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Self-Representation in Heraldry

Origins of Heraldry: War or Tournament

The Components of a Coat of Arms: Shield

The Field of the Shield and Heraldic Tinctures

Self-Representation in Heraldry

The Origins of Heraldry: War or Tournament?

Heraldry, defined as the systematic hereditary use of an arrangement of charges or devices on a shield, emerged at about the same moment in the mid-twelfth century over a wide area of Europe. It is often stated that heraldry in its early stages had strong military associations, and that its original purpose was the identification of knights in armour on the battlefield. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the normal tactic of European warfare was the massed cavalry charge with lance and shield. This great set-piece formation could only be executed once, and if the enemy was not completely overwhelmed by the first charge, the battle then broke up into a hand-to-hand fight where some symbol or device, it is argued, was necessary to identify the combatants since a man in armour was very hard to recognise. Heraldic theorists claimed that a man's arms came to be painted on his shield so that he could be recognised by his followers in battle, and that such a mark of identification became essential after the development of the closed helmet which completely concealed a man's face. This argument has been elaborated to show how heraldry was a product of the feudal system of land-tenure in Europe. A man held his land in return for military service, and was bound by personal allegiance to his lord under whom he must serve in war. Arms came to be used so that knights could be distinguished by their followers' in battle. The hereditary nature of heraldry is also a result of the feudal system. If service in war was the rent by which land was held, the right of inheritance by the natural heir was an understood condition of feudal tenure. At a time when the right to lead or the duty to follow in battle was inherited, the coat of arms was likely to become hereditary too. In this way, it is argued, heraldic devices became a symbol of the owner's identity and also a mark of his status. Knights needed to be distinguished by shields and coats of arms, so arms thus became a mark of knightly status or noble rank.

However, it seems likely that the depiction of arms on a shield was subjective demonstration on the part of individual warriors, a form of individual "vanity" and display rather than a practical military device. Nevertheless, even if marks by which knights and lords might be readily known were not absolutely called for by military needs, the social and military order of the twelfth century was such that, once invented, they found a ready market as military status symbols, and were popularised probably by the tournament rather than in real warfare. The tournament is supposed to have been invented in the mid-eleventh century in France, and it developed as a popular form of regular training in the handling of weapons and horses. It rapidly became highly organised and hedged around with rules and elaborate pageantry. Ambitious knights travelled round Europe fighting in tournaments at fortnightly intervals. It is probable that such itinerant participants in tournaments helped to spread the usages and conventions of heraldry across Europe. Later in the Middle Ages the bearing of arms came to be accepted as an essential prerequisite of participation in a tournament.

The growing importance of military pageantry and its association with the tournament would have excluded those of insufficient social standing who were unable to meet the expense, and this would have helped to restrict the use of arms to the knightly class. Thus, arms came to be seen as a mark of noble status, and were granted by the Holy Roman Emperor and the European kings as a corollary to ennoblement. In early days, however, most arms were self-assumed, and their owners sometimes changed them at will but even in the twelfth century, and before the rapid proliferation of armorial devices led to a growing measure of royal control, there was some equation between nobility of blood and armorial bearings.  This clue suggests an alternative theory for the origins of heraldry. Although heraldry came to have strong military associations, it may have developed from the civil personal mark, the seal device, of certain north European ruling families descended from Charlemagne, who perpetuated some of the administrative organisation and possibly the symbolic devices of his court.  The latter included the sun and the moon, the symbols of the Evangelists: St Mark's lion and St John's eagle, and the fleur-de-lis (which later became the symbol of royalty in France).

Consequently, the origin of heraldry was not Norman but Flemish. The Normans were not in a position to know about the symbolic devices of Charlemagne's court. It is most likely, therefore, that the origins of English and Scottish armory are to be found not in Normandy (the Normans were of mixed Scandinavian and Frankish descent), but in the system adopted by certain ruling families descended from the Emperor Charlemagne, the military and political colossus who ruled the Frankish Empire of northern Europe from 768 to 814. These families perpetuated much of the administrative organisation of the Carolingian Empire, including the use of dynastic and territorial emblems on seals, coinage, customs stamps and flags. There is evidence to suggest that these devices were common to families or groups linked by blood or feudal tenure, and were of necessity hereditary. With the redistribution of lands following the Norman Conquest, the cadets in England of Flemish families who were of Carolingian descent, and the devices used by them, became integrated in Anglo-Norman society. During the first Crusade, only thirty years after the Conquest, the mass cavalry charge of mail-clad knights remained the standard tactic of warfare. Order was maintained in the ensuing fight by the use of mustering flags bearing the personal devices of commanders and it is clear that these were sufficiently distinctive to be recognised, even in the heat of battle. It is likely that they also possessed a peacetime function - that of marking territory and symbolising authority - and that the devices used for this purpose also came to be engraved on seals by which documents were authenticated. The proto-heraldic devices were displayed, not on shields at that stage (many similar shields are shown on the Bayeux Tapestry but rather on seals and banners. Hereditary devices may have been known in 1066, and symbolic banners seem to have been carried at the battle of Hastings and in the First Crusade.

If the undoubted links of the ruling families of Flanders with Charlemagne had any heraldic connotations, the political decline of Flanders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the misfortunes that overwhelmed its ruing houses, would have given their descendants in England an additional urge to preserve their heritage and promote their armorial devices. Whatever its origins, it is clear that what had been, in the late eleventh century, the inheritance of a small group of interrelated families in north-west Europe, spread through the upper ranks of society in the twelfth century. This widespread adoption of colourful devices and symbols was one aspect of the twelfth-century renaissance. Once symbols were transferred to the shield, they gave rise to what is accepted as heraldry, and this practice spread across Europe in a period of less than thirty years.

By the beginning of the thirteenth century, admission to the tournament was established as the prerogative of the knightly class. Heralds were attached to royal or magnatial households as advisers and emissaries and it was they who were responsible for arranging and supervising tournaments: they determined the eligibility of participants and declaimed their prowess, marshalled the contestants and adjudicated at the fight. The heralds thereby acquired an expertise which was peculiarly their own. This was concerned, not only with the management of ceremonial and protocol, but also with the ordering and recording of personal devices used on seals, at tournaments and, increasingly, in warfare and because it was they who exercised this expertise, it became known as "heraldry."

Heralds were the motivating force which enabled armory to develop systematically: it was they who devised its conventions and terminology, and it was they who benefited most from the approbation of the medieval establishment. The earliest recorded seal showing an armorial shield dates from 1136, and thereafter the increasing importance of the shield as a vehicle for armorial display had more to do with the development of armory as a well regulated system than with military expediency. The shield was itself a symbol of the mounted warrior and, while the devices placed upon it were peculiar to the individual, the fact that they were carried on a representation of a shield served to emphasise the status of armiger. Clearly, it was considered both convenient and desirable that an heir, on coming to his estate, shall adopt the same device as his father as a symbol of familial and feudal continuity.

Although there is evidence to suggest that in northern Europe proto-heraldic devices were often adopted by succeeding generations of the same family, the emergence of an hereditary system based on the shield (in other words, armory as it is now defined) is said to date from 1127 when Henry I of England invested his son-in-law, Geoffrey Plantagenet, with a blue shield charged with gold lions. The same shield later appears on the tomb at Salisbury Cathedral of Geoffrey's bastard grandson, William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury (d. 1226) and the device would, therefore, seem to have acquired an hereditary significance. The earliest shields of arms were simple and uncluttered and consisted for the most part of geometrical shapes derived from the practice of decorating the raised ribs, bosses and struts of early wooden shields.

From its simple origins in the twelfth century heraldry developed in complexity and elaboration. By the thirteenth century it was acquiring the rules and terminology which are the basis of its present laws and language. As time passed, it became increasingly complex in its design with the introduction of a number of fabulous and chimerical creatures, and patterns which moved far away from the simple vigorous geometry of the early days. A later development, originating in Spain, was the incorporation of quarterings of other arms inherited via heraldic heiresses, creating ever more complex patterns.

In its early stages heraldry was remarkably uniform throughout Europe. Similar armorial bearings were adopted in the middle of the twelfth century in most western countries. The sudden and widespread emergence of heraldry is thought to have been associated with the Crusades and the rise of tournaments, which brought together knights from all over Latin Christendom, and emphasised the universality of western civilisation. During the thirteenth century the science of heraldry crystallised into approximately the form we know today, with the same range of colours, metals, and furs, and the same rules for marshalling arms. The principle that arms were personal property and could not be used by another was generally accepted throughout most of Europe, though this was only enforced nationally, so that similar arms do appear in different countries. Gradually all the leading ruling houses came to have officers of arms or heralds, whose job it was to regulate heraldry and to record arms.

It is thought that the heralds originated as roving minstrels who attached themselves to tournaments, and gradually acquired special knowledge of arms by this means. As a result they came to exercise supervision over arms, and were called upon to adjudicate in cases of dispute. In the fifteenth century in France and England, the heralds were formed into colleges with permanent headquarters and libraries. The establishment of officers of arms and heraldic records led to the rules of heraldry becoming formalised and regulated, to be handed down from generation to generation in the European kingdoms.

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