I’ve always taken the Eastern Counties Rugby Union badge for granted. It’s a Raven but I’ve never really thought about why and it wasn’t until I went to Belgium as part of the Unity Project (see Unity with Belgium) that I had cause to think a bit more about it.
The Belgians asked why Eastern Counties used the symbol of a Raven and my colleagues and I looked at each other realising that we had no idea. I made it my mission to find out before the return visit in January.
Most of the geographic Constituents Bodies (CBs) of the RFU are single counties and they have adopted their county crest. Those that are made up of more than one county – Notts, Lincs & Derbyshire; East Midlands; North Midlands; Dorset & Wilts – have badges that include elements of crests of their constituent counties. It appears that Eastern Counties is unique in having a crest without any obvious county affiliation.
I asked some of the elder statesmen of Eastern Counties Rugby but drew a blank. There was some speculation that there was some connection with the raven that Colchester Rugby Club wore on their shirts and is still represented on their current badge, but I already knew that was to do with the stone birds that are carved at the top of Colchester Town Hall.
I did manage to find a picture of an Eastern Counties County Cap dating from the 1934/35 season and as you can see it hasn’t changed very much at all. This cap belonged to Jim Unwin who had a distinguished career playing for Rosslyn Park and England at the same time as Prince Obolensky.
Then, ex-ECRU President Harry Moore remembered that he had a copy of the history of Eastern Counties Rugby Union that had been published for its 75th Anniversary in 1965. He had a look through and I was delighted when he sent me a photocopy of a page that answered the question. I have reproduced the information below:
EASTERN COUNTIES CREST
When the Eastern Counties Rugby Union was formed in 1890, the original By-laws did not provide for a crest. Most of the players at the time came from Essex and it is presumed that the Essex crest of Three Falchions was considered ample.
When, during the period between the World Wars, it was regarded as desirable that the whole area should be properly represented by one emblem, the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk had a greater say in the administration. The problem of finding something completely suitable was not easy. Eventually, after a good deal of research, it was noted that the Eastern Counties Area roughly coincided with the old Danelaw – that was, the land which lay east of a line from the Wash to the River Thames up which the Vikings sailed almost at will on their harrying expeditions. It was in this area that the Danes finally settled after the Treaty of Wedmore between the Saxon King Alfred the Great and the Danish leader Guttrum in the year 879.
The Vikings’ badge was Laud Eyra the Raven.
As no one on the Eastern Counties Committee of 1926 was able to refute this version of history, the new Raven Crest was adopted at the Annual General Meeting on 14 October, 1926, and included in the By-laws of the Union. It is not unworthy of note, however, that the fixture card for 1926-7 still carried the Falchions on the front. The Raven first appeared on the card of 1927-8.
Among those consulted in the preparation of the Raven design was Mrs Holcombe Ingleby, of Sedgeford Hall, Norfolk, whose husband had inherited land in Ilford through his mother, a Valentine. This lady supplied a first drawing of a raven, true to life, and it was from this that the Eastern Counties heraldic bird was set up – subject to a few modifications enforced by the Jacquard Loom.
Being an inquisitive sort of person I wanted to do a bit more research, something much easier nowadays than it was nearly 50 years ago thanks to the internet. I first tried to find out about Danelaw and the area it covered and although the size of the tranche of England that was under Danelaw varies in size depending on the era you are researching, all of the maps show Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk inside the area. It is interesting to note that Bedfordshire. Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire all fall within Danelaw and on some maps Lancashire,Yorkshire, and large parts of the Midlands are also included.
I next tried to find out more about the Raven and wherever you look in terms of Norse mythology, the bird inevitably appears. The highest Norse god Odin is sometimes referred to as the the Raven God and the raven banner (as shown below) was used by Viking warlords, with references to a Viking force carrying a raven banner dating back to as early as the year 878.
I have been told that Guttrum, better known as Guthrum, is buried in Hadleigh in Suffolk and that the treaty he signed with Alfred the Great still survives in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
So it turns out that the Eastern Counties Raven is steeped in history and emanates from the area’s Scandinavian heritage. I will certainly look at the badge in a different light and once this history becomes better known I hope that those who represent Eastern Counties will understand that over a thousand years of history lies behind the badge on their shirts, and that their pride will be all the greater as a result.