Hamilton flag designer represents Canada at Jubilee regatta

Retired bishop Ralph Spence of Hamilton, Ont., is a noted expert in designing flags and coats of arms. He's met the Queen on more than one occasion and was invited to London for the Diamond Jubilee festivities.

The now-retired Anglican bishop Ralph Spence, of Hamilton, Ont., was introduced to Queen Elizabeth at a garden party in 2002.

"Well, Bishop," she said, "I hear you’ve pinched three of my flags."

After a momentary shock he laughed, he says, assured the Queen was simply having a little jest at his expense. 

Of course she was referring to the bishop's skills as a vexillologist — a specialist in flag design — and how just three days earlier he had helped the palace identify flags from certain heads of state who had visited the Queen over the previous 50 years.

As a thank you, he was given three duplicate flags to add to his already large collection, which now sits at approximately 3,000 items.

That was not the first time the flag expert, the Anglican bishop of Niagara until his retirement in 2008, had encountered the Queen and it likely won’t be the last. Spence has been invited to be one of 10 heralds from Canada, Scotland and England at the Diamond Jubilee festivities in the U.K. in early June.

"I’ve been asked to be on one of the barges going down the Thames," he said. "And we [the English, Scottish and Canadian heralds] will form a line for the Queen and the Royal Family to walk through to their barge. It’s quite an honour for us."

Canadian multi-ethnic symbols

The royal festivities are a long way from Hamilton, Ont., where Spence was born and still resides.

Ordained in 1968, he has also had a life-long passion for flags and heraldry and has designed flags for corporations and municipalities, including the city of Hamilton after amalgamation took place in 2001.

Although many think of heraldry as a rather archaic British tradition, where it signifies the granting and history of bearing arms, Spence says it is a constantly evolving field and that Canada’s approach is unique because it embraces other cultures and adopts new symbols to adequately represent its citizens.

"Heraldry is not trapped in the Middle Ages as some people think it is," he says.

"And that’s the wonderful thing about Canadian heraldry, it’s become quite distinctive in its evolutionary process."

"Designs from the First Nations peoples find their way into Canadian coats of arms, as well as the many wonderful traditions of Europe and the Orient, which are also found in Canadian coats of arms now."

Before the late 1980s Canadians who wanted a coat of arms would need to be granted one from either the College of Arms in London or, if of Scottish descent, the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh.

However, in 1988 the Queen signed for the authorization of the creation of a Canadian Heraldic Authority that would enable arms to be granted in her name as the Queen of Canada by the office of the Governor General.

The Canadian Heraldic Authority is the only heraldic authority that exists in a Commonwealth realm outside the U.K. 

Its establishment makes it easier for Canadians of all backgrounds to acquire a coat of arms and enables heralds, familiar with Canada and its symbols, to incorporate uniquely Canadian designs in their work.

"I think Canadian Heraldry is the most vibrant heraldry in all the world right now because our Canadian heralds have caught the imagination and spirit not only of Canada with its multi-ethnic traditions, but also the traditions of the first people of the nation — as well as the European immigrants who have come here as well as the new immigrants," Spence says.

Fever for flags

In 2007, Spence was awarded the title of Albion Herald Extraordinary by the governor general for his contributions to Canadian heraldry.

His interest in the subject began when he had rheumatic fever at age 14 and was forced to stay in bed for six months.

He began reading about heraldry and designing flags and coats of arms, learning the rules behind the craft, and eventually collecting flags.

Most of his collection is stored in a wall of shelves in the basement of his Hamilton home. However, he has started donating some of his flags to Rideau Hall and eventually, he says, he will give them all away.

"I’ve managed to collect a lot of old historical Canadian flags, which I’ve just given to the Canadian Heraldic Authority at Rideau Hall, so they’ll be part of the Canadian treasure forever."