktie
Wm. Chelsea Ltd.
Accession 2017.07.1

This tie, designed by Wm. Chelsea Ltd. for the Harvard Law School, is just one example of the many gifts featuring the la Rose shield given out by the Law School Alumni Center and Alumni Association. The Harvard Coop also sold silk ties with the Chaignon la Rose shield, which it advertised in the October 1969 Law School alumni magazine, the Harvard Law School Bulletin.


Harvard Law School Bulletin, October 1969

Full page add of HLS memorabilia offered by the Coop

Harvard Law School Bulletin, October 1969
HOLLIS 990001316900203941

Treasure Room, Langdell Hall, 1948

Black and white photograph of the recently opened Treasure Room

Treasure Room, Langdell Hall, 1948
Gelatin silver print, 20.8 x 25.4 cm
HOLLIS olvwork432240

Here is a photograph from 1948 of the completed Treasure Room, now named the Caspersen Room, before the shield and quotation were painted. Plans for the room were approved in July 1947; construction commenced in September of that year and was completed the following year. The room was initially dedicated to the memory of students and alumni who died in the two world wars. Arthur Pulling, Director of the Library at the time, wrote that the goal of the memorial was “not to be a stationary object, but a vital, active force working for the benefit of mankind.” The Treasure Room has achieved this by housing, preserving, and making available for research “the world’s greatest collection of legal rarities.”

Ould Fields, New Corne

Bookjacket of Griswold's memoir

Ould Fields, New Corne: The Personal Memoirs of a Twentieth Century Lawyer
Erwin N.  Griswold
St. Paul, Minn.: West Pub. Co., 1992.
HOLLIS 990023781310203941