Military history

On Heraldry and Heralds

It is as well to begin by defining precisely what is meant by the word heraldry. Dictionaries usually refer to it as the art of the herald or, more helpfully, the art or science of armorial bearings, armoury being the medieval term for heraldry (Old French armoirie); but heraldry is perhaps best described as a system for identifying individuals by means of distinctive hereditary insignia, this system originating in western Europe during the Middle Ages. From archaeological sources we know that insignia have been used on the shields of warriors to identify individuals in battle since classical times—as early as circa 800 B.C. the Phrygians were using geometric and stylized floral designs on their shields—so what is it that makes medieval heraldry unique? The phrase ‘distinctivehereditaryinsignia’ contains the key, for all true heraldry is hereditary, that is the insignia are inherited without alteration by the heirs of the former bearers.

As far as can be ascertained, heraldry first appeared about the middle of the 12th century and flourished during the 13th and 14th centuries. The shapes of the shields used during these centuries made it necessary for the heralds and painters to adapt the natural forms used as insignia to fit irregular spaces, and the insignia therefore assumed a symbolic rather than natur-alistic appearance. Any study of heraldry soon reveals a considerable difference between the simple forms used in the early days and the more perfect and intricate forms of the later days. The almost ascetic style of the early years identifies the true medieval heraldry.


The effigy of a member of the Bowes family in the church of Dalton-le-Dale, Co. Durham, showing the tight-waisted jupon. The arms are another example of canting arms: Ermine, three bows bent and stringed, paleways in fess gules.

As more and more knights, and their sons, were granted the right to bear arms, so the insignia became by necessity more complex. However, by circa 1500 the original purposes for which heraldry had been introduced (on shields, surcoats, horse trappers and banners, to distinguish combatants in war and in tournaments, and on seals as marks of identity instead of signatures) were becoming obsolete. After the turn of the century the insignia began to be more and more complex, assuming naturalistic forms rather than the traditional symbolic ones. When this occurred, by about 1550, the era of true heraldry had ended and thereafter the science declined: seals were no longer so important because of the spread of literacy, and identification was now achieved on the battlefield by the use of flags, and in the tournament by the use of crests.

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Coats of arms were at first used only by kings and princes, then by their great nobles. By the mid-13th century arms were being used extensively by the lesser nobility, knights and those who later came to be styled gentlemen, and, as mentioned above, in some countries the use of arms spread to merchants and townspeople, and even to the peasantry. Anyone who wished to have a coat of arms just invented one, though often it would be based on the arms of his overlord.

All these arms were assumptive arms, i.e. assumed without reference to any higher authority by the bearer in order to distinguish his person and property. This practice inevitably led to a certain amount of duplication of armorial bearings, and as more and more men assumed arms so matters became more confused.

Heralds had existed since possibly as early as 1132, but their duties in the beginning had consisted only of extolling the deeds of knights at tournaments. They were soon responsible for proclaiming and organizing these tournaments, so popular in the 12th century, and consequently became heraldry experts whose job it was to identify the contestants by the insignia painted on their shields and banners. These heralds were more akin to minstrels at this date, wandering from country to country in pursuit of the tournaments, and so getting to know everyone of importance throughout Europe. From this familiarity with the great men of their time sprang their usefulness to military commanders, and medieval manuscripts mention heralds being present at the battles of Drincourt (1173) and Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), though there is no mention of heralds in royal service until the end of the 13th century.

The military value of men who could identify the contingents of an opposing army by the shields and banners of their lords speaks for itself, and almost every knight was soon employing a herald, no matter how small the force he commanded. The duty of these heralds was to be near their lord constantly (on campaign they lodged in their lord’s tent) so as to be on hand to answer at once any query on the identity of a knight, and by the beginning of the 14th century this had caused their elevation from wandering minstrels to appointed officials and confidants of the nobles’ households; by the middle of the century heralds in France and England had acquired a settled status. However, in Germany heralds were slow to acquire any official recognition and as late as at least 1338 no clear division existed between minstrels and heralds; a wardrobe account of that year records payments to the King of Heralds of Germany and ten other minstrels of Germany for making minstrelsy before the king at Christmas.

By the mid-14th century heralds were being continuously employed by the kings and princes of Europe, both in peacetime and in time of war. In fact their dual rôle as herald and envoy with diplomatic immunity was to become incompatible by the end of the century. A letter written circa 1400 by the Anjou King of Arms highlights the problem, for it deplores the way in which pursuivants (literally the rank below herald) abused their immunity to spy out the military plans of their master’s enemies.

To mark their office heralds wore on their livery the arms of the lord they served. Later they were also to become responsible for organizing the marriages and funerals of the nobility, as well as other ceremonies and pageants. Nevertheless, despite their status and undoubted importance in all matters related to heraldry, until the late 14th century the English heralds at least had no control over the design of arms or who bore them, being responsible only for recording and identifyings the various coats of arms.


An inn sign (the Tabard Inn in Gloucester) illustrating the form and decoration of the tabard of an English herald. Such examples of heraldry may be found all around us even today.

By the first quarter of the 14th century two trains of thought appear to have emerged concerning the use of armorial bearings: firstly, that such arms might be assumed by any man; and secondly, that the bearing of such arms must be the exclusive right of the nobility if heraldry was to function. The first known reference to a challenge over the right to bear particular arms occurs in a German document of 1286. In England the first such dispute was in 1348, before a Court of Law. This dispute was between Nicholas, Lord Burnell, and Robert, Lord Morley, and was tried by the Lord High Constable and Earl Marshal of England during the siege of Calais.

A more famous and prolonged case occurred between the years 1385 and 1390 when the Grosvenor, Scrope and Carminow families all claimed the ancient right to bear Azure, a bend or. No mention is made of heralds being involved in the allocation of these arms, or being involved in the dispute over them; the case was tried by the Court of Chivalry, a pre-heraldic court presided over by the Constable and Marshal, whose original roles had been to deal with military matters and disputes affecting dignity and honour. Grosvenor won and Carminow conceded defeat, but Scrope appealed to the sovereign, Richard II.

Although heralds were not involved in this case, we know that from at least the 14th century the English Kings of Heralds (later called Kings of Arms) and their heralds were making surveys or collections of the existing arms within their provinces, and the case of Scrope v. Grosvenor may well have arisen from such a survey, which would have revealed the duplication of arms and called for a settlement. The English Kings of Arms at this time were Clarenceux, responsible for all England south of the Trent, and Norrey, responsible for all England north of the Trent. The anonymous Rolls of Arms which have been handed down to us were probably compiled by the early heralds and Kings of Arms when they were attempting to regularize English heraldry.

By the 15th century the Kings of Arms were required to take an oath on assuming office to the effect that they would do their utmost ‘to have knowledge of all the noble gentlemen within their marches and them with their issue truly register such arms as they bear’.

The disputes mentioned above, and no doubt many others of shorter duration, made it necessary that some authority should be set up which could relieve the sovereign of the task of regulating the bearing of arms, assigning arms when applications were considered worthy, and preventing the unlawful assumption of those arms by others.


The Tudor badges of rose, portcullis, pomegranate and fleur-de-lys on the Houses of Parliament.

In France a College of Heralds was created in Paris by Charles VI in 1407, the head of this organization being known as Montjoie, King of Arms, with ten heralds and pursuivants under him. We know Jacques de Heilly held the post of Montjoie at Agincourt nine years later, and wore the arms of France on his herald’s coat. A Maréchal d’Armes des Français was appointed by Charles VIII in 1489. However, the French heralds were always strictly controlled by the king, who was the only person allowed to grant a coat of arms, while Parliament decided cases of heraldic disputes, thus relegating the heralds to the rôle of technical advisers. By the beginning of the 17th century the College had become totally ineffective and was abolished in 1792 owing to the Revolution, as was the science of heraldry itself. This has led to the anomaly of France, whose language is the language of heraldry, having no regulated system of heraldry today.


A pavise of circa 1490 bearing the arms of Ravensburg in Württemberg: Argent, a castle sable.


The rising sun badge of Edward III, still in use today as an inn sign.

In 1417 Henry V of England sent Letters Patent to sheriffs of three counties declaring that ‘whereas in recent expeditions abroad many persons had taken to themselves Arms and tunics of Arms called “Cotearmures” which neither they nor their ancestors had used in time past, no man of whatever rank should henceforth take arms unless he possessed them by ancestral right or by the grant of some person having authority sufficient thereunto’. That same year Henry created a new heraldic officer, Garter Principal King of Arms of Englishmen, whose province was the whole of England and Wales and who was responsible for issuing Patents of Arms for peers.

Shortly after these steps, Thomas, Duke of Clarence and brother to Henry V, appears to have issued ordinances which granted to the Kings of Arms the right to assign arms to persons within their provinces. The oldest known Patent issued by a King of Arms is dated 10 March 1439, and was issued by Sir William Bruges, first Garter King of Arms, to the Drapers’ Company of London.

In 1484 Richard III by Royal Charter incorporated the College of Arms, or Heralds’ College, which controls the use of armorial bearings in England (and Wales officially) to this day. The College of Arms is presided over by the Earl Marshal and apart from the three Kings of Arms it has six heralds—Somerset, Chester, Windsor, Richmond, Lancaster and York; and four pursuivants—Rouge Croix, Rouge Dragon, Portcullis and Bluemantle. The Court of Lord Lyon (King of Arms) in Scotland is in fact pre-heraldic. It has three heralds—Albany, Marchmont and Rothesay; and three pursuivants—Carrick, Unicorn and Kintyre. The office of Ulster King of Arms was instituted in 1553 and existed until 1940, when it was amalgamated with Norrey King of Arms. The office of Ireland King of Arms existed for a short period only prior to 1553.

In Portugal heralds were introduced during the reign of James I (1385–1433). A complete record of the arms of the nobility was drawn up in 1509 by the King of Arms, and Portuguese heraldry continued to be regulated by the heralds until 1910, when the monarchy was replaced by a republic.

German heralds were active and effective in the medieval period but had become extinct by the 1700s. It is significant that there was no word in the German language for herald until the Renaissance, the term Knappen von der Wappen (esquires of arms) being used instead. The German ‘Knappen’ only broke from their wandering life by taking employment with the Tourney Societies, and in many German states the heralds never attained a position at court, the regulation of heraldry being handled by clerks under the court chancellor.


The Spanish heralds, like the French, seem to have been relegated to a secondary rôle by the kings of the various kingdoms, arms being granted by the kings and cases of duplication of arms being settled by the kings, the heralds playing only a consultant rôle. This was also the case in Denmark, where there was no official body of heralds, and arms were assumed or granted by the king by Letters of Patent.

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