Heraldry is a colourful European system of personal “logos”, somewhat akin to the commercial trade-mark system but far older, and oriented to individuals and families rather than to business. Heraldry has often been called “the shorthand of history”. Anyone who keeps his eyes open cannot move far in our country without seeing numerous heraldic reminders of people who live or used to live in a locality, or are otherwise associated with it.
In some nations with republican constitutions, displays of heraldic arms no longer have any official status; but in Britain these matters continue to be codified and controlled by law. English heraldry (the Scots have a separate system) is regulated under powers delegated by the sovereign to the hereditary Earl Marshal of England.
Heraldry has in fact been showing more staying-power than monarchy in practice. France is a nation that takes its republicanism more seriously than many, and I believe that the French Republic does not make new grants of arms, but it does give legal protection to existing arms — a dispute over entitlement to an important French coat was resolved in a Paris tribunal and appeal court around the turn of the present century. (Jacques Descheemaeker wrote about present-day French heraldic law in The Armorial, vol. 1, pp. 206–10, 1960.) The Republic of Ireland has continued to appoint heralds and grant arms since independence from Britain; it recently caused a minor flutter by appointing a lady herald, probably an international first. As Eastern European countries clamber out from the quagmire of communism, many of them have been re-establishing their own heraldic authorities. I only know of one major Western nation whose law does not seem to recognize heraldry at all, namely the United States of America – but even there, many Americans do use arms granted by other jurisdictions. Thus, early presidents inherited, and used, arms from their British forefathers (George Washington’s mullets and bars formed the basis of the U.S. flag), and recent presidents have received grants from various European authorities. Ronald Reagan’s coat was conferred by the Spanish King of Arms. Bill Clinton’s lion barry gules and argent was granted by the Irish Republic.
Heraldry originated during the Crusades, when armoured knights found it convenient to be able to recognize one another at a glance in the heat of battle. When a crusader returned from the wars, he would hang up his fighting kit in his hall as a public reminder of his great days. A present-day Englishman’s full heraldic “achievement” is a stylized representation of a crusader’s gear, consisting minimally of the following elements:
The functions of shield and helmet as fighting equipment are obvious. The design on the shield is the chief distinctive element of the system: if everyone obeys the rules, no two males will ever simultaneously use the same coat or shield design. (Unmarried sisters are the only people who are heraldically indistinguishable, in the English system. The Canadian heraldic authority has introduced new rules under which even they can differentiate themselves.) Helmets distinguish ranks: commoners, knights, barons, and so forth each have their own helmet design.
The mantling is the cloth which a crusader wore to protect his neck from the fierce sun of the Holy Land. Conventionally, one’s mantling is shown slashed to ribbons by the blades of the Saracens one faced and vanquished, and the ragged remains are deployed as a graphic element which is used to surround and soften the hard outlines of shield and helmet.
The crest is a sort of finial, originally probably made of painted leather, placed on top of the helmet like the cherry on a sundae. Again, each armigerous family has a unique crest. (At least, that is so in English heraldry — in Scotland I believe it is permissible for two families with distinct coats to use identical crests.)
Finally, the torse or wreath represents the token which the crusader’s lady-love gave him when he left for the wars, a sort of hankie which he twisted round the top of his helmet, masking the join where the crest was fixed to it.
The two chief colours from the design on the shield are the family’s livery colours; the mantling and torse are conventionally shown in those colours.
A sixth item which is technically not part of the achievement, but is commonly displayed together with it, is the motto — a short phrase having some significance for the family which uses it. The first mottoes were war-cries which a leader shouted to rally his troops to him.
In practice, depicting all elements of the achievement would be “over the top” in many situations where heraldry is used. For many purposes, people limit themselves to showing one of the distinctive elements: the shield, or the crest sitting on its torse.
There is a complex body of rules, with minor differences from nation to nation, governing the construction of heraldic designs; and, because heraldry is oriented to families and genealogy, there are many rules governing the interaction of family relationships with shield designs. Brothers distinguish themselves from one another and from their father by adding “marks of difference” to their basic coat. Husband and wife symbolize their union by shields which link the coats of their respective families. In one brief Web page it is not possible to go into these matters in detail. (If you are interested, there is a page on this website which contains the draft of an article I wrote recently for a NADFAS church recorders’ magazine about surprising family implications in heraldic memorials at a Sussex parish church.)
People who happen not to be interested in heraldry themselves sometimes take it to be an outdated, moribund system. In reality, the subject has been more vibrant over the past fifty years than for a long time previously. Until 2003 I was working in a School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences with about fifty members; I was struck at the time by the realization that three of us, quite independently of one another, have cultivated heraldic interests to the extent of engaging in serious scholarly research on aspects of the topic. (For my own research, see e.g. Sampson 2000, 2001, 2002.)
From a linguistic point of view, a particularly interesting aspect of heraldry is the language of blason in which an individual’s achievement is defined. To understand the role of blason, it is important to bear in mind that (unlike modern logos) heraldry stems from a time when graphic displays were hand-painted. Exact reproduction of designs was neither possible nor seen as desirable. If your arms included, say, a lion, different heraldic artists might have their own ideas about how to make it look suitably fierce and impressive — there were no prizes for mechanically copying what some earlier artist had produced. But, if different instances of a man’s arms were not required to be identical, yet many thousands of people needed to be sure that their arms were distinct from all the others’, there had to be some way to decide which designs “counted as the same” and which “counted as different”.
The language of blason supplies this need. When someone is granted arms, the elements of his achievement are specified in a formal phraseology. Any similar design that could be blasoned in the same words counts as the same, even if it looks rather different, and the rightful user of the arms would have a good case in the Court of Chivalry against anyone displaying that similar design. Conversely, a small visual difference which would imply different wording in the blason makes the arms different. An information technology specialist might say that the language of blason digitizes the analogue information in the visual display.
As an example, my own family arms can be blasoned as follows:
Or englandé Vert on a fess Sable a cross moline square pierced Gold
and for the crest upon a helm with a wreath Or and Sable
within a circlet of alternating mayflowers Argent and roses also Argent barbed and seeded proper a demi angel proper vested Argent winged Or holding in the dexter hand a hammer and in the sinister a pair of tongs Sable
This blason translates into the following display:
(The heraldic shorthand for “scattered with acorns” is standardly spelled englanté, but the spelling with D is better-founded etymologically — from French gland, “acorn” — and creates a satisfying verbal link between our family’s green acorns and England’s green and pleasant land. I am grateful to the heraldic artist John Ferguson for permission to display his beautiful rendering of our arms.)
Until his recent death, the individual entitled to use these arms as they stand was my father, as head of the Sampson family. When I displayed arms “in my own right”, I added a comb-shaped element called a label at the top of the shield; this is a conventional mark of difference for the eldest son of a family head. The shape of a heraldic label, I believe, derives from the special decorative reins used on horses when knights jousted at tournaments. A middle-aged man might be glad to display his war kit in his hall and, doubtless, bore the pants off his neighbours with reminiscences of his great feats at Antioch or Acre, but the idea seems to have been that when it came to sporting tournaments, he would send his boy out to represent the family honour.
Now that Dad has gone, I in my turn use the plain coat without the label.
Recently it has become somewhat unfashionable to display personal arms. In modern times, institutions such as universities, county councils, even some commercial companies have been granted their own arms, and these are quite widely used; but institutional heraldry is far less interesting and on the whole less attractive, in my opinion, than personal heraldry. Personal arms are a way of asserting the significance of individuals, families, and nations in a greyly bureaucratic and globalized society.
last changed 17 Mar 2013