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A Brief History of Heraldry

he adoption of distinguishing symbols by tribes and nations, as well as by their chieftains and families can be found from time immemorial and in all quarters of the globe no matter how primitive. An examination of the Bible will reveal descriptions of the standards of the tribes of Israel inspired by the prophecy of Jacob such as the lion�s whelp for Judah, the wolf for Benjamin and the ship of Zebulon. Greek and Roman literature abounds with examples of devices born on the shields of heroes many of which may still be seen depicted on antique vases. Nor was Asia lacking in such symbols either. The Japanese nobility had developed a system of badges bearing a close similarity to western heraldry. The Chinese dragon and the Chrysanthemum throne of Japan are ancient symbols still in use. Carvings from pre-columbine America reveal portrayals of shields and banners bearing the devices of Aztec chiefs. Even primitive tribes used, and still use, symbols painted or tattooed on the body or carved on the totem pole.  

None of these ancient systems, however, seems to have developed into the sophisticated form of heraldry as we know it today. Hereditary coats of arms unique to a person or family with precise rules as to their usage became manifest in comparatively more recent times and when the idea of hereditary armorial symbols caught the imagination of the knights and nobility, heraldic development was swift and sudden. Some writers of the past maintained that heraldry was as old as time, going so far as to ascribe blazons to the heavenly host before the Creation. Armorial shield and banners were said to be borne by the courtiers of Henry the Fowler and William the Conqueror. The famous Bayeux tapestries depicting the battle of Hastings however prove the opposite. Although shields do carry some form of device, the device is never consistent; appearing in different forms on the same warrior in different parts of the tapestry and none can be identified as recognisable in the generations that succeeded the Norman Conquest. Even as late as the first quarter of the 12th century, the shields of the French knights who were present in Byzantium were described as plain polished metal by the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor, Anna Comnena.

The first to bear arms must surely have been royalty and yet it is not until Richard I in England that we find his arms on a seal. His seal of 1189 shows his shield charged with a lion rampant towards the sinister side although there is some difference of opinion whether one or two lions are depicted since the curvature of the shield distorts the image suggesting two lions face to face or affront�. This however was superseded in 1198 by another seal which showed him with a shield depicting three lions passant guardant which have been borne in the arms of England by his successors ever since.

Well before then, in 1164, the rampant lion had appeared on a seal bearing the arms of Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders. This is the first known example of the arms of Flanders.

The ancient arms of France, the blue shield powdered with golden fleur-de-lis, appear even later. Louis VII, on the anointing of his son, Philip Augustus, ordered that the young prince should be clad in a blue dalmatic and blue shoes, sewn with golden fleur-de-lis, a flower whose name, as "Fleur de Loys", played upon that of his own, and possibly upon his epithet name of Florus. Another seal of the same king has the device of a single lily. The first French royal seal however with the shield bearing fleur-de-lis is that of Louis VIII (1223-1226).

The eagle, the symbol of the Caesars in Rome, may well be as ancient a bearing as any in Europe; Charlemagne, as first Holy Roman Emperor and successor of the Caesars, is said to have used the eagle as his badge. The emperor Henry III (1039-1056) had the sceptre on his seal surmounted by an eagle. At M�lsen in 1080 the emperor's banner is said by William of Tyre to have borne the eagle, and with the beginning of regular heraldry this imperial badge would soon be displayed on a shield. The double-headed or imperial eagle was not seen on an imperial seal until after 1414, when it became the recognised arms of the king of the Romans.

There are, however, earlier examples of shields of arms than any of these. A document of prime importance is that of Jean, a monk of Marmoutier and biographer of Geoffrey of Anjou, describing the marriage of Geoffrey with the Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I, when the king is said to have hung round the neck of his son-in-law a shield with golden "lioncels". Afterwards the monk speaks of Geoffrey in fight, clipeus leunculos aureos imaginarios habens*, having little gold lions figured on a shield. This document seems to be confirmed by two pieces of evidence. The first is the enamelled plate in the museum at Le Mans, said to have been placed over the tomb of Geoffrey after his death in 1151, which shows him bearing a long "shield of azure with six golden lioncels". The second is the well-known fact that Geoffrey's natural grandson, William Longspee, Earl of Salisbury, undoubtedly bore these same arms of the six lions of gold on an azure field, as still to be seen upon his tomb at Salisbury.

Notably, once the implications of the hereditary principles of armorial devices were realised, heraldry appeared swiftly and suddenly in the major countries of Western Europe. This may have coincided with the development of the great orders of chivalry, such as the Knights Hospitaller and Templar, which grew in power and importance in the wake of the Crusades. The gathering together of knights from diverse lands in one place with opportunities for display and pageantry in events such as tournaments was as good a reason as any for the individual symbols of the knights to be brought to some prominence. The heavy armour encasing the entire body together with the closed helm needed that very device to distinguish one combatant in the lists from another.

From the beginning of the 13th century arms upon shields increased in number. Soon most of the great houses of the west displayed them with pride. Leaders in the field, whether of a royal army or of a feudal detachment, saw the military advantage of a custom which made shield and banner items that could be recognised. Although it is probable that armorial bearings had their first place upon the shield, the charges of the shield were found displayed on the knight's long surcoat, his "coat of arms", on his banner or pennon, on the trappings of his horse and even upon the peaks of his saddle. An attempt has been made to connect the rise of heraldry with the adoption of the barrel-shaped close helm; but even when wearing the earlier Norman helmet with its long nasal the knight's face could not be recognised. William the Conqueror, as we know, had to bare his head before he could persuade his men at Hastings that he still lived. Armory satisfied a need which had long been felt. When fully armed, one galloping knight was like another; but friend and foe soon learned that the five gold on blue fusils distinguished Percy from Waldegrave with his silver and red shield.

Yet as much influence in the development of heraldry as any military need was the growth of the custom of sealing deeds and charters. Thus the armorial bearings of the fighting man came to be shared by men and women of peace in every walk of life as well as colleges and corporations.

Arms in stone, wood and brass decorated the tombs of the dead and the houses of the living; they were embroidered in bed-curtains, coverlets and copes, painted on the sails of ships and enamelled upon all manner of artifices created by gold and silversmiths. And, even by warriors, the full splendour of armory was at all times displayed more fully in the fantastic magnificence of the tournament than in the rougher business of war.

There can be little doubt that ancient armorial bearings were chosen at will by the man who bore them, many reasons guiding his choice. Foremost among these must have been the cross as the symbol of Christianity. But symbolism was not necessarily the guiding factor. Bands painted across the shield were chosen because a broad band, aslant or across, is a charge easily recognised. These were the origins of the honourable ordinaries, as we now know them, charges such as the bend and the fess. As symbols were used up, variations were introduced with increasing complexity to ensure the uniqueness of the bearer�s arms. Charges from the natural world were adopted from the earliest times, as we have seen.

The lion, as king of beasts with its noble qualities was chosen by hundreds of knights as their bearing. In ancient shields almost all beasts and birds other than the lion and the eagle played upon the bearer�s name. No object was so humble that it was unwelcome to the knight seeking a pun for his shield. Martell, for example, adopted three hammers, whilst Ferrers chose horseshoes.

Tenants or neighbours of the great feudal lords were wont to make their arms by differencing the lord's shield or by bringing some charge of it into their own bearings. Thus a group of Kentish shields borrowed lions from that of Leyborne, which is azure with six lions argent. Sometimes the lord himself set forth such arms in a formal grant, as when the baron of Greystock granted to Adam of Blencowe a shield in which his own three chaplets are charges. The Whitgreave family of Staffordshire still show a shield granted to their ancestor in 1442 by the earl of Stafford, in which the Stafford red chevron on a golden field is four times repeated.

The gradual abandonment of the suit of armour after the end of the 16th century saw the end to the practical purpose of armory. Far from disappearing however, heraldry became more popular and elaborate. Instead of decorating the fighting man�s armour, it became a decorative art and used widely in stately homes and churches, woven into tapestry or etched on monuments. Marshalling became more complex developing from the early combination of two shields to denote the union of two titles to almost unlimited quarterings which narrate a genealogical history.

The levelling of society in modern times does not appear to have diminished the popularity of heraldry. The proliferation of heraldic sites on the internet proves the opposite. Corporations and companies, no matter how small, take pride in their armorial bearing. One has but to drive through any tiny villages in most European countries to be greeted with a sign flaunting the heraldic device of that village.

Perhaps we need to return to this rich seam of the pageantry of our past to help compensate for the impersonality, uncertainty and transience of modern life.


Illustrations reproduced with gratitude from the following:

Illuminated Letter: Taken from Guillim's A Display of Heraldie on http://www.btinternet.com/~paul.j.grant/guillim/

Funeral plaque of  Geoffrey of Anjou: http://www.heraldica.org/topics/le-mans.htm

Tomb of William of the Long Sword: http://medievalwriting.50megs.com/word/heraldry.htm