Werewolf Wednesday: The Human-Headed Warwolf of Heraldry (1722)

Alexander Nisbet’s 1722 System of Heraldry includes a reference to something that, until this week, I’d not come across: the werewolf (or warwolf) as heraldic charge. Here is the relevent passage:

…I shall therefore end here with Fourfooted Beasts, only mentioning one of a monstrous Form, carried with us; its Body is like a Wolf, having four Feet with long Toes, and a Tail; ’tis headed like a Man, called in our Books, a Warwolf, carried by Dickison of Winkelstoun, Azure, a Warwolf passant, and three Stars in Chief, Argent; so blazoned by Mr. Thomas Crawford, and illuminate in several Books; which are also to be seen cut upon a Stone above an old Entry of a House in the Cowgate in Edinburgh, above the Foot of Libberton’s Wynd, which belonged formerly to the Name of Dickison, which Name seems to be from the Dicksons, by the Stars which they carry.

Note that the heraldic warwolf described by Nisbet is a wolf with the head of a man: the opposite of how werewolves are typically depicted today, but no less legitimate an interpretation of the “man-wolf”.

Digging deeper into the Dickison family that carried this device, I came across Robert Chambers’ 1856 paper “The Ancient Domestic Architecture of Edinburgh”. This describes a certain house in “the Cowgate, where George IV.’s Bridge now passes” which is the same as that mentioned by Nisbet:

A square projecting turret, containing a common stair, was entered by a handsomely moulded door, over which was a shield with a singular device. The chief figure was that being of medieval superstition, a währ-wolf–namely, a wolf with the face of a man; referring to a prevalent belief that men, under a peculiar affection called lycanthropy, were transformed into wolves, in which character they preyed on their fellow creatures. There were three stars in chief, and the motto–Speravi et Inveni. Nisbet, in his Heraldry, informs us that this house had belonged to Dickison of Winkston, in Peeblesshire, whose armorial bearings these were.

A John Dickison of Winkston, who was or had been provost of Peebles, was assassinated on the High Street of that town on the 1st of July 1572; and James Tweedle, burgess of Peebles, and four other persons, were tried for the crime, and acquitted. [Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials, 1. 34] Very probably John Dickison was the person who had built this peculiar, but far from inelegent mansion, placing upon it those fiures which give such expressive proof of his adherence to the ancient faith.

I should stress here (lest anyone go away with the impression that John Dickison belonged to some sect of werewolf-worshippers) that the “ancient faith” mentioned here is Roman Catholicism: Chambers is referring to the presence of a Catholic chapel and statue of Christ that he also points out in his description of the house.

Although Dickison’s house appears to have stood when Nisbet wrote his 1722 volume, it had been demolished by the time of Chambers’ 1856 paper, prompting the latter author to voice regret that such an unusual building was gone. John Charles Dunlop and Alison Hay Dunlop’s 1893 Book of Old Edinburgh — which effectively paraphrases much of Chambers’ comments on Dickison and his house, along with some additional outlines of werewolf folklore — asserts that the house was demolished in 1829 to make way for George IV Bridge.

I was unable to find an image of Dickison’s heraldic warwolf. It could be that the removal of the house destroyed the last remaining instance of this device. Then again, Nisbet mentions the design, or at least parts of the design, as having been “illuminate in several Books” — so perhaps this human-headed warwolf is still out there, tucked away in some dusty archive…

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