by E. E. Rich
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 6, Number 3, April 1961
Reprinted with kind permission from The Beaver, Spring 1958.
The College of Heralds is, perhaps, not one of the first places to which one would look for jokes, but from time to time the Kings of Arms seem to have indulged a sense of fun which has created considerable trouble for the historian and the antiquary. Most famous of their jokes is, of course, the motto of the Order of the Garter which, with its Honi soit qui mal y pense, has caused very considerable speculation. For the most part when they departed from the simple Tenebo or Semper Fidelis or the like they indulged in puns either on the name or on the occupation of the family to which the grant was made, and it was in the mottos that the chief scope for humour came. Such puns as that perpetrated by the Tudor merchant Robert Thorne, who founded Bristol Grammar School (1532) and gave it the motto “Grapes from Thorns,” Ex Spinis Uvas, or the motto of Repton School founded by Sir John Port, Porta Vacat Culpa, are numerous, and not lacking in charm. The tradition that the motto should have, if possible, some puckish relevance, and should not be merely a pompous declaration of moral purpose, persisted even when the arms were assumed without the sanction of the College of Heraldsand that seems to have been the case with the Company’s arms and motto.
The arms and motto of the Company were certainly adopted very soon after the grant of the charter, for the first seal was cut in 1671, a “Little Seale” was ordered in 1680 and a silver seal (which probably still survives) in 1683, while there are prints of the coat of arms and motto which date back to 1679. The evidence is pretty conclusive that from the start of its history the Company used the motto and the coat of arms, from which it has never made any serious variation, with its four beaver, its sitting fox for a crest, and its two moose (the heralds called them elks) as supporters. Such a coat of arms would be a necessary part of the right to act as a corporation and to use a common seal which were essential to the organization as a company which the Charter made possible. But there is no trace of a grant of these arms from the College of Heralds until 1921! Such an omission may indicate that the first members of the Company had other things on their minds, or perhaps that they just evaded the fees which an official grant would entail. Since the arms and the motto are correct in every heraldic sense, and since from the start the seals were an official and important part of the Company’s corporate existence, the lack of evidence most probably indicates only that there is a gap in the documents but that the arms were in fact properly registered and granted.
The supple castor gras desired by the hatters came from such Indian robes.
In any case, the motto bears the authentic marks of a heraldic grant in its ability to arouse speculation and in the number of explanations of which it is capable. It has been argued that Pro pelle cutem is a whimsical derivation from the book of Job’s Vulgate phrase (Chapter 2, verse 4) Pellum pro pelleskin for skinand it is almost certain that the phrase was in the minds of those who framed the motto. It is also argued that the Vulgate phrase was changed so as to underline the risks of the trade to Hudson’s Bay; Pro pelle cutem could certainly mean “We risk our skins to get furs,” and the most generally accepted version has been that such a twist of the Vulgate phrase was the origin of the Company’s motto. Such quirks would have been perfectly normal, and until a clear record of the arguments which led up to the motto comes to light such explanations cannot be ruled out. Nor can the more simple literary derivation from Juvenal’s Pro cute pellum (Satire x, 192).
But, while such explanations must indeed be accepted as possible, and the certainty which direct evidence would give seems most unlikely, an understanding of the trade-system into which the newly-chartered Company hoped to fit gives strong support for a different explanation altogether.
From before the start of the Company, from the arrival of Radisson and Groseilliers in London, the attention of their supporters was not fixed upon the ordinary fur-trade but upon the beaver-trade as a peculiar branch of that trade. Lynxes, martens, foxes and bears were indeed in men’s minds, but beaver predominated; for beaver was the fur in which the New World paid its debts to the old, beaver was the basis of the economy of Canada, and beaver was the fur which the two adventurous rascals from Canada promised in any quantity to the London courtiers and bankers. The Company’s arms included a fox, and they were supported by elks; but the four beaver are quite the main motif, and the arms, like the Company itself, must be fitted into the history of the beaver-trade, not into the fur-trade in its wider aspects.
Now beaver in the seventeenth-century was not a fur which was used “in the pelt” as were most furs. The craft of felting furs was spread across Europe, and the general tradition is that felt hats first appeared on the continent about 1456, that they were first made in London in 1510, and that the Feltmakers Company of London was chartered to control the increasing trade in 1629. Beaver for the felter was what the Company hoped to get from the Bayand beaver for the British felter above all.
This was an important consideration because one of the main objects of English policy during this period was to free the English economy from the domination of the Dutch. By their ability in shipping and finance the Dutch got an excessive share of the wealth which the Age of Discoveries had opened up to Europe, and their control of the Baltic trade was a particularly strong card in their hand and a particularly galling sign of the inferiority of the English economy. Anything which could break England’s dependence on Baltic produce would be welcomed, whether it was grain, hemp, tar, ship’s sparsor beaver for felting.
The position of the Dutch and of the Russians in the beaver-trade requires some little explanation, and much of the explanation lies in an understanding of the peculiarities of beaver-fur. To be of good quality, thick and heavy, the beaver-pelt must come from an animal taken during the winter, and taken in as hard a climate as possible. Then the skin carries two kinds of fur; close to the skin is a thick mass of “beaver-wool,” down or “duvet” as the French called it; on top is a glossy fur of long “guard-hairs.” It was the beaver-wool above all which the felters wanted. The mass of barbed fur was admirable for their purpose and was the foundation of the fine fur-felts which were moulded into the magnificent beaver hats which graced the seventeenth century. But it was difficult to get the beaver wool out from a prime winter skin without also tearing out the guard-hairs and thereby completely destroying the skin and partly spoiling the consistency of the felt. English and French felters therefore liked to get their beaver wool from skins from which the guard-hairs had already been removed. This made them dependent on castor gras, or in English, “coat beaver.” These were skins which the Indians had worn for a season and which in the process had lost their guard-hairs and had become so thoroughly greasy that they fully earned the title of castor gras. The greasy beaver-wool was easily shaved from the skin by the felters; it was just what they wanted to manufacture the finest felts, and the supple skin which was left was used for making slippers and other soft-leather goods. The custom of wearing beaver, and the art of doing so in such a way as to impart the maximum of grease, was peculiar to the northern Indians of Canada, and the French complained that the Iroquois who traded with them had not the knack. It was castor gras, the greasy coat beaver, which were promised from Hudson’s Bay, and which in fact came home to London in the first cargoes in encouraging quantities; and the great merit of this was that the coat were a kind of beaver which the English felter knew how to use.
If the beaver came, as the vast bulk did before the trade with Hudson’s Bay was opened up, from areas where it would not be worn and greased before it was traded, it would merely be a sun-cured pelt, dry instead of supple and greasy, and carrying both the guard-hairs and the beaver-wool just as when it was taken. This was the castor sec, the dry beaver or “parchment” which normally came in great quantities from Canada, from the New England colonies, and from the Dutch American colonies both before and after they were captured by the English. But parchment beaver was in little demand in Europe in its natural state, and would only be used by the furrier for trimmings, bed-covers, and at times for garments in which it could be treated as a natural fur “in the pelt.” Before it could be properly used by the felter it had to have the beaver-wool removed, and this was a process known only to the Russians in the seventeenth century.
Russia had, of course, been the main source of fine furs in Europe until the New World began to send home its pelts; and in Russia there was stored a knowledge of fur-techniques which was strenuously guarded. There alone could the parchment beaver from America be so treated that the beaver-wool was combed out for the felter’s use while the guard-hairs were left on the pelt, to make a fine and lustrous fur which was more valued even than the original skin before treatment. Russia, therefore, was a necessary part in the trade-routine of felters who could only secure supplies of parchment beaver; and the Dutch controlled the Russian trade, both in taking the parchment to Archangel and in bringing back the beaver wool and the prepared furs. The desire for a source of coat beaver which would make the English felter independent alike of the Russian and of the Dutchman was an important element in the motive which led to support for Radisson and Groseilliers. Their supporters, however, were neither fur-merchants nor fetters; they were courtiers and bankers who knew little but the generalities of the trade upon which they had embarked, and they cast round their motives the full technicalities of a Charter in which colonization, discovery, justice and national rights all figure largely. But when, in the very early days of their corporate existence, they settled upon their arms they settled upon the arms of a fur-trading company, and of a fur-trading company pre-occupied by beaver.
Modifications of the beaver hat. 18th century cocked hats in top row, others, 19th century “stove pipes”.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, 1987/363-C-308, N8318,
taken from Castorologia, or the History and Traditions of the Canadian Beaver by Horace Tassie Martin, 1892.
This was a pre-occupation which the elusive motto makes quite clear, and which in its turn seems completely and adequately to explain that motto. The beaver was not wanted so that it might be used as ordinary furs were used by the furriers, in the pelt, but to provide the beaver-wool for the felter. The Company, in short, wanted the pelt so as to get the wool from it; it wanted the skin, cutem, for the sake of the fleece, pro pelle. Such an explanation of the motto does not exclude literary and Biblical derivations, nor the possibility that the risks of a fur-trading life were in mind. Where a phrase was being coined, many allusions might well be included. But since the motto can, without strain, be brought into such direct relevance to the trade it would seem perverse to overlook so clear an allusion.
Page revised: 21 July 2010