‘Broad Arrow’

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    A.V. C

    I am trying to ascertain the earliest use of ‘Broad Arrow’ to denote government ownership of stores in secondary literature and archival sources. The earliest reference I have is in 1687 (OED), with several documentary sources in the 1690s.
    R. G. Albion, Tim Bean (Ed.) Forests and Seapower (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2000), 111, suggests the 1620s. Can anyone substantiate a reference earlier than this?


    I had always understood that the broad arrow was first used to mark trees in the New Forest to be felled for ship-building on the order of the monarch of the day. This is believed to have begun earlier than the 17th C but I cannot find any documentary evidence to date.

    Lawrie Phillips

    There was much discussion of the Broad Arrow in the first three or four volumes of The Mariner’s Mirror. I would be happy to provide volume and page details. This subject is not my part of ship but there is variously mention of the use of this mark by the Newcastle collector of customs in 1598 and of the charter granted in 1687 by James II to the Tower of London ‘upon all which Boundary Houses his Majesty’s mark, the Broad Arrow’.

    A.V. C

    Thank you Peter and Lawrie. I should be grateful for your references, Lawrie.

    Malcolm Lewis

    My references go back to the reign of Edward III who ruled 1327-1377. His reign was dominated by the ongoing 100 Years War with France.

    In 1330 the King’s pincerna, or cup bearer, purchased wine on behalf of the Crown. He is said to have sealed the receipt documents using the impression of an arrow head belonging to His Majesty. This became the symbol identifying government property over the centuries even up until today.


    Nelson’s Favourite-HMS Agamemnon‘ A. Deane, 1996

    Britannia Rules‘ Northcote Parkinson, 1997

    Lawrie Phillips

    There are entries on the origins of the Broad Arrow in The Mariner’s Mirror:

    – Vol 1: pp 49, 139, 183, 217, 282

    – Vol 2: pp 57, 88, 123

    – Vol 5: pp 24, 59

    – Vol 6: pp 220, 251

    – Vol 7: p 188

    Marryat refers to the Broad Arrow in Ch 3 of The King’s Own

    “The broad-headed arrow was a mark assumed at the time of the Edwards as distinguishing the property of the King …. Every article supplied to his Majesty’s service is thickly studded with this mark, and to be found in possession of any property so marked is a capital offence”.

    There is a mention in Holland’s Discourses of the Navy (Navy Records Society) p.238.

    J.M. B

    The book ‘A Guide to Seals in the Public Records Office’ published by HMSO, Second Edition 1968, page 49, makes reference to:
    “Another interesting Household seal is that of the King’s Butlery with the device of a broad-arrow and the legend ‘S.Officii Pincernarie R’ on a document dated 1330”.
    The PRO reference at the time was E.43/745.
    John M Bingeman

    R. M

    In the 1990s as a member of the Ordnance Society, I spent some time working on matters relating to the c.1500 wrought iron breechloader at Tenby Museum. The gun, which is in poor condition, still sits on a bed of wood from the West Indies, and this bears a pheon mark.1
    The wood remains undated, despite valiant efforts, but the gun-bed and mark are certainly well before 1690. As of course, was the mark on the Mary Rose gun-wheel pheon.
    As part of my research into the broad arrow, I came upon an article by the antiquarian H. Stanford London FSA, in Heraldry Today Volume III p135-6 (1954-55). My now tattered copy came by fax (remember those?) from the Royal Armouries Library. H. Stanford London suggested that the subject of the history of the pheon as a ‘Government badge’ was a ‘pretty problem for one of the younger armorists to tackle’. Perhaps one of them did?
    He mentions Marryat on ‘the Edwards’, which would presumably take the mark back to the 1200s, and also several other suggestions, Fox-Davies among them. His earliest supported reference is Riley’s Memorials of London… being a series of extracts… from the early archives of the City of London, A.D. 1276-1419 (1868) which he states uses a document in the City of London archives dated to ’22nd.XII;10 Ric II’ which is December 22nd 1386, of course.
    Another of Stanford London’s references in the tantalisingly brief, and for my part sadly, non-ordnance inclined, article by the numismatist Edward Hawkins, who produced The Silver Coins of England in 1841, and dated the use of the pheon as a Royal mark to the reign of Henry VIII.2 Of course, Stanford London may have returned to the broad arrow later, because in this short note he raised more questions than he provided answers.
    Rob Morgan

    Editor’s notes:

    1. A ‘pheon’ is an heraldic device granted in an achievement, consisting of a barbed arrow head, the barbs ‘indented’ – with small teeth at the inner edge. The use of ‘pheon’ for the Ordnance Board or state property marks is deemed incorrect by pedants!
    2. The Silver Coins of England by Hawkins, 1841 edition, is available online via Galenet subscription at : http://find.galegroup.com/mome/infomark.

    R. M

    A visit to my ‘photographic archive’, a big box in the corner of the spare room, to look at the photo of the broad arrow on the Tenby Gun’s ‘bed’ threw up another photo of a broad arrow. This was taken in Guernsey at a Victorian battery overlooking Castle Cornet. A ‘graveyard’ of c1850 32pdr British muzzleloaders contains half a dozen (out of eight) guns with two broad arrow marks one above the other, just behind the trunnions. The thought now occurs, was there a reason for two, and not one mark?
    Rob Morgan

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