What is a salamander?

The arms of the Ironmongers’ Company

The coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers, one of the great twelve livery companies of London, has as both its supporters and its crest pairs of salamanders, amphibians related to newts. In folklore it was believed that they could survive in fire, which perhaps explains their presence in the Ironmongers’ arms. Heralds and woodcarvers in early modern England, however, had no concept of what a salamander looked like, the creatures not being indigenous to the British Isles. So in the few instances where they have been displayed on an English fireback they have been interpreted as dog-like creatures, as on the crest above the helmet in this representation of the arms of the Ironmonger’s Company.

It is highly probable that the pattern for the fireback was a painted armorial for it can be seen that the motto scroll below the shield is blank, suggesting that one of the Company’s mottoes, ‘God is Our Strength’ or ‘Assher Dure’ (from the French Acier Dur – Hard Steel), would have been merely painted lettering. If the arms had been carved specifically as the pattern for the fireback one would have expected the motto to stand out in relief. The same anomaly has been observed on a few other backs. Ascribing a probable date to the fireback was assisted by an illustration in Country Life in 1946 of another casting of the same back that had been discovered near Chichester in Sussex. Helpfully, it had been cast with the date 1660 added to it, as well as a pair of initials. I wonder where that fireback is now.

There is another fireback that has a salamander shown as a dog, this time with an arrow-like tongue and what appear to be hooves. It is shown as salamanders are traditionally portrayed, with flames rising around it. Used as a pattern, this same fireback, together with another one, was incorporated into a larger back which I recorded several years ago in a farmhouse at Ardingly in Sussex. In addition it has elements seen on other backs. There are a number of instances where smaller firebacks have been used as panels to decorate a larger casting and I call them composite firebacks. The practice was also frequently employed on French backs.

Salamander badge on a 16th century French cannon

A 17th-century English craftsman who evidently had a better idea of what a salamander looked like was the one whose initials, IM, appear on some of the firebacks whose patterns he carved. Clearly he was familiar with French royal iconography, for the salamander was the badge of King Francis I (reigned 1515-1547), and the creature this otherwise anonymous pattern-maker placed on the small fireback he designed in 1650 more closely resembles the French model.

There is a twist to this tale, however, for a casting of the same fireback is in the collection of the Sussex Archaeological Society at Anne of Cleves House, Lewes, in East Sussex, but on it the date is 1550, not 1650. The photograph shows that the first ‘5’, while exactly the same shape and size as the second one, is much more clearly defined and must have been substituted somehow at a much later date. In a short note written in 1957 Dr Hans Schubert, the historian of the British iron industry, quoted Professor William Lethaby who described this palimpsest as having been forged – in both senses of the word!