Room One: The Minerva Room

The Office of Arms was, and in some senses still is, the oldest office of state in Ireland. It was established in 1552 as the Office of Ulster King of Arms, the heraldic authority for the island of Ireland, and for almost 400 years has granted coats of arms to individuals, places and organisations; it has maintained family trees and arbitrated on the rights of inheritance; and it has stage-managed the pomp and ceremony of the State.

As the Office regulated rights of succession and precedence, managing the protocol that was such a large part of the Viceregal Court at Dublin Castle was an obvious duty for it to undertake. This duty grew, encompassing not only orders of precedence, but also choreography, dress regulation and a variety of other details. It further developed with the creation, in 1783, of the Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick. In this way, ‘Ulster’ and the Office of Arms became the chief conductors of the pageantry of the Irish State.

Sir William Betham

J.E. Jones – 1846 – Marble – National Library of Ireland

This kindly looking portrait bust of Sir William Betham (1779–1853) may not suggest it, but he was a feisty and forceful personality. In 1807, he was appointed deputy to the Ulster King of Arms. He was knighted in 1812 and succeeded to the Office of Ulster King of Arms himself in 1820. One of the main duties of this Office was to organise the ceremonial and pageantry of the Viceregal Court at Dublin Castle.

This marble bust shows him in 1846 (seven years before his death), with ‘an appropriate air of Victorian gravitas’, having held the Office of Ulster King of Arms for twenty-six years.

The Ceremony of the Installation of the Knights of the Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, 27 May 1819

Joseph Peacock – 1821 – Oil on canvas – Private Collection

Since 1783, one of the principal ceremonial duties of Ulster King of Arms was to act as Knight Attendant on the Most Illustrious Order of the Knights of St Patrick, which included organising all the ceremonies associated with the Order.

Installation ceremonies were by far the largest and most lavish of these occasions. They included a large procession from Dublin Castle through the streets of Dublin to St Patrick’s Cathedral.

This image shows the installation ceremony that took place in 1819, when four new knights were installed. Sir William wears a scarlet cloak, which was part of his uniform as Knight Attendant, and served to distinguish him from the regular knights, who all wear St Patrick’s Blue. ­His persuivants (assistants) are easily identified by their gold-embroidered, colourful tabards.


The Public Entry of George IV into Dublin 17 August 1821

Robert Havell the Elder – 1823- Aquatint and etching on paper – National Gallery of Ireland

In his role as Ulster, Sir William Betham superintended the royal visit to Ireland of King George IV in 1821. This was the first visit to Ireland by a monarch since the Battle of the Boyne had been fought between King James II and King William III in 1690. As a result, it was hugely significant.

This print shows Sir William welcoming the King as he officially entered the City of Dublin on 17 July 1821. Sir William can be seen near the centre of the image on horseback, in his brightly coloured heraldic tabard, doffing his hat to the King.

The success of the royal visit was one of the crowning achievements of Sir William’s term of office and would  have added weight to his calls for a permanent home for the Office of Arms.

A Section of the Record Tower in the Lower Yard of Dublin Castle designed by Francis Johnston

James Basire – 1819 – Aquatint and etching on paper – Office of Public Works

Among his many jobs, Sir William Betham was also deputy to the Keeper of the Records at Dublin Castle and, from 1811 to 1812, a sub-commissioner of the Irish Record Commission. On 3 September 1811, the Board of Works wrote to their architect, Francis Johnston:

to desire that you will cause a Plan and Estimate to be prepared with as much expedition as possible for fitting up the whole of the Tower contiguous to the Chapel in the Castle as a repository of Public Records, it being the intention of Government, to move the records named in the margin into the said Tower, as soon as it can be fitted up.

Among the records named in the margin are those of the ‘Office of Arms’. These engraved plans show the Record Tower as renovated by Francis Johnston between 1811 and 1813 to provide a home for the State Records. The Office of Arms also found a home here from 1831 until 1903, when it eventually outgrew the space.

The Prince of Wales Opening the Dublin International Exhibition: Ulster King of Arms Receiving His Royal Highness’s Command to Declare the Exhibition Open

Unknown Artist – 20 May 1865 – Ink on paper – The Illustrated London News

These prints, from periodicals such as The Illustrated London News and The Graphic, give some idea of the variety and type of events, ranging from knightly investitures to public ceremonies, which Ulster organised for the Viceregal Court.

Royal visits were among the most important of these. One such event was the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1865, to open the Dublin International Exhibition. This print depicts:

the imposing scene in the interior [of the Exhibition Hall] when the proclamation of the opening of the Exhibition was made by Sir Bernard Burke, Ulster King-of-Arms, at the Prince’s command … This having been done, rockets were sent up from the pleasure-ground, and then followed Royal salutes fired from the Pigeon-house Fort, from the battery in the [Phoenix] Park, and from H.M.S. Royal George … announcing ‘the opening’ to the public.

The image shows Sir Bernard Burke at the centre of public spectacle and ceremony.

The Lord Lieutenant Holding a State Reception at Dublin Castle

‘C. R.’ – 30 January 1869 – Ink on paper – The Illustrated London News

This print shows John Poyntz Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer, in the Throne Room of Dublin Castle, shortly after he arrived in Dublin as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. As The Illustrated London News reported:

The state reception … was attended by deputations from the Municipal Council and the University of Dublin … First came the deputation from the Corporation, who wore their civic robes and were attended by the municipal officers, with their insignia. In receiving them his Excellency stood at the foot of the throne – an ancient privilege which they esteem: and, in grateful recognition … their officers deposited the sword and mace of the city at his Excellency’s feet.

To the left of Lord Spencer can be seen the Chief Secretary, holding up the Irish Sword of State. Behind him can be seen Sir Bernard Burke. ‘Ancient privileges’, as described above, had evolved over centuries and sometimes consisted of the slightest alteration to protocol, such as standing ‘at the foot of the throne’, which indicated favour with the administration. It was one of the jobs of Ulster King of Arms to ensure that these traditions were honoured and observed.

An Investiture of the Order of St Patrick in St Patrick’s Hall

‘H. C. B.’  – 14 April 1888 – Ink on paper – The Graphic

Following the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, installation ceremonies of the Order of St Patrick were no longer held in St Patrick’s Cathedral. In the 1880s, St Patrick’s Hall at Dublin Castle was redecorated, with input from Sir Bernard Burke, to provide a suitable, permanent location for the investiture ceremonies.

He designed heraldic arrangements of stall plates, banners, lambrequins (or lances), swords and crests, which were placed between the pilasters of the Hall. The stall plates and banners can still be seen there today.

The scene depicted here also gives some idea of the formality of an investiture ceremony in the Hall. Ladies and gentlemen are seated at either side of the room. The element of spectating was hugely important to such events – splendour was created and orchestrated to be seen, and to impress.

The Fancy Ball at Dublin Castle

Godefroy Durand – 1 April 1876 – Ink on paper The Graphic.

This print from The Graphic shows a fancy-dress ball held at Dublin Castle on 13 March 1876. It was reported in that magazine that:

The grand ball given by the Duke of Abercorn … was a scene of surpassing magnificence and splendour. There were about eight hundred guests, and with the exception of the Lord Mayor, the judges and the officers of the garrison, every one was in fancy costume.

The Duke, the Lord Lieutenant, came dressed as King Charles I. Also visible is Sir Bernard Burke, who came dressed a William Dugdale, Garter King of Arms during the reign of King Charles I.

The print shows a less serious, more fun side of the Viceregal Court. These kinds of social occasion allowed for the relaxation of the usual rules associated with court life.

Sir John Bernard Burke, CB, Ulster King of Arms, 1853–92

Unknown Artist – c1860 – Oil on canvas – John Burke

Sir (John) Bernard Burke came from a notable family of genealogists. His father began the well-known Burke’s Peerage, a directory to the noble families of Britain and Ireland, which was continued by Sir Bernard for over forty years and, later, by his descendants. He was appointed Ulster King of Arms in 1853, after the death of Sir William Betham, and later, Keeper of the State Papers in Ireland. He was also a governor of the National Gallery of Ireland and, unusually, was a Roman Catholic.

This painting shows Sir Bernard in his crimson robes as Knight Attendant on the Order of St Patrick. It also shows a kindly man, once described as a ‘little chirruping, cock-sparrow figure’ with a ‘thoroughly good-natured soul’. Under Sir Bernard, with his unsurpassed knowledge of precedent and protocol, the precision, splendour and impressive ceremonial of court life at Dublin Castle reached their climax.

Drawing Room Book

Office of Ulster King of Arms – 1848/49 – Ink on paper, leather – National Library of Ireland

These ceremonial books, of which there are 338 making up several different series, comprise a large part of the social record of the Viceregal Court. They record who was invited to the different balls, dinners, drawing rooms and levees at Dublin Castle each year.

This is one of the earliest of the ceremonial books that survives. Although it is labelled ‘Drawing Room Book, 1848’, it seems to have been continued on into 1849 and records attendance at other occasions, in addition to Drawing Rooms. One such occasion was a ‘Waterloo Banquet’. Another, displayed here, shows a small dinner attended by ‘Her Majesty & Prince’, likely during the visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to Ireland in 1849.

Ball and Party Book

Office of Ulster King of Arms –  1906 – Ink on paper, leather – National Library of Ireland

The ‘Ball & Party’ books record all the events in a particular Castle Season. They seem to have evolved from the practice of keeping different books for the individual events of the Viceregal Court.

By 1906, the different occasions and events appear across the top of the page, with small ticks denoting the attendance of those who are listed down the left-hand side. It is in effect a very early spreadsheet.

If you examine the page open here, you will note the names of the Count and Countess Markievicz, who were living at that time at St Mary’s, Frankfort Avenue, Rathgar in Dublin. They attended many of the events of the Castle Season in 1906, including an Evening Party on 27 February, a Dance on 5 March, a State Ball on 9 March, and a Tea Party on 10 March.

Countess Markievicz would later gain fame as one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, taking up arms against the British Administration in Ireland, at the heart of which she had been a regular guest just ten years before.


Office of Ulster King of Arms – 1908 – Ink on paper – National Museum of Ireland

Thousands of invitations would have been produced for different events at the Viceregal Court. This would have been the ‘golden ticket’ of its time, allowing the bearer access to the world of orchestrated privilege and social display at Dublin Castle.

This invitation was issued directly from Ulster King of Arms to an investiture ceremony of the Order of St Patrick. Invitations to other events would have been issued by the Chamberlain, a more junior member of the viceregal household.

In her memoirs, Daisy (Elizabeth), the Countess of Fingall describes the excitement of receiving an invitation to a ball at the Castle:

The mounted orderlies went riding through the streets of Dublin, delivering invitations for the Castle Balls and Parties. Such eagerly-awaited invitations … quiet curtained windows showed no sign of the fluttering hearts inside … This was the day the invitations went out … Agony and ecstasy, as a horse was pulled up and his rider dismounted … No letter by post could ever be like that.

Sir Arthur Vicars

Unknown Artist -1902 – Photographic print – National Library of Ireland

Sir Arthur Vicars was appointed Ulster King of Arms at the age of only 30 in succession to Sir Bernard Burke. He was a heraldic expert and had a close affinity with Ireland through his mother and half-brothers. During the course of his career, he superintended the state visits of Queen Victoria (1900) and King Edward VII (1903, 1904 & 1907) to Ireland. However, his career would end in bitterness and tragedy, as a result of the affair of the Irish Crown Jewels.

This photograph shows him wearing and surrounded by the insignia of his Office. The most prominent of these, after his tabard, is a collar of ‘SS’, from which is suspended a large crowned harp. This was made by West & Son of Dublin. Above this is Ulster’s oval badge as Knight Attendant on the Order of St Patrick, suspended from three gold chains. In his right hand is the ceremonial Rod of Ulster King of Arms, and on the table (left) can be seen the Crown of Ulster King of Arms, which was formed of sixteen acanthus leaves. Ulster only wore his crown at coronations and Sir Arthur had a new one made in 1902 for the upcoming coronation of King Edward VII.

Proclamation of the Accession of … King George V at Dublin, June 1911

Henry Harris Brown – 1911 – Oil on canvas – Fusilier Museum, Tower of London

One of the ancient duties of Ulster King of Arms was to make public proclamations, declaring the outbreak of war or peace, or the accession of a new monarch. This portrait shows Sir Nevile Wilkinson, who succeeded Sir Arthur Vicars as King of Arms in 1908, proclaiming the accession of King George V.

An ‘Order of Proceeding’ from 1802 survives, an extract from which gives some idea of how such occasions unfolded:

When they come to the Castle Gate, after the Trumpeter has sounded a Call thrice, Athlone Pursuivant commands Silence, and Ulster King of Arms reads His Majesty’s proclamation aloud; the Procession then continues to the Tholsel, Corn-Market, Old Bridge, Ormond Bridge and Essex Bridge, at which Places the Proclamation is to be read by Ulster in the same Manner. Three Rounds of twenty-one Guns in the [Phoenix] park to be fired during the Procession.

The procession was usually preceded by ‘A Party of Horse to clear the Way.’ The main Castle gate, at Cork Hill, can be seen forming part of the background to the left of the painting.

Tabard of Ulster King of Arms

Unknown Artist – c1893 – Velvet, silk and gold thread – Northern Ireland Assembly

This original tabard once belonged to Sir Arthur Vicars, Ulster King of Arms from 1893 to 1908. Historically, such tabards were referred to by their wearers as ‘His Majesty’s Coat’, as they were provided by the monarch through the government of the day. The costume served to illustrate the close connection between the King of Arms and the monarch, on whose behalf he exercised his heraldic authority.

It is also a hugely rich and colourful costume, which would have enabled Ulster to be picked out in large crowds or processions. This one was made for Sir Arthur and worn by him at the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902.

The tabard is ordinarily on permanent display in the Throne Room at Hillsborough Castle, Co. Down, the official residence of the Queen in Northern Ireland.