see it clearly

History of Armorial Bearings

See your own family crest for free. Enter your surname below.

Although the word heraldry properly belongs to all the business of the herald, it has long attached itself to that which in earlier times was known as armory, the science of armorial bearings.

Part of a Roll of Arms

In all ages and in all quarters of the world distinguishing symbols have been adopted by tribes or nations, by families or by chieftains. Greek and Roman poets describe the devices borne on the shields of heroes, and many such painted shields are pictured on antique vases. Rabbinical writers have supported the fancy that the standards of the tribes set up in their camps bore figures devised from the prophecy of Jacob, the ravening wolf for Benjamin, the lion's shelp for Judah and the ship of Zebulon. In the East we hav such ancient symbols as the five-clawed dragon of the Chinese empire and the chrysanthemum of the emperor of Japan. In Japan, indeed, the systematized badges borne by the noble clans may be regarded as akin to the heraldry of the West, and the circle withthe three asarum leaves of the Tokugawa shoguns has been made as familiar to us by Japanese lacquer and procelain as the red pellets of the Medici by old Italian fabrics. Before the landing of the Spaniards in Mexica the Aztec chiefs carried shields and banners, some of whose devices showed after the fashion of a phonetic writing the names of their bearers; and the eagle on the new banner of Mexico may be traced to the eagle that was once carved over the palace of Montezuma. That mysterious business of totemism, which students of folk-lore have discovered among most primitive peoples, must be regarded as another of the fore-runners of true heraldry, the totem of a tribe supplying a badge which was sometimes displayed on the body of the tribesman in paint, scars or tattooing. Totemism so far touches our heraldry that some would trace to its symbols the white horse of Westphalia, the bull's head of the Mechlenburgers and many other ancient armories.

When true heraldry begins in Western Europe nothing is more remarkable than the suddenness of its development, once the idea of hereditary armorial symbols was taken by the nobles and knights. Its earliest examples are probably still to be discovered by research, but certain notes may be made which narrow the dates between which we must seeks its origin. The older writers on heraldry, lacking exact archaeology, were wont to carry back the beginnings to the dark ages, even if they lcked the assurance of those who distributed blazons among the angelic host before the Creation. Even in our own times old misconceptions give ground slowly. Georg Ruexner's "Thurnier Buck" of 1522 is still cited for its evidence of the tournament laws of Henry the Fowler, by which those who would contend in tournaments were forced to show four generations of arms-bearing ancestors. Yet modern criticism has shatters the elaborated fiction of Ruexner. In England many legends survive of arms borne by the Conqueror and his companions. But nothing is more certain than that neither armorial banners nor shields of arms were borne on either side at Hastings. The famous record of the Bayeux tapestry shows shields which in some cases suggest rudely devised armorial bearings, but in no case can a shild be identified as one which is recognized int he generations after the Conquest. So far is the idea of personal arms from the artist, that the same warrior, seen in different parts of the tapestry's history, has his shield with differing devices. A generation later, Anna Comnena, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor, describing the shields of the French knights who came to Constantinople, tells us that their polished faces were plain.

Sixteen Shields from a Roll of Arms

Of all men, kings and princes might be the first to be found bearing arms. Yet the first English sovereign who appears on his great seal with arms on his shield is Richard 1. His seal of 1189 shows his shild charged with a lion ramping towards the sinister side. Since on half only is seen of the rounded face of the shield, English antiquaries have perhaps too hastily suggested that the whole bearing was two lions face to face. But the mounted figure of Philip of Alsace, count of Flanders, on his seal of 1164 bears a like shild charged with a like lion, and in this case another shield on the conterseal makes it clear that this is the single lion of Flanders. Therefore we may take it that, in 1189, King Richards bore arms of a lion rampant, while, nine years later, another seal shows him with a shield of the familiar bearings which have been borne as the arms of England by each one of his successors.

That seal of Philip of Alsace is the earliest known example of the arms of the great counts of Flanders. The ancient arms of the kings of France, the blue shield powdered with golden fleurs-de-lys, appear even later. Louis le Jeune, ont he crowning of his son Philip Augustus, ordered that the young prince should be clad in a blue dalmatic and blue shoes, sewn with golden fleurs-de-lys, a flower whose name, as "Fleur de Loys," played upon that of his own, and possible upon his epithet name of Florus. A seal of the same king has the device of a single lily. But the first French royal seal with the shield of the lilies is that of Louis VIII. (1223-1226). The eagle of the emperors may well be a ancient a bearing as any in Europe, seeing that Charlemagne is said, as thecussessor of the Caesars, to have used the eagle as his badge. The emperor Henry III. (1039-1056) has the sceptre on his seal surmounted by an eagle; in the 12th century the eagle was embroidered upon the imperial gloves. At Molsen 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 eagle is not seen on an imperial seal until after 1414, whenthe bird with one neck becomes the recognized arms of the king of the Romans.

Shields of Roll of Arms

There are, however, earlier examples of shields of arms than any of these. A document of the importance is the description by John of Marmoustier of the marriage of Geoffrey of Anjou with Maude the empress, 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 to Geoffrey in fight, "pictos leones preferens in clypeo." Two notes may be added to this account. The first is that the enamelled plate now in the museum at Le Mans, which is said to have been placed over the tomb of Geoffrey after his death in 1151, shows him bearing a long shield of azure with six golden lioncels, thus confirming the monk's story. The second is the well-known fact that Geoffrey's bastard grandson, William with the Long Sword, undoubtedly bore these same arms of the six lions of gold in a blue field, even as they are still to be seen upon his tomb at Salisbury. Some ten years before Richard I. seals witht he three leopards, his brother John, count of Martain, is found using seal upon which he bears to leopards, arms which later tradition assigns to the ancient dukes of Normandy and to their descendants the kings of England before Henry II., who is said to have added the third leopard in right of his wife, a legend of no value. Mr. Round has pointed out that Gilbert of Clare, earl of Hertford, who died in 1152, bears on his seal to a document sealed after 1138 and not later than 1146, the three cheverons afterwards so well known in England as the bearings of his successors. An old drawing of the seal of his uncle Gilbert, earl of Pembroke (Lansdowne MS. 203), shows a cheveronny shield used between 1138 and 1148. At some date between 1144 and 1150, Waleran, count of Meulan, shows on his seal a pennon and saddle-cloth with a checkered pattern: the house of Warenne, sprung from his mother's son, bore shilds checky of gold and azure. If we may trust the inventory of Norman seals made by M. Demay, a careful antiquary, there is among the archives of the Manche a grant by Eudes, seigneur du Pont, sealed with a seal and conterseal of arms, to which M. Demay gives a date as early as 1128. The writer has not examined this seal, the earliest armorial evidence of which he has any knowlege, but it may be remarked that the arms are described as varying on the seal and conterseal, in significant touch of primitive armory. Another type of seal common in this 12th century shows the personal device which had not yet developed into an armorial charge. A good example is that of Enguerrand de Candavene, count of St. Pol, where, although the shield of the horseman is uncharged, sheaves of oats, playing on his name, are strewn at the foot of the seal. Five of these sheaves were the arms of Candevene when the house came to display arms. In the same fashion three different members of the family of Armenteres in England show one, two or three swords upon their seals, but here the writer has no evidence of a coat of arms derived from these devices.

From the beginning of the 13th century arms upon shields increase in number. Soon the most of the great houses of the west display them with pride. Leaders in the filed, whether of a royal army or of a dozen spears, saw the military advantage of a custom which made shield and banner things that might be recognized in the press. Although it is probably that armorial bearings have their first place upon the shield, the charges of the shield are found displayed on the kinght's long surcoat, his "coat of arms," on his banner or pennon, on the trappers of his horse and even upon the peaks of his saddle. An attempt has been made to connect the rise of armory 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 was not to be recognized. 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 gold and blue checkers meant that Warenne was in the field and that the gold and red vair was for Ferrers. Earl Simon at Evesham sent up his barber to a spying place and, as the barber named in turn the banners which had come up against him, he knew that his last fight was at hand. In spite of these things the growth of the custom of sealing deeds and charters had at least as much influence in the development of armory as any military need. By this way, women and clerks, citizens and men of peace, corporations and colleges, came to share with the fighting man in the use of armorial bearings. Arms in stone, wood and brass decorated the tombs of the dead and the houses of the living; they were broidered in bed-curtains, coverlets and copes, painted on the sails of ships and enamelled upon all manner of goldsmiths' and silversmiths' work. And, even by warriors, the full splendour of armory was at all times displayed more fully in the fantastic maginficence of the tournament than in the rougher business of war.

Beginning of a Roll of Arms

There can be little doubt that ancient armorial bearings were chosen at will by the man who bore them, many reasons guilding his choice. Crosses in plenty were taken. Old writers have asserted that these crosses commemorate the badge of the crusaders, yet the fact that the cross was the symbol of the faith was reason enough. No symbolism can be found in such charges as bends and fesses; they are on the shield becvause a broad band, aslant or athwart, is a charghe easily recognized. Medieval wisdom gave every noble and magnanimous quality to the lion, and therefore this beast is chosen by hundreds of knights as their bearing. We have already seen how the arms of a Candavene play upon his name. Such an example was imitated on all sides. Salle of Bedfordshire has two salamanders saltirewise; Belet has his namesake the weasel. In ancient shields almost all the beasts and birds other than the lion and the eagle play upon the bearers name. No object is so humble that it is unwelcome to the knight seeking a pun for his shield. Trivet has a three-legged trivet; Trumpington two trumps; and Montbocher three pots. The legends which assert that certain arms were "won in the Holy Land" or granted by ancient kings for heroic deeds in the field are for the most part worthless fancies.

Tenants and 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 borrow lions from that of Leyborne, which is azure with six lions of silver. Shirland of Minster bore the same arms differenced with an ermine quarter. Detling had the silver lions in a sable field. Rokesle's lions are azure in a golden field with a fesse of gules between them; while Waterinbury has six sable lions in a field of azure. The Vipont ring or annelet is in several shields of Westmorland knights, and the cheverons of Clare, the cinquefoil badge of Beaumont and the sheaves of Chester can be traced in the coats of many of the followers of those houses. Sometimes the lord himself set forth such arms in a formal grant, as when the baron of Greystock grants to Adam of Blencow a shield in which his own three chaplets are charges. The Whitgreave family of Staffordshire still show a shild granted to their ancestor in 1442 by the earl of Stafford, in which the Stafford red cheveron on a golden field is four times repeated.