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Modern Heraldry

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With the accession of the Tudors armory began a rapid decadence. Heraldry ceased to play its part in military affairs, the badges and banners under which the medieval noble’s retinue came into the field were banished, and even the tournament in its later days became a renascence pageant which did not need the painted shield and armorial trappers. Treatises on armory had been rare in the days before the printing press, but even so early a writer as Nicholas Upton had shown himself as it were unconcerned with the heraldry that any than might see in the camp and the street.

Modern Heraldry

From the Book of St Albans onward the treatises on armory are informed with a pedantry which touches the point of crazy mysticism in such volumes as that of Sylvanus Morgan. Thus came into the books those long lists of diminutions of ordinaries, the closets and escarpes, the endorses and ribands, the many scores of strange crosses and such wild fancies as the rule, based on an early German pedantry, that the tinctures in peers shields should be ‘given the names of precious stones and those in the shields of sovereigns the names of planets, Blazon became encumbered with that vocabulary whose French of Stratford atte Bowe has driven serious students from a business which, to use a phrase as true as it is hackneyed, was at last "abandoned to the coach painter and the undertaker."

With the false genealogy came in the assumption or assigning of shields to which the new bearers had often no better claim than lay in a surname resembling that of the original owner. The ancient system of differencing arms disappeared. Now and again we see a second son obeying the book rules and putting a crescent in his shield or a third son displaying a molet, but long before our own times the practice was disregarded, and the most remote kinsman of a gentle house displayed the “whole coat “ of the head of his family.

The art of armory had no better fate. An absurd rule current for some three hundred years has ordered that the helms of princes and knights should be painted full-faced and those of peers and gentlemen sidelong. Obeying this, the herald painters have displayed the crests of knights and princes as sideways upon a full-faced helm; the wreath, instead of being twisted about the brow of the helm, has become a sausage-shaped bar see-sawing above the helm; and upon this will be balanced a crest which might puzzle the ancient craftsman to mould in his leather or parchment. A ship on a lee-shore with a thunderstorm lowering above its masts may stand as an example of such devices.

As with the crest, so with the shield. It became crowded with ill-balanced figures devised by those who despised and ignored the ancient examples whose painters had followed instinctively a simple and pleasant convention. Landscapes and seascapes, musical lines, military medals and corrugated boiler-flues have all made their appearance in the shield. Even as on the signs of public houses, written words have taken the place of figures, and the often-cited arms exemplified to the first Earl Nelson marked, it may be hoped, the high watermark of these distressing modernisms. Of late years, indeed, official armory in England has shown a disposition to follow the lessons of the archaeologist, although the recovery of medieval use has not yet been as successful as in Germany, where for a long generation a school of vigorous armorial art has flourished.