What’s on Your Shield? Heraldry in the Middle Ages
by Peggy M. Baker
Heraldry was an art that evolved out of the tourney culture. In the days before military uniforms, unique insignia were a means by which judges could give credit to winners of tourneys. In actual battle, they were vital for identifying friend from foe!
Painted shields (which were originally made of boiled leather with metal fittings on wooden frames) were at first just randomly decorated, but by the twelfth century, nobles began using particular emblems such as the lion (heraldic leopards or lions) of the Plantagenet monarchs or the fleur-de-lis of the French Capet monarchs. Over time, armorial family insignia were increasingly used to embrace the culture of Chivalry.
Heralds had a number of responsibilities, such as carrying messages or singing the praises of their lords (minstrels and heralds were considered interchangeable early on). Being able to identify each participant in a tournament or battle by his armorial device and later report on his successes and deeds was a primary function.
Eventually the rules of heraldry, the foremost of which was that only one family or mesnie could carry a particular coat of arms, were codified as to what was a proper “blazon” or design, and the right to bear arms at all. This was overseen by the “kings” of heraldry in the “Court of the Lord High Constable and the Earl Marshal,” later called the Court of Chivalry.
There were, for example, only seven “tinctures” or colors allowed. There were two “metals”: gold (or, symbolizing nobility) and silver (argent, symbolizing sincerity), and five nonmetallic colors: blue (azure, symbolizing loyalty), red (gules, symbolizing prowess), purple (purpure, symbolizing generosity), black (sable, symbolizing constancy), and green (vert, symbolizing hope and loyal love). There was also a similar list of acceptable geometric patterns, furs, birds, beasts etc. The lists grew exponentially as time went on.
The early royal Plantaganet coats of arms were characterized by various arrangements of Angevin lioncels on a gules (red) shield.
Henry II’s armorial blazon (the verbal description of the arms) was: Gules, two lions passant guardant in pale Or. This translates into a red (gules) shield or field with two horizontal lions, one above the other (pale), viewed from the side (passant), with the lions facing the viewer (guardant) and colored gold (Or). Queen Eleanor’s blazon had a single identical lion (Gules, a lion passant guardant in pale Or).
Their son Richard had several possible blazons. One was the same as his father’s. Another had either one or two Lion(s) rampant contourné; vertical (rampant) lions seen in side view and not facing the viewer (contourné). A third had three horizontal lions (Gules, three lions passant guardant Or) as shown above. John, Henry III, Edward I, and Edward II each had the same Gules, three lions passant guardant Or.
Edward III began with the described traditional arms, but in 1340 adopted a new blazon that including the French arms. Edward, the only surviving grandson of Philip IV of France, was claiming the throne of France as an inheritance through his mother, Isabella of France. The Hundred Years War begins!
Edward III’s new arms are “quartered.” Quartering was a way of combining two or more separate arms on a single shield. The quarters are not numbered in clockwise fashion! Instead, the top left is #1 and top right #2; then its back to the left, bottom is #3 and bottom right #4.
Edward’s armorial blazon is: Quarterly, 1st and 4th, Azure, semée of fleurs de lys Or, and 2nd and 3rd, Gules, three lions passant guardant Or. The first and fourth quarters, the French royal arms, are blue (azure) with a sprinkling (semée) of gold (Or) fluers de lys. The second and third quarters, the English royal arms, are red (gules), with three lions viewed from the side (passant) and facing the viewer (guardant), and colored gold (Or).
Coats of arms were, of course, not just for monarchs. Other noblemen also had their own individual arms. William Marshal’s was an early, simple and powerful device: Party per pale or and vert, a lion rampant gules. Translated, this is a shield divided in two vertically (party per pale), one side gold and one half green (or and vert), a lion rampant red (gules).
Many knights, even into the 15th century, continued to carry relatively simple coats of arms.
Some knights, however, began to use their coats of arms less as identification in tournaments and battle, and more as a statement of their lofty genealogy and significant territorial holdings. The son of a long line of noble fathers and an equally long line of noble mothers might have a coat of arms depicting all the arms that all his noble ancestors were entitled to bear. Eventually, some coats of arms became incredibly complex – and no longer quite as useful for identification in the heat of battle!
In the days of the Tudors, the genealogical pretensions implicit in some coats of arms were taken very seriously. Henry VIII charged Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, with treason. The grounds were that Howard had illegally used the arms of King Edward the Confessor as part of his own blazon, thereby confirming that he had pretensions to the throne of England. Howard made the argument that King Richard II had granted his ancestor, Thomas Mowbray, the right to carry the arms of Edward the Confessor and that the right had, therefore, descended to him. This had, indeed, happened. Henry VIII, however, was not having any of it! Howard was a man of ambition, violence and noble blood and Henry VIII was very concerned about the peaceful succession of his own young son Edward. Henry Howard was executed.
In the centuries since, heraldry has continued to evolve in more peaceful ways. The College of Arms, which was formed by Richard III in 1484, is still in existence – and still in charge! There are three levels of heralds. The highest ranking are the “Kings of Arms” (Garter King, Clarenceux King, and Norroy and Ulster King); then the “Heralds” (Lancaster, Richmond, Somerset, Windsor, York and Chester); and the most junior, the “Pursuivants” (Portcullis, Rouge Croix, Rouge Dragon and Bluemantle). They are regarded as members of the Royal Household and are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Earl Marshal, the 18th Duke of Norfolk.
Arms are granted by the Kings of Arms under the authority of the Queen. The College of Arms also designs the arms (in consultation with the applicant), maintains the official registers of family trees, conducts genealogical research, and carries out certain ancient ceremonial duties such as organizing the annual procession and service of the “Sovereign and Knights Companion of the Order of the Garter.”
It is worth noting that, contrary to the popular advertisements for “Coats of Arms for YOUR Surname,” the College of Arms says firmly that there is no such thing as a coat of arms for a generic surname. Arms belong to specific individuals and, for “any person to have a right to a coat of arms they must either have had it granted to them or be descended in the legitimate male line from a person to whom arms were granted or confirmed in the past.” If, however, you succumb to the lure of fantasy nobility, you can still sleep at nights. The days of Henry Howard are far, far in the past!