Pembroke’s symbol is a small bird, which – upon close inspection – is legless! The Martlet bird is a mythical creature that represents the ceaseless pursuit of learning.
The founder of our school, Harold Turner, selected the mascot because it is part of the Arms of Pembroke College, Cambridge. The story behind the bird and its meaning is even more interesting.
According to the myths, the small bird (which may have been a “blackbird” or a “swift” or “swallow” or even a small duckling, according to various European legends) has no legs and is destined to fly without settling. This inability to land is considered symbolic of the constant quest for knowledge and learning and has led to the little bird being used in the Arms of several schools and universities. These include University College Oxford, Worcester College, Oxford, McGill University, University of Houston and the University of Victoria, as well as Pembroke College, Cambridge. Centuries after his death, the English king, Edward the Confessor, was assigned a coat of arms containing five martlets. Richard II combined this coat with the Plantagent arms and it later became the basis of the arms of Westminster Abbey and Westminster School. Our own school continues this noble tradition.
The heraldic martlet, is perceived as being swift and elegant, and is a device for someone prompt and ready in the dispatch of his business. The martlet signifies nobility acquired through bravery, prowess or intelligence. The martlet is consistently drawn without feet, a perpetuation of the Mediaeval myth that the swallow had no feet. As such, the bird also represents one who has to subsist on the wings of his virtue and merit along. On English Arms, it was a mark of cadency signifying the fourth son, who – having no land of his own, would have to rely on his own hard work, virtue, merit and endeavour to succeed.
What the martlet was originally is a matter that is still disputed. Some claim it was a martin or house-martin, which is some mediaeval documents is written as “martenette”. Other say it was a dove, because some early Arms show it as a rather plump bird with short tail feathers. Others say that it was a swift or a swallow, birds which are never seen on the ground and therefore “assumed to have no feet”.
The heralds of continental Europe claimed that both beaks and legs were lost in the Holy Land, fighting the Saracens, and presumably they may have been adopted by ancient warriors to signify their surviving a crusade. This may be why Richard II included the martlets on his Arms. In English lore, the martlet keeps its beak (although other countries depict the bird without one). The Scottish author of A system of Heraldry (1722), Alexander Nisbet, stated that in England the birds kept their legs, but that they were very short. Sometimes these feet were depicted as just tufts of feathers.
A more prosaic explanation may prevail. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘the heraldic bird may originally have been intended as a `little blackbird’, represented without feet by accident or caprice, or with symbolical intention. More likely, the need to save space led artists to skip the feet of the small birds that were often used as filler or bordure elements in early heraldry’.
Whatever the meaning behind the bird’s depiction, it cannot be doubted that it has a noble heritage. Perpetual flight equalling eternal diligence, associated with learning and bravery, and associated with virtue, endeavour and hard work to earn your own way in the world: all good qualities for young Pembrokians in Kenya to emulate.