Elizabethan Heraldry Home

Heralds and Heraldry in Elizabethan England

John Neitz


Origins and development of Armory and the Office of Herald

Armory: the art and science of the hereditary system of symbols centered around the shield.

Heraldry: all that which pertains to the office of herald, including the recording, granting, and regulation of armory as well as precedence, state ceremonial, tournaments, diplomacy, genealogy and pedigree, etc.

The early histories of heralds and armory are roughly contemporary but separate stories. Heralds were originally free-lancers who specialized in the running and scoring of tournaments. Early (12th and 13th century) payment records lump them in with minstrels (i.e. they were considered a specialist "sub-class" of minstrels). Heralds were migratory, going from tournament to tournament and had an unsavory reputation in this period (medieval "carnies"). Period romances refer to them as lazy (i.e. "get a real job!").

Armory originated in the 12th century in the Anglo-Norman lands and quickly spread to much of Europe. At that time the full face helm came into vogue making it difficult to identify armored men in battle and in tournaments (which were free-for-all melees in this period, far different from the formalized jousts of Elizabethan times). Great lords (and soon thereafter all knights) decorated their shields and surcoats ("coats of arms") with distinctive designs--their "arms".

Heralds became experts at identifying knights by their arms since that was part of the herald’s job as a tourney officiant. The next step was for heralds to start recording arms; they developed armorials-a reference book or roll picturing or describing (blazoning) arms. Since heralds were familiar with arms they were consulted by knights wishing to assume arms. The herald could tell the knight if their desired design conflicted with an established one ("Certes, sir, a red shield with three gold lions passant would look smashing but those arms are already taken by the king of England").

A Herald in His Tabard and Coronet By the fourteenth century, lords began hiring their own private heralds, who added to the lord’s prestige by announcing his name, titles, and boasts as he entered the tournament field. The herald would be given a title derived from his employer’s titles, badges, or mottoes. It became fashionable for the lords to have their heralds wear the lord’s coat of arms (perhaps originally the lord’s own discarded surcoat). By the fifteenth century tabards replaced surcoats as the fashionable garment to wear over armor and correspondingly became the heralds official wear. By the sixteenth century tabards were now out of style for knights (it is said that Henry VII was the last monarch to wear one) but the heralds have retained that garment as the distinctive uniform of their office to this day.

By the fourteenth century there were three levels of herald: king of arms, herald of arms, and pursuivant of arms. A king of arms was the ranking herald for a kingdom or province and are the only people besides royalty and peers who actually get to wear a coronet (only at the sovereign’s coronation, of course). They were originally called kings of heralds, after the medieval custom of naming a "king" for any group, even a "king of beggars" for the senior beggar of a town.

A pursuivant was a junior or apprentice grade of herald. They had (until the late seventeenth century) to wear their tabards "colley-westonward" (i.e. sideways with the sleeves in back and front and the large part draped over the sleeves). There is at least one case during Elizabeth’s reign of a pursuivant being censured for wearing his tabard above his station (i.e. not sideways).


Heralds and The College of Arms

In 1484 Richard III gave the royal heralds a charter incorporating them as the College of Arms and granted them Coldharbour House in London as their headquarters. There was, of course, something of a change of administration a few month’s later and Henry VII gave Coldharbour to someone else, so the College was without an official home until they were granted Derby House in 1555 (the College is still located on this site).

There was some shuffling of positions making up the College for several decades after 1485 but by the Elizabethan period there were 13 officers in ordinary: Garter Principal King of Arms and two provincial kings: Clarenceaux and Norroy (in charge of the south and north halves of England respectively); six heralds: Chester, Lancaster, Richmond, Somerset, Windsor, and York; and four pursuivants: Bluemantle, Portcullis, Rouge Croix, and Rouge Dragon. In addition, there were at various times "officers extraordinary" (i.e. appointed for a special occasion and not on the college roster) such as Rose Pursuivant. There was also Ulster King of Arms for Ireland, but he was not considered part of the College. By the end of Henry VIII’s reign there were no longer any noblemen’s (i.e. non-royal) heralds.

What did heralds do? Trumpet playing was not, and never has been, part of their duties (an inaccurate notion which seems to have originated with Alice in Wonderland illustrations and perpetuated in the movie Anne of a Thousand Days among other sources). When Shakespeare has a line in one his plays such as "Herald, take a trumpet to the top of yon hill..." he intends "trumpet" to mean trumpeter.

Heralds have been messengers since the early days of their existence. When a lord planned to host a tournament, he would send his herald(s) throughout the kingdom (or even throughout Christendom) to put forth a challenge (i.e. invitation). Princes would have their heralds accompany them in battle to help them identify men of both sides by their arms and banners, as well as to parley with the enemy as seen in Henry V.

Yeoman of the Guard In heraldry the shield of arms is personal to its owner so he would not have his servants wear it. That is the purpose of badges (a famous example being the crowned tudor rose worn by the Yeomen of the Guard). Heralds are the exception to this rule. They took on the sovereign’s identity by wearing the royal coat of arms (it was treason to harm a herald in his tabard) and were considered the voice of the crown. Royal proclamations were proclaimed by the heralds. Henry VIII often employed heralds to parley with rebels or foreign princes but by Elizabeth’s reign this duty was rarely assigned to heralds. The primary ambassadorial duty during this period was a ceremonial one: that of conferring the Order of the Garter on foreign rulers.


Heralds in the Age of Elizabeth

When an officer died his replacement was usually chosen from the rank below him. So, for instance, if Garter died (being the most senior herald in dignity he was often, but not always, the oldest) his successor would probably be one of the two provincial kings, who in turn would be replaced in his former office by one of the heralds, who would be replaced by a pursuivant (note that the six herald titles were equal in dignity; precedence between their holders was based on their seniority in office. The same holds true between the four pursuivants). The vacant pursuivant office would be an entry level position into the College, which was under the leadership of the Earl Marshal, so officers were usually recommended by him and if acceptable to the crown, appointed by letters patent under the great seal.

There were, of course, exceptions to the typical career path of pursuivant, herald, king of arms. Most officers never became kings of arms because there were only three positions at that level. When Sir Gilbert Dethick died in 1584 there seems to have been some dispute as to who should succeed him as Garter. Robert Cooke, Clarenceaux, was acting Garter for 18 months but Sir Gilbert’s son William (who had been York Herald) was promoted over the provincial kings’ heads to succeed his father (heraldic offices have never been hereditary but there are some cases of heraldic dynasties, probably due to nepotism; a notable example being the Wriothesleys, ancestors of the earls of Southampton).

William Camden was in such high esteem as an antiquary that he entered the College in 1597 as Clarenceaux King of Arms (he was made Richmond Herald for one day for the sake of formality before his appointment as Clarenceaux). This caused some resentment among some of the other officers.

Biographies of the period heralds show some backgrounds they had before being appointed: many had been retainers of either Leicester or Burleigh, which seems to reflect the influence these two had in procuring royal positions for their men. Others had been royal clerks or messengers. Some had been members of the painter-stainers company.

Several heralds were members of the Society of Antiquaries, which often met in Garter’s chambers at the College of Arms. Their genealogical work and collection of old manuscripts went well with the work of the society. Some heralds were able scholars and industrious writers on diverse subjects and had works published in the period, among them John Hart (Chester Herald) who had two books on orthography (spelling) published, William Segar (Norroy, later Garter, and also credited as the painter of some famous portraits of the Queen) whose Booke of Honor and Armes was published in 1590 and Honor, Ciuil and Militarie in 1602, and William Camden, who was highly regarded for his Britannia (although he wrote that before he was made a herald).


Heraldry and the Age of Elizabeth

Tournament officiating, as we have seen, was the primary job of heralds in the early period of heraldry but by Elizabeth’s reign jousting was in its twilight. There were few tournaments outside the annual ones celebrating the Queen’s accession day (jousting checks--the scorecards kept by heralds--are very simplified compared to those from the previous century, which supports the thinking that Elizabethan jousters were not as practiced as their pre-gunpowder ancestors since jousting was no longer a practical skill for war). The heralds, however, zealously kept records of the fees and perquisites due to them on these occasions, such as clouage: ("nailing fee") money due from each jouster for putting his arms up on his lodgings, or gifts and money which a first time jouster had to give them upon his entry to the field. Among the more interesting customs was that any armor dropped on the field belonged to the heralds present, who usually sold it back to the knight who had dropped it (for more on tournaments I highly recommend the book Tudor and Jacobean Tournaments by Paul Young).

Cecil During the Elizabethan age, there was an increased emphasis on genealogy in the heralds’ work as the gentry class rose in importance. Wealthy "new men" were eager to prove their gentility and be granted arms. Only persons of gentry class or higher could bear arms so anyone with arms was by definition gentle (the period Latin word for gentleman was "armigero" i.e. one who bears arms) so the heralds were effectively the gatekeepers to the gentry class.

This was of course a great money-making opportunity.

Many spurious pedigrees were produced for a fee and heralds were on occasion censured or even imprisoned for granting arms to " base-born" individuals. William Dethick was criticized for making grants to persons who were thought to be too inferior, including Stratford glover John Shakespeare (whose son William had worked with Dethick to obtain the grant for his father and thus become born of gentry).

One of the primary means through which heralds accomplished their task of recording, granting, and correction of arms in the sixteenth century was through "visitations." Starting in 1530, the provincial kings were authorized and commissioned to make visitations of counties in their provinces. They would typically travel to a county in summer (an "heraldic progress" if you will) and it took many years to cover England and Wales (the "home counties" near London were visited more often than the far north or west). The king of arms (or his deputized herald) would set up in an inn or a gentleman’s home and all those in the area who claimed arms were summoned to present proof of gentle status. The herald would record the pedigree and arms for a fee or, if the claimant was found to be not up to standards he was disclaimed: required to sign a statement that he was "no gentleman" and forbidden to bear arms. This was proclaimed throughout the shire-- a harsh fate in this class conscious era.

The importance of maintaining a style appropriate to one’s station continued even unto death. It was de rigeur for the funeral ceremonial of nobles and greater gentry to be arranged by a herald (sort of like a modern wedding consultant). This of course was a great opportunity for income for the heralds, who had to take turns. There was often dispute and even violence between them over funeral turns.

Under the direction of the earl marshal, the heralds arranged (and still arrange) state ceremonial such as coronations and state funerals (Sir Phillip Sydney was given one--a rare honor). Pictures of processions from these events usually portray the heralds taking part (easy to identify by their tabards) bearing the achievements of the deceased: banner, standard, sword, spurs, target (a little shield painted with the arms), gauntlets, helm with crest, etc. Throughout the Sixteenth century, there was an increasing trend on the part of the gentry to copy these great occasions on a smaller scale which led to the hiring of heralds for funerals as described earlier.

Badges and Livery

Stafford Knot Badges such as the Dudleys’ bear and/or ragged staff, the Percys’ crescent, the Stanleys’ eagle or eagle’s foot, or the Stafford knot (pictured) were also favorite decorative elements. Remember that arms are personal to the bearer ("this is me") while badges can identify anything or anyone belonging to the bearer ("this is mine"). Badges might decorate any possession and, most importantly, the liveries of the badge owner’s retainers. Note that some large magnates might have many different badges, perhaps used in association with their different manors or maybe arbitrarily. Badges could be a charge from the arms or crest or can be completely different.

Royal badges in the period include the rose, the double (now called Tudor) rose, the fleur de lys of France, the harp of Ireland, the "ER" cypher, and the portcullis, any of which might be "ensigned" (topped) with the crown, as well as the crown itself, and several of the beasts which had served as supporters to the royal arms such as the crowned lion, the dragon, or the greyhound (see the masthead illustration). The crowned falcon on a woodstock (stump) had belonged to Ann Boleyn and was used by Elizabeth to decorate many of her personal possessions. The phoenix and pelican were also symbolically associated with Elizabeth. Although the unicorn might have had some symbolic association with Elizabeth (the Virgin thing), it was the supporter of the Scottish royal arms and so brought to the royal arms of England with the Stuarts, not before.

The Royal Arms

A word on livery colors: just as badges are not necessarily from the shield, livery colors do not have to match the colors on someone’s shield or even be heraldic colors at all (heraldic colors being, with very few exceptions limited to yellow/gold, white/silver, black, blue, red, green, and, rarely, purple).

There was a trend toward turning badges into crests during this period. Most gentlemen had adopted badges since they were useful identifying marks, but relatively few had crests (a crest is what sits on top of the helmet displayed above the shield on a coat of arms; a crest is not a coat of arms although the word has been mistakenly used in this way in recent years) because their forbearers had never participated in tournaments (crests originally were actually worn on helms at these events). During visitations heralds commonly granted crests to gentlemen who already had shields and usually adapted the gentleman’s existing badge.

Use of Arms in Recreation

Every armigerous character should be familiar with their arms and be able to recite their blazon (description in heraldic language). (See Blazons of the Ancient Paternal Arms of the Peers of England.)

During the Elizabethan period armigers were eager to display their arms which were a visible sign of their gentle status whether those arms were centuries old or had just been granted. The shield (being the central, most important element of the arms) might be pictured alone or with the other elements of the complete armorial achievement: helmet, crest, mantling, motto (and, for peers, supporters). Armorial decoration would be used in as many places as possible and in every conceivable medium. Arms were displayed on or inside houses in stone, carved wood, or stained glass. Burial monuments often displayed the arms of the deceased. They were placed in the upper corner of their portraits (often the means by which we are able to identify the portraits’ subjects centuries later).

Marshalled Arms The shape of shield on which arms were displayed varied widely from the classic medieval shape to ornate renaissance cartouches. The shape of shield usually has no heraldic significance (i.e. Lord Scrope’s blue field with a gold bend is the same coat no matter what shape it’s painted on). It is a convention, however, for unmarried ladies to display their arms on lozenge (diamond shape) since they did not bear shields in battle (not that men did anymore, either). The Queen was an exception to this as her arms (the arms of England) were never displayed on a lozenge.

A woman did not have arms in her own right (with very few exceptions) but used her father's arms until she was married, at which point she could display her husband’s arms on the dexter half of a shield "impaled" with her paternal arms on the sinister half, as shown in the portrait of Mary Hill, Mistress Mackwilliam, above. (Note that dexter is the left as you look at it; in heraldic terms the dexter is the right side of the knight holding the shield.) This combining of arms is called marshaling.

Another use for marshaling arms by impalement was to show official arms impaled with the office-holder’s personal arms, such as the arms of the See of Canterbury (dexter) impaled with Matthew Parker’s arms in sinister.

A woman’s paternal arms would not be passed down to her descendants unless she had no brothers. In this case she and all her sisters are heraldic co-heiresses and their children would quarter their mother’s arms with their father’s. The most famous quartered arms have a different story. The royal arms quarter France and England because Edward III wanted to illustrate his dynastic claim to the French throne. The French arms occupy the 1st and 4th quarters (i.e. where the father’s arms would be quartered) because France was considered the more ancient kingdom.

Over many generations some coats could collect many quarterings through marriages to heiresses (each individual coat is still called a quartering even if there are more than four). Even if one is entitled to display a shield with enough quarterings to make it look like an intricate patchwork quilt it is not always advantageous to show them all. Arms are for identification, and patchwork arms are difficult to distinguish from others, especially at a distance. So, the first quartering (the original arms passed down in direct male descent) would often be displayed alone on banners or painted shields used as decorations.



Edited by John Neitz
Designed by Paula Kate Marmor
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9 January 2000