Cardinal Morton, St. Thomas More, Beer and Ecclesiastical Heraldry

Although beer has always been a part of Catholic life in Europe since the Middle Ages, it is not associated directly with Jesus in nearly the same way as wine. This is because (1) Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding at Cana involved wine; (2) Jesus changed wine into his Most Precious Blood at the Last Supper; and as a result (3) only bread and wine are the necessary types of matter used at mass.

Because of this, ecclesiastical heraldry occasionally contains symbols relating to wine or grapes, most commonly with reference to a chalice or the Eucharist.

As noted above, while the Gospels clearly show that Jesus and his disciples consumed wine, there are no explicit references to beer anywhere in the New Testament. Beer is mentioned in various translations of the Old Testament (cf. Isaiah 28:7, 56:12), but in our New American Bible, it appears as “strong drink”. Since beer was commonly consumed during biblical times, it is not unlikely that the disciples, or even Jesus Himself, quaffed the beverage on occasion.

With this in mind, consider the following somewhat unusual coat of arms belonging to John Cardinal Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury (1420-1500):


In 1486, Morton was made Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry VII. The King appointed Morton the Lord Chancellor of England in 1487. In 1493, he was named Cardinal-priest of the Church of St. Anastasia by Pope Alexander VI (one of the “Borgia popes”, Alexander was reputed as one of the very worst popes in the history of Catholicism).

Morton was also a mentor to the young Sir Thomas More, who worked for Morton as a page and mentioned him in his later work, Utopia. Morton may have had a hand in the authorship of More’s history on Richard III, but that remains a subject of some debate.

A German rebus, c. 1620

A German rebus, c. 1620

The barrel/cask of beer at the bottom of Morton’s arms is referred to as a rebus (i.e., “an allusional device that uses pictures to represent words or parts of words. It was a favourite form of heraldic expression used in the Middle Ages to denote surnames.”). While we in the modern age associate heraldry with a more serious form of expression, in fact the rebus illustrates the sense of humor and play on words present in family crests and other heraldic imagery.

In the case of Morton’s own coat of arms, another word for “cask” or “barrel” is “tun“, which is a term still recognized by brewers today. A “tun” emblazoned with an “M – o – r” comes out as sort of a pun on the Cardinal’s surname.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 4.07.27 PMThe rebus for Morton is repeated at Canterbury Cathedral, where he was buried before the altar of the Our Lady Undercroft. The tomb was badly damaged in the 17th Century, and Morton’s remains were removed and transferred to a more safe location, but there is still an eagle atop a barrel with “M – o – r” in the chapel.

It would be great if we could prove that Morton used the beer barrel reference to signify his own fondness for beer, but alas, while he may have been inspired to employ such a rebus in his heraldic arms upon drawing drafts of ale one evening, he may have simply liked the pun enough to use it.

While the “Mor-tun” pun is the most likely explanation, there is another possibility (or at least, an added meaning behind the rebus): according to The British Gazetteer, Political, Commercial, Ecclesiastical, and Historical, 142 miles from London, in Dorset, was a town called Beer-Heath, the “most distinguished” native of which was Archbishop John Morton. It could be that the Archbishop saw in the rebus a further reference to the place he was born.

In any case, if you know of more heraldic “beer references”, let me know and I will share them here.


10 thoughts on “Cardinal Morton, St. Thomas More, Beer and Ecclesiastical Heraldry

  1. “Since beer was commonly consumed during biblical times, it is not unlikely that the disciples, or even Jesus Himself, quaffed the beverage on occasion.”

    I think it’s highly likely that Jesus observed temperance, except for mild wine.

    Early fathers of church strictly advocated abstaining from any drink, to avoid even the nearest temptations of sin. Had Jesus or disciples sipped strong drinks, fathers would not have advocated such a strong stand.

    The beer influence on the Catholic life in Europe, could be because of a corruption from medieval times. Otherwise, the Church in Eastern parts of the world still advocates the early Church’s stance of strict temperance, except for mild wine (“wine that makes glad the heart”, Psalm 104:15).

    St. Thomas Aquinas viewed drunkenness as a mortal sin, and hence it’s important to avoid even the nearest temptations of a mortal sin. I would not say drinking beer is sin, but it’s definitely putting one in the danger zone.

    • The beer influence on the Catholic life in Europe was due to the fact that untreated water almost always contained microbes and bacteria that were harmful to health at best, and life-threatening at worst. Water supplies were normally tainted. Since brewing involved boiling the liquid used to make beer before fermentation, it had the secondary effect of killing the bugs that could be harmful. People who drank water would get sick, while people who stuck with beer would not. In other words, beer influence WAS NOT a “corruption” from medieval times, but a SALVATION for people who wanted to be well in such times.

      As for Aquinas, you left out the vital part: while drunkenness IS a mortal sin (no stretch on his part, if you look at the writings of St. Paul), he clearly did not condemn moderate consumption. By your logic, we should avoid shopping malls and newspapers because they provide near occasions for the sin of lust. Do you watch any television besides EWTN? Near occasion for sin right there, 24/7.

    • Your pardon for disagreeing with the Jansenist heresy, however, a Good Man and True said it far better than could I ever achieve:

      A Ballade of an Anti-Puritan
      THEY spoke of Progress spiring round,
      Of light and Mrs Humphrey Ward–
      It is not true to say I frowned,
      Or ran about the room and roared;
      I might have simply sat and snored–
      I rose politely in the club
      And said, `I feel a little bored;
      Will someone take me to a pub?’

      The new world’s wisest did surround
      Me; and it pains me to record
      I did not think their views profound,
      Or their conclusions well assured;
      The simple life I can’t afford,
      Besides, I do not like the grub–
      I want a mash and sausage, `scored’–
      Will someone take me to a pub?

      I know where Men can still be found,
      Anger and clamorous accord,
      And virtues growing from the ground,
      And fellowship of beer and board,
      And song, that is a sturdy cord,
      And hope, that is a hardy shrub,
      And goodness, that is God’s last word–
      Will someone take me to a pub?

      Prince, Bayard would have smashed his sword
      To see the sort of knights you dub–
      Is that the last of them–O Lord
      Will someone take me to a pub?
      G. K. Chesterton


  3. A Mormon friend told me that, yes, Jesús drank wine, but only because they didn’t have refrigerators n his time to keep the grape juice from fermenting. Doesn’t explain the weeding feast at Cana, though.

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  7. We thank the lord for the temporal sword
    And howling heretics too
    And all good things our
    Christendom brings
    But Especially the barley brew!
    H Belloc

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