April 10 2011
Philip Chumley had done well in life. The Bedfordshire postmaster’s son had excelled at his state secondary school, got a good degree in politics and economics and moved directly into financial services. By the time he was in his late 30s he had a six-figure salary (plus a seven-figure annual bonus), an “educated” accent and Fiona Smythe, the social-climbing daughter of a provincial Hertfordshire estate agent, as his wife.
Philip’s lower-middle class background had long since been airbrushed by Fiona (she told her girlfriends her late father-in-law was “a man of letters”) and Philip, too, had not been averse to reinventing himself as a member of the gentry. Nowadays, his dark blue single-breasted suits came from Savile Row, his shirts from Jermyn Street and his shoes from George Cleverley. He was a member of a St James’s club, drove a Range Rover Sport and owned a Georgian farmhouse in the Chilterns. His wife rode out with the Kimblewick Hunt, his children were members of the local Pony Club and he shot with a syndicate of City boys.
In fact, by the time the Chumleys were considering putting their son down to board at Stowe and their daughter for Tudor Hall, they were deluded into thinking that they were more old money than new, and that a makeover of the family history was long overdue.
Unfortunately, after an online trawl, Fiona discovered that she came from a line of rural blacksmiths whose roots had largely disappeared with the Industrial Revolution. Those Smythes (spelt Smith) who were still around were dispersed among the terraces of Hemel Hempstead.
She was luckier with Philip. His odd surname led her to discover, with the help of a cod genealogist, that her husband might – with a little economy of the truth – be distantly related to Sir Richard Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley), born in 1460, a Yeoman of the Guard who was later fictionalised in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera and whose illegitimate son, Sir Roger Cholmeley, was the Lord Chief Justice of England and founder of Highgate School.
Furthermore, that family could be traced back to the 12th-century Robert de Chelmundelegh, whose family motto was “Altiora in votis” (“I pray for the higher things”) and whose shield included the design, which Fiona now took as her own, of a helmet above a griffin’s head, partitioned by a sword.
This newly acquired heritage prompted the sudden appearance of a collection of obscure antique portraits in the Chumleys’ dining room, while Philip started to sport a distressed onyx signet ring bearing what he thought was the de Chelmundelegh crest.
In recent years the signet ring has become the mark of the upmarket estate agent and, more often than not, is worn by a rich selection of those not bred to the purple, from Tony Soprano to Rod Stewart. In medieval times it was used as a seal by the well-to-do to prove a letter’s authenticity. It evolved into a legally binding signature and until the middle of the 19th century was required on all official documents. Crests on signet rings were mostly taken from families’ heraldic shields, although many were adopted under the old French adage, “The rightful owner is he who first uses it.”
And Philip Chumley had had no compunction in adopting and showing the de Chelmundelegh crest not only on the little finger of his right hand but also on the stonework above his home’s twinned Doric column portico, on his Shipton & Heneage velvet slippers and on the stock of his 12-bore shotgun.
In fact, over the years Fiona and he had come to believe that they were indeed related to the 12th-century family and took to boasting about their distant cousins. This proved to be a mistake after the subject of ancestors came up at a City dinner party attended by the noted industrialist Sir Edward Bevan.
“What a coincidence that the Bevan family crest boasts a griffin too!” swanked Philip as he pulled off his ring to show to Sir Edward.
Sir Edward guffawed rather too loudly. “I didn’t know you were at Highgate School,” he said. “This is its crest. All the boys wear it on the breast pocket of their blazers.”