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Self-Representation in Heraldry



Armory as Self-Representation


A banner is a square or oblong flag emblazoned with the arms (i.e. the devices which appear on the shield, though not the shield itself and never the crest and its appendages). This was the principal personal flag used throughout the Middle Ages by the nobility down to the knights banneret. To be deprived of it was considered a disgrace. Unlike the livery flags only one banner would be taken into battle and this would accompany the armiger wherever he went. In the Middle Ages the banner was also known as the lieutenant and was the responsibility of an officer of that name.



One of the principal functions of armory is on seals which are use to authenticate or protect documents. Seals are found in addition to, or in place of, signatures and are either affixed at the foot of document or appended to it. Seals are most often found singly but may also represent the parties to a contract or those who authorised a particular course of action. The normal practice in such cases was to prepare a document in the form of a chirography, each copy being sealed by all the parties to the agreement. The Constitutions of Clarendon (1164) were prepared in this way but the three identical documents were never sealed. One of the most remarkable medieval documents extant is a letter to the Pope, signed and sealed (but not delivered) by the ninety-six barons summoned to the Lincoln Parliament of Edward I in 1300. The barons' seals appended to this document provide one of the finest contemporary armorial records in England and demonstrate the diversity of armorial practice at that time. But while such magnificent documents are by means exceptional, the majority will carry only a single seal or perhaps a pair. These may include statutes, charters, warrants and proclamations, letters patent and letters close, wills and testaments, muniments, the deeds and conveyances, and many manorial, estate, civic and ecclesiastical instruments.

Important documents carried seals before the inception of armory in the mid-twelfth century and these often bore distinctive devices which alluded to the names of their owners: a man called Swinford might use a boar (swine) on his seal, for example. The earliest recorded armorial seal, that is one in which the devices are depicted on a shield, dates from 1136 and this, together with a number of seals dating from the mid-twelfth century, provides evidence of the rapid spread of armory throughout western Europe in a comparatively short period of time.

A seal or sigil is a piece of wax, lead or paper attached to a document as a guarantee of authenticity or affixed to an envelope or other receptacle to ensure that the contents could not be tampered with other than by breaking the seal. The piece of stone or metal upon which the design is engraved, and from which the impression is taken, is called the matrix. Gold, silver, steel or latten (brass or a similar alloy) were widely used for this purpose, while signet rings were made either by engraving the design on gems or agates or in the metal of the ring itself. The use of red for wax impressions is a relatively recent convention; from the earliest times a variety of other colours has been used including green, dull yellow, white and several shades of brown. Seals were usually circular in shape, pointed ovals being used by ecclesiastics, though not exclusively so.

The more important seals were usually impressed on both sides and appended to documents by means of cords which were inserted in the soft wax before the impressions were made. The two sides therefore required two matrices, known as the seal counter seal, to form a single seal with different designs on obverse and reverse. From the late fourteenth century the impression was often covered with a protective layer of paper encircled with a "fender" of plaited paper, leaves or rushes.

Many medieval seals have survived. But, whereas these may confirm the use of certain arms by individuals, they do not show the colours and often necessary to ascertain precisely to which armiger a seal refers, especially where several individuals adopted similar arms. The legend (the surrounding inscription) may include the armiger's name, but not invariably so, and it should be remembered that it was common practice for succeeding generations of eldest sons to inherit both their father's first name and his seal. At a time when documents contained few genealogical references, early seals are often the only source of information regarding the relationships of families of the same surname who possibly had estates in different parts of the country.

Inevitably, from the early thirteenth century, it became fashionable for the lords also to engrave their seals with equestrian figures or themselves in armour, complete with heraldic shields, horse-cloths and banners. These seals were often so large, and documents so numerous, that privy seals were required for administrative purposes. These were smaller and therefore less ornate than great seals and usually bore a simple shield within a decorative interstice and legend. A secretum, perhaps a signet ring was generally used for private matters and, because of their small size, these often bore devices other than coats of arms. In magnatial households, as in departments of state, the security of important matrices was the responsibility of an official known as the Keeper of The Seal.

Shield shapes are a useful guide when dating seals - early shields were elongated but in the thirteenth century the heater shield became fashionable. This was shaped like the base of a flat iron and its use continued into the fourteenth century. In the fifteenth century, shields showing quartered arms (indicative or marital and seigniorial alliances) were popular and, of necessity, these became broader to accommodate the quarterings. Whereas a simple shield was ideally suited to a circular seal, the elongated fourteenth-century coat of arms, with its helm and crest, created awkward spaces between the central motif and the surrounding legend. These were filled with architectural and decorative patterns together with armorial devices and the figures of beasts or chimerical creatures. These were usually personal or household badges which, from the fifteenth century, were often translated into supporters.

Armory in Manuscripts

Often the most impressive of all medieval written documents, Books of Hours, were personal devotional books widely used by the devout laity from the thirteenth century. Most were embellished more-or-less elaborately according to the taste and pocket of the patron for whom they were prepared. Some were presented as gifts by calligraphers and illuminators in hope of patronage. Books of Hours provided a series of prayers appropriate to the eight canonical hours into which the day was divided, together with a calendar and various extracts from the Divine Office and Psalms. They were invariably exceedingly beautiful, the illustrations providing also a wealth of information on contemporary life. An illuminated book of hours commissioned by John, Dike of Bedford (brother of Henry V) as a wedding present for his bride, Anne of Burgundy, was executed in 1423 by a team of artists under Pol de Mimbourg, one of three brothers who were the finest illuminators of their day. The Bedford arms and badges, the silver eagle, the black antelope and the golden tree stump of Woodstock, appear as decorative motifs throughout, as do the arms and devices of Burgundy.

Not all illumination was confined to religious manuscripts. Geneologies, romances and many official documents were also illuminated and almost invariably embellished with heraldry. An illuminated book of French romances presented by John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, to Henry VI's bride, Margaret of Anjou in 1445, contains a magnificent genealogical table showing the French and English royal descents from St Louis. It is filled with heraldic devices, all glittering in burnished gold.

Rolls of Arms

A roll of arms is any collection of heraldry, whether painted, tricked (drawn in outline with colours indicated by abbreviations) or listed in written form using blazon, the language of armory. The term is most often applied to strips of parchment, sewn together and rolled up or bound into books, on which rows of shields or heraldic figures have been painted, or tricked, and identified. Most of these manuscripts are of medieval origin, though there are many later copies and compilations and they illustrate both the development of armory, its terminology and conventions, and the mobility of the knightly classes throughout Europe.

The study of rolls of arms dates from the thirteenth century when heralds exchanged information concerning armorial devices and compiled their own armorials which are manuscripts or books concerned with armory. In their simplest form, rolls of arms are little more than hastily illustrated lists which were compiled on the spot, at a tournament, for example. Others, such as the Rous and Salisbury rolls, are pictorial records of historical characters and events. There are some 350 surviving European medieval rolls of arms, of which 130 are English. These are usually classified as:
Occasional Rolls, which relate to an event such as an expedition, tournament or siege and are particularly valuable in biographical research and the interpretation of historical events.

Institutional Rolls, associated with foundations and religious and chivalric orders, and often compiled over many generations.
Regional Rolls, which list the arms of armigers in a particular administrative area such as a county.
Illustrative Rolls, which illustrate stories or chronicles and may therefore contain imaginary arms such as those of the Knights of the Round Table.
General Rolls, which are combinations of several collections and sources. Compilers of general rolls would often arranged shields to facilitate reference: in groupings by colour or charges, for example. Such a compilation is known as an ordinary of arms, a term which is also applied to written lists of blazons similarly arranged.

The earliest known roll of arms is that of the thirteenth-century monk and historian Matthew Paris whose, Liber Additamentorum (c. 1244) includes painted sheets illustrating shields of arms. Some rolls of arms contained paintings of historical characters, together with their armorial devices.

Architectural and Decorative Features

It has been suggested that the purely decorative use of armorial devices dates from the mid-thirteenth century. In medieval society, visual imagery was of great importance in projecting intangible realities. Armorial devices were a means of declaiming feudal authority and knightly pre-eminence: they were outward and visible symbols of a man's position and influence, and of his household's status in society.

Heraldry was either painted on to the smooth surface of a stone shield or carved in relief, the design being traced on to the prepared surface of the stone and the material cut back to a predetermined background line, leaving the device raised but unfeatured. Individual charges in a shield were left until last and, being in low relief, these required the most intricate carving: When the carving was completed, the background was sometimes roughened with small chisel marks, to emphasise the three-dimensional appearance of the work. Medieval stone carving was often painted and gilded and the interiors of many stone buildings, both ecclesiastical and secular, once blazed with colour. But paint and gilt require periodic refurbishment and today only small areas of colour remain to remind us of the extraordinary richness of our Gothic buildings. Church monuments provide the most prolific source of armorial devices painted and gilded on carved stone, but there are other architectural features which, because of their shape and size, and their conspicuous position within the structure of a building, are also suited to this form of decoration. The earliest known example of armorial devices carved in stone is a series of shields in the spandrels of the blind arcading in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey. Commissioned by Henry III in 1258, these depict the arms of the king together with those of the royal houses with which he was connected by marriage, and of his principal vassals. The series was inspired by Henry's visit to the French court of Louis IX in 1254 where he was much impressed by the painted wooden shields, bearing the arms of the nobility of France, which lined the walls of the Great Hall of the Temple in Paris.

Shields of arms, often contained within carved trefoils or quatrefoils, are common motifs in the panels and spandrels of blind arcading, particularly in tombs and chantry chapels of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, where series of shields record the arms of related and collateral families and other beneficiaries of a deceased's will for whom chantries were established. These shields may also contain religious symbols or the attributed arms of patron saints to whom supplications were addressed. Arched roofs of stone (vaults) replaced timber roofs in most major secular and ecclesiastical buildings, and in those areas of parish churches where additional strength was required, beneath a church tower, for example, or as the result of endowments and bequests, expensive elaboration such as vaulting being indicative of a benefactor's generosity. This, perhaps, explains the ubiquity of medieval vaulted porches, many of which have a central shield-shaped boss which would originally have been emblazoned with the arms of the benefactor who paid for the porch's construction. Bosses, the projecting keystones at the intersection of ribs in a vault, are a rich source of heraldry.

Stained Glass

Comparatively little Medieval stained glass has survived in our churches, and in a few secular buildings usually only fragments remain. From the mid-twelfth century most decorative windows comprised a central pictorial motif contained within a medallion and a geometrical border. The design of the window was drawn on a whitewashed table by draughtsmen and the pieces of coloured glass cut to the required shape. The pieces were then trimmed with a grozing iron to a more precise shape, and details such as faces, hair, limbs, linen folds and foliage were painted in a mixture of metallic oxide (iron or copper), powdered glass and gum. Finally the glass sections were set out on an iron plate and covered with ash before being fired at a high temperature in a clay and dung kiln. This fused the paint on to the coloured glass. The pieces were then re-assembled and bound together in a lead framework or armature with putty forced into the crevices between the lead and the glass. Lead was a most suitable material for this purpose, for it was malleable when unheated and, having a low melting point, was easily cast into strips with grooves at the sides to accommodate the glass.

As the craft developed, the lines of the lead framework were incorporated into the design itself and, from the fourteenth century, the flashed surface of coloured glass was often removed to leave a pattern of clear glass which, when re-painted with silver oxide and fired, turned to a dark yellow which passed for gold. Many heraldic devices were not of a convenient shape to be confined within strips of lead and while large charges, such as beasts, could be built up of several pieces of glass leaded together, very small or repetitive charges were often difficult to reproduce. This problem was overcome by using small pieces of coloured glass and painting around the outline of the motif with brown enamel to leave only the shape as the unpainted surface.

The practice of endowing benefactions and chantries was particularly popular during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and for this reason at least half the surviving medieval church glass contains an element of heraldry. Chantries were bequests which enabled priests to pray for the souls of the departed and of relatives, friends and others, including sometimes the king and influential lords. Shields or other heraldic devices in a chapel window may therefore be those of the people for whom masses were to be said as well as those of the deceased benefactor in whose memory the window was installed.

As with brasses and effigies, such windows may have been commissioned before the death of the person they commemorate or, indeed, many years afterwards. Throughout the Medieval senior churchmen, magnates, guilds and fraternities endowed money for the repair of churches, and groups of citizens would sometimes combine to pay for the refurbishing of their parish church. Shields of arms may be found in "donor windows," most often in the upper tracery lights, where they commemorate the generosity of benefactors.


Decorated floor tiles dating from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries may be found in many Medieval churches. During the thirteenth century several methods were developed for the decoration of plain clay tiles. The pattern could be engraved in outline on the surface of the tile or the design carved in relief or counter-relief on a wood-block which was then pressed into the tile. In both instances the tile was then glazed and fired to produce a patterned tile of one colour. A third method was to fill the matrix of a stamped tile with white pipeclay before it was glazed and fired. This produced the familiar brown and yellow encaustic tile.

Early tiles were produced to decorate royal and magnatial palaces and important religious houses. During the fourteenth century their use spread to smaller churches and domestic buildings, though in many instances a commonality of design suggests that batches of tiles were "leftovers" from large monastic commissions and had been donated by a religious house to one or more of its subsidiary churches. Most designs required four tiles to complete a pattern, some required as many as sixteen, and it is often possible to identify individual tiles from a major monastery which have been laid down inaccurately in a parish church - possibly because insufficient tiles of each type were provided to complete a pattern or the workmen were not familiar with the original. It may be that tilers carried out smaller commissions in situ, constructing temporary kilns and carrying a selection of wood-blocks with them. This would explain the occurrence of identical tiles in churches many miles apart.

Many designs were used in encaustic relief and counter-relief tiles including Christian symbols, rebuses and armorial devices associated with royal or monastic foundations or with the benefactors of a particular church or chantry. Armorial tiles are a considerable aid to research but not all lions and fleurs-de-lis are of heraldic significance. Confusingly, it is not unusual to find that an armorial design has been carved correctly on the wood-block but the resultant impression is back-to-front.


Unlike brasses, the recumbent figures depicted in effigies were modelled in three dimensions. There is an extraordinary diversity of character evident in the faces of effigial figures and it is sometimes hard to accept the expert view that, despite their often life-like appearance, effigies are essentially stylised representations of a deceased person and not portraits. Among the earliest lay effigies in Britain are those of Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy (d. 1134, monument early thirteenth-century) at Gloucester Cathedral; King John (d. 1216, monument dated 1230) at Worcester Cathedral, and William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury (d. 1226) at Salisbury Cathedral.

Medieval effigies provide invaluable evidence for the development of costume and armour, though it should be remembered that effigies and brasses were often commissioned in anticipation of death or erected some considerable time after interment and therefore reflect the fashion of the time in which they were made rather than that of the person they commemorate. Armorial display was particularly important and, until the middle of the fourteenth century, a knight's effigy usually bore a shield and was clothed in an embroidered surcoat, cyclas or jupon, on which the arms were often carved and painted. Dating from the Crusades of the twelfth century, the long linen surcoat, which was split at the sides to facilitate movement on horseback, was originally intended to protect mail from heat or rain.

The use of heraldry in medieval effigies was not merely decorative; armorial devices were outward and visible symbols of authority and power and accumulated quarterings and badges conveyed details of ancestry more proudly than any inscription. Women sometimes embroidered their marital arms on a kirtle (gown or outer petticoat) or mantle (cloak) and these appear in effigies as they would have been worn in life.

Monumental Brasses

Monumental brass is a flat metal plate engraved with a figure, and sometimes an inscription, and affixed as a memorial to the floor or wall of a church or to a tomb chest. Medieval brasses were, in fact, made of an alloy of copper (75-80 per cent), with 15-20 per cent zinc and small elements of lead and tin. In the Middle Ages this material was known as latten, and later cuivre blanc (white copper). Those who worked on monumental brasses were described as "marblers," a possible reference to the craft of engraving incised slabs from which the monumental brass developed. Indeed, it seems likely that workshops which had traditionally produced lavishly expensive effigies turned also to the production of brasses as an alternative form of memorial which could be afforded by the average cleric, merchant or gentleman.

Brasses originated in the Low Countries in the thirteenth century. The earliest surviving figure brass is that of Bishop Yso von Wilpe (d. 1231) at Verden in Germany. Flemish brasses were imported into England, no doubt at considerable expense, the most important of the fourteenth-century manufacturing centres being at Tournai on the river Scheldt. These brasses were large rectangular sheets of metal set into a slab, the background between the figures being engraved with diaper-work, heraldic devices or other smaller figures. English brasses comprised a number of separate pieces, cut from a single sheet of metal, each of which was engraved and set within an indentation (matrix) carved out of the stone slab so that the brass was flush with the surface. Each section was secured within its matrix in a bed of black pitch, which also protected the metal from corrosion, though later brasses were often fixed by means of brass rivets driven into lead plugs. In many instances coloured enamels were let into the concave surfaces of the brass to provide heraldic decoration and this practice continued well into the sixteenth century. Slabs were generally of local stone or Purbeck marble.

The segmented nature of medieval brasses made them particularly vulnerable to vandalism and effacement and few complete examples have survived. Nevertheless, there are some 7,500 brasses in England, more than in any other European country. The majority of surviving English brasses originated from workshops, established in the early fourteenth century at Norwich, York and London. Each workshop developed a series of templates from which the client would select the most appropriate design to which personal devices and inscriptions were added. Others were specially commissioned and engraved to a client's specification. It is possible to identify the products of a particular workshop by comparing the style and method of manufacture of surviving brasses but, as with effigies, brasses of this period portray only a stylised representation of a deceased person, not an accurate portrait.

The earliest figures were usually life-size or slightly smaller but there are examples of demi-figures and miniatures. Figures are generally accompanied by an inscription, Christian symbols and heraldic devices, all set within a decorative engraved canopy. The first English brasses are those of bishops or abbots, the earliest of which date from the late thirteenth century, but by far the most interesting category is the "military brass," so called because figures are depicted in armour. Almost invariably these brasses contain heraldic devices which facilitate dating and identification and often provide genealogical and personal information not included in the inscription. Indeed, it was for this reason that armory was considered to be such a necessary component in memorials and of course it also declared the authority and status of the deceased.

Crests and helmets are also represented in military brasses, particularly in those of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the helm is usually placed beneath or near the head of the figure. Occasionally, badges, rebuses and other devices may also be found, incorporated within the overall design of the brass. Many brasses and effigies were not contemporary with the death of those they commemorate; some were prepared in anticipation of death while others were often retrospective, or their erection was delayed because of unreliable executors or contested wills. Conversely, the dating of brasses by reference to costume and armour is equally complex.

Coinage (on the Example of Britain)

In 1344 Edward III (1327-77) introduced three gold coins, the florin, the half-florin and quarter-florin, and these were the first coins to incorporate truly armorial designs. The obverse of the florin or double leopard, which was based on a Florentine gold coin, depicted the king enthroned beneath a canopy (the majesty), flanked by two leopards, on a field of fleurs-de-lis. The half-florin or leopard has a  crowned lion passant, wearing as a cloak the banner of the arms of England and, on the reverse, a cross within a quatrefoil, in the angles of which are further leopards. The quarter-florin or helm depicted a helmet, chapeau and royal crest of a crowned lion statant, all on a field of fleurs-de-lis.

The design of the noble, which replaced the short-lived leopard included the shield of arms of an English sovereign held by the figure of the king and this continued to appear exclusively on the gold coinage. During the reign of Edward IV personal and ecclesiastical devices appear for the first time, on coins minted at the metropolitan furnaces at Canterbury, as a gesture to Archbishop Bourchier who had been a staunch supporter of the king.


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