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Leicester Special Collections

Understanding our Arms and Motto

The University of Leicester was founded in 1921 as a memorial to those who had fallen in the First World War. This is expressed in its motto Ut vitam habeant. But this was not the only suggestion.  

Others included: ‘Learning by doing’, ‘Dare to be wise’ and ‘I hand on the torch of life’. Local newspapers reported on these various suggestions and encouraged readers to make their own. In the end, it was the principal’s (Dr Rattray’s) motto that was chosen: Ut vitam habeant – That They May Have Life.

University of Leicester coat of arms

Detail from the University Grant of Arms, showing the full heraldic crest. 

The motto features as part of the university’s ‘heraldic achievement’, which was granted by the College of Arms on 3 April 1922. This was designed by local sculptor Joseph Morcom. It features a coat of arms emblazoned on the shield, and each part of the shield has a special meaning. Because the university was originally founded as Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland College (it gained university status in 1957), the two flowers or cinquefoils on the shield represent Leicester and Leicestershire, and the horseshoe represents Rutland. Meanwhile, the book symbolises learning. On the top of the shield is a helm and a crest – a bird or demi-gryphon holding a book – and this is taken from the coat of arms of the university’s greatest benefactor, Thomas Fielding Johnson. 

The university’s coat of arms and motto have always been an important part of its identity. They can be read as expressions of what the founders wanted the university to be: a place of learning, a place of importance to the local community, a place of remembrance and of looking forward. The design of the arms and the crest has changed over the years to reflect the styles and tastes of the time, perhaps suggesting an ongoing desire for the university to be contemporary and modern. But the motto always reminds us of the university’s roots and the memories of those it seeks to commemorate. 

Researched and written by Peter Lester