Heraldry, History and Language
Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 1st October 2014, last updated: 3rd January 2020
Highland Titles is getting ready to roll out a brand new logo, partly inspired by heraldic symbolism. We are using a ‘buckler’, a symbol most commonly used as a sign of support for a particular clan or tribe. We thought this a fitting symbol for our logo.
While ours is not an emblazoned heraldic symbol and therefore can be used by anyone who supports our cause, heraldry itself follows very strict rules, can only be used by authorised persons and is regulated in Scotland by a specially assigned court!
Highland Titles buckler logo
The beginning of Heraldry
The beginning of heraldry is wrapped up in a misty ancient past that no doubt evolved from the use of symbols in general as a way of differentiating people or sets of people. The desire of humans to mark objects with symbols begins as far back as ancient Greece if not before. Both Aeschylus and Virgil mention painted shields in their Greek writings, and Heroditus, the Roman historian, describes the ‘sculptured devices’ which the Carians (a tribe of ancient Turkey) used on their shields.
The impulse still exists today in company logos and team badges. The heraldic tradition of Britain, which arrived with the Norman kings and rose to prominence during the age of chivalry, is just one manifestation of a much longer practise.
The lion of Judah on Jerusalem coat of arms
The lion of Judah is mentioned variously in the bible, notably in Revelation 5:5 “And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.” This lion is thought to represent Jesus, who was a descendant of David from the ruling tribe of Judah. It is also the inspiration behind the heraldic lions of various other nations of Christendom including Britain.
Going back further than this the pharaohs of Egypt used symbols to represent themselves in a way closely associated with heraldry. There are purists who will utterly refute this fact, but it’s true that the pharaohs used symbols to express their power. They didn’t put them on shields, or fashion them into coats-of-arms. That came later. But the crook and the flail, the cartouche, the lotus flower, among other pictographic representations, were all used as symbols of royal and, by association, divine power.
A cartouche. A pharaoh’s name would be inscribed within, symbolising their dominion of the entire world.
The Saracens also had a great tradition of symbolism and some English heraldic terms have been derived from Persian words. For example: Gules (meaning red) is from the Persian word gul, and Azure is derived from the Persian Lazurd. The Japanese too used family symbols, known as mon, which were painted on battle shields and used to decorate clothing.
The Imperial mon of Japanese Royal family (Yellow Chrysanthemum)
It is no great leap to find the noble houses of Europe beginning to display symbolic pictograms to imprint their noble status and emphasise their legitimacy. The very first recorded mention of a coat of arms in British history was the one presented by Henry I to his new son-in-law, Geoffrey of Anjou, a Frenchman who had just married his daughter Matilda.
Coat of arms of Geoffrey of Anjou, presented by Henry I in 1128
It is recorded that Henry hung a shield around Geoffrey’s neck with 6 upright gold lions with red claws and tongues, on an azure background. In heraldic language this would be described as “Azure, six lions rampant, Or, three, two and one, armed and langued gules.” (Gules = red; armed and langued = showing claws and tongue)
Heraldry in Britain
So it appears that the Normans brought heraldry to Britain. But how far back did it go before that?
Historians have combed the Bayeux Tapestry for signs of heraldry. There isn’t much to go on, but some notable figures do bear shields with simple designs on them. Although the Bayeux tapestry denotes the Norman invasion of 1066, and may have been made as early as 1092, it is possible that the tapestry was made much later and that heraldic symbols were attributed to particular figures.
Retrospective attribution of arms was a common practise during the chivalric period. King Arthur and even Jesus were provided with them. Whenever it first appeared, we know that heraldry was all the rage by the mid 1100s.
The early middle ages were an uncertain time. England was more an extension of France than a country in its own right, and it was still trying to re-assert its identity after the Norman invasion.
William the Conqueror continued simultaneously to be the Duke of Normandy and when he died his lands were divided between his male children. Normandy went to his first born, and the newly conquered England to his second surviving son. (A deadly power struggle ensued, and the fourth son, Henry I, ended up with the lot). England’s emerging statehood can be summed up in the fact that by 1106 Normandy had been re-claimed by Henry I, as a possession of England!
The need for legitimacy and family connections in an uncertain time may have played a part in the increased use of heraldry that followed Queen Matilda’s short reign.
After the death of Henry I, William’s grandson, Stephen of Blois in France, fought with Henry’s daughter Matilda for the right to rule England. This difficult period, known as The Anarchy, was brought to an end when Henry II (Matilda’s son) regained the crown.
Henry II, son of Geoffrey of Anjou, became the first of the Plantagenet kings. The name came from a flower, called “planta genet” in French; a kind of broom which Geoffrey grew on his French hunting grounds. He took to wearing a sprig of it in his hat and earned the nickname, Geoffrey Plantagenet.
Henry I may have used a single lion as a personal symbol, we can’t be sure, but his grandson Henry II certainly did, and the golden lion entered our consciousness as a symbol of English royalty.
Coat of arms attributed to Henry II
Heraldry in Sport
Another important element in the flourishing of Heraldry was largely sport related. What also came over the channel with the Normans was the medieval extreme sport of Jousting. The first recorded tournament was in 1066, the same year as the Battle of Hastings. By the time Henry II claimed the throne in 1154, tilting yards were flourishing to such an extent that he temporarily banned the practise concerned that his knights would be too exhausted for real battles.
Because of the uniformed armour worn by the competing knights, and especially the 13th century fashion for closed helmets which rendered them anonymous, shields were embellished with their own heraldic symbols.
Many historians maintain that the tilting yard and the need to identify leading knights in battle accounts for the rise of heraldry, but vanity also plays an essential part according to Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, author of The Complete Guide to Heraldry, as does the increasing glory attached to fighting and its weaponry for which we can thank the Crusades. He describes the fanaticism of the Crusades in which ‘war was elevated to the dignity of a sacred duty and the implements of warfare rose in estimation’ (Fox-Davies, 1909).
The actual phrase ‘Coat of arms’ originates from the surcoat worn over a knight’s armour, which was decorated with the same design found on the shield. A replica of the surcoat of the Black Prince hangs above his tomb, along with his gauntlets and helmet, in Canterbury cathedral. These items were hung there on the occasion of his state funeral, carried in procession as his ‘achievements’, a common practise in the middle ages. (The ones that hang in the cathedral today are replicas, the faded originals carefully stored behind glass).
Achievements of Edward the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral
Like the shield this surcoat bore the insignia of Edward III, his father. As Edward III’s first born son, Edward the Black Prince was a celebrated warrior and greatly loved by the nation. Unfortunately he died a year before his father, leaving the throne to his infant son, Richard II.
Edward’s surcoat was made of quilted velvet, padded with wool, with a satin lining. It bears the three lions of England and the Fleur-de-lys of France, to which Edward III had by this time laid claim.
British Royal Coat of Arms Evolution
From the two lions of Henry II, the British coat of arms has developed over a period of time into the complex form in which it exists today. In order to fully understand that development, we need to examine the family history behind the designs. This history also helps explain the language of heraldry, and how it describes noble houses and their links to each other.
Henry II (he of the two lions) married Eleanor of Aquitaine, who bore in her coat of arms a single gold lion. Richard I (“the Lionheart”) naturally joined these images together to form the iconic three lions symbol we have come to know as quintessentially English, and which is still used by the national football team.
Coat of arms adopted by Richard I
This same design was used by a succession of Plantagenet monarchs: King John, Henry III, Edward I then Edward II. Edward II married Isabella of France, daughter of the French king, Philip IV. As a member of the French royal family her coat of arms depicted the French fleur-de-lys against an azure background.
Azure, a semis of fleur-de-lys Or. French royal coat of arms since late 12th century
With her marriage into the English royal family her coat of arms was ‘dimidiated’ with her husband’s. This means the dexter half of the husband’s coat of arms was joined with the sinister half of the wife’s arms. Dimidiation was later changed to the newer practise of ‘impalement’, in which the full coats-of-arms of both houses are squashed into each side. Dimidiation sometimes resulted in some strange mixtures, which is why impalement became the favoured method over time.
The wife’s arms are always on the sinister (left) side, the husband’s on the dexter (right) side (from the shield’s point of view).
Isabella’s coat of arms showing dimidiation due to marriage.
Isabella also used a quartered coat of arms which resulted from her paternal and maternal legacy. A quartered coat of arms shows the lineage of a family and there are strict rules governing quarterings.
Alternative arms for Isabella
The top two quarters show Isabella’s marriage and her own royal insignia. The bottom dexter shows the arms of Navarre and the bottom sinister shows the arms of Champagne. These came from her mother, Joan I of Navarre. Joan I had inherited the two comital titles of Champagne and Navarre, which in turn went to her husband, Philip IV when they were married.
Quarterings can become very complex indeed, and as such most noble houses don’t bother to include all of them. There are however exceptions. Here is an example of a family who was definitely doing it ‘by the book’:
The 719 quarterings of the Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Greville family Coat of arms
When Isabella’s son Edward III was on the English throne, he claimed the crown of France as well, deciding this was rightly his inheritance from his mother. So his coat of arms is quartered bearing both the French and English designs.
Arms of Edward III
This is known as ‘Arms of pretension’, where a monarch claims the throne of another kingdom by right of birth. He did this in response to the actions of Philip VI of France, who had confiscated Edward’s inherited French territories (Acquitaine and Ponthieu). This act had been in response to Edward’s attacks on Scotland, as France was committed to the Auld Alliance with Scotland, quid pro quo.
Instead of seeking a diplomatic solution Edward III declared himself to be rightful heir to the French throne as a descendant of William of Normandy, and had his coat of arms altered in a fit of pique, and so began a bloody dynastic struggle known as the Hundred Years War.
The young prince Richard II, as the son of Edward the Black Prince, had a coat of arms that showed his cadency, or status as the heir apparent to the crown. Marks of cadency came to be used widely in the 14th Century. They were specifically used to show heirs, and would be abandoned after the heir had succeeded his father’s title. Symbols of cadency are as varied as the countries that use them, and in England in the 14th century the ‘label’ was common:
Richard II, coat of arms of cadency. The red cross on the second point of the label denotes his position as second in line to the throne which was the case until his father, then Prince of Wales, died.
Richard II later became fascinated with the cult of Edward the Confessor, who had ruled England before the Norman invasion, and adopted him as a patron saint. He had the attributed arms of Edward the Confessor impaled with his own, with the Confessor’s arms situated on the more honoured dexter side.
Richard II’s royal coat of arms from 1395.
When Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) deposed Richard and claimed the throne for himself it was all change again for the royal coat of arms. Henry decided to copy the French king Charles VI, who had adopted the moderne design of only three fleur-de-lys instead of the older ancien design of wallpaper-style flowers. This was in reference to the holy trinity and underlined the connection of royalty to divinity. This same coat of arms was used (apart from an eccentric departure by Henry VI) right up to the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and was the last English coat of arms before the Union with Scotland and Ireland.
Royal arms of Henry IV, also used by Edward IV, Richard III, Henry Tudor, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
The Union of Crowns
At the union of crowns of 1603, where James VI of Scotland became James I of England, the new royal arms had to express this brand new ‘marriage’ of countries. The Scottish Royal arms previously bore a lion rampant inside what is known in Heraldic terms as a double tressure flory-counter-flory (see below). The tressure detail represents the auld alliance with France and symbolises French protection, as the flowers are French fleur-de-lys.
Royal Scottish arms pre-union of crowns, first used by King William (“the Lion”) of Scotland from 1165
A Tressure: in this instance, double tressure flory counter-flory
After the union of crowns the new coat of arms had to display not only Scotland as part of the Union but Ireland as well. The Kingdom of Ireland had historically used a harp on azure background.
Kingdom of Ireland coat of arms pre-union of crowns
The end result was a quartering which showed all the lands of the new union, with the exception of Wales (see below).
James I’s new union coat of arms from 1603, showing Ireland’s harp, Scotland’s lion, and still expressing the old French claim of Edward III.
The shield above is the Scottish version of the Union coat of arms. The English version replaces the Scottish lion in the top dexter and bottom sinister with the English lions and fleur-de-lys.
English version of Union coat of arms from 1603
This is starting to look similar to today’s United Kingdom coat of arms, but it is far from the whole story. After the deposition of Charles I and the Interregnum – that brief British republic, Oliver Cromwell and the parliamentarians had their own ideas about what a coat of arms should consist of. It certainly wasn’t going to include any symbols of nobility.
In 1649 Charles I was deposed and beheaded by the parliamentarians, and for the first time in modern European history a republic was declared. Monarchy was abolished along with the House of Lords, and an act of commonwealth was declared. Enter a brand new coat of arms.
Arms of the commonwealth 1649 – 1653
This coat of arms was to be entirely secular representing a state freed from the tyranny of nobility. Instead of the personal arms of the royal family, the English cross of St George was combined with the Irish harp. Later the Scottish saltire was added:
The arms of the commonwealth from 1659 – 1660
After the first attempts at forming a new kind of government failed, Cromwell became the Lord Protector of the Union, which was a king in all but name and a position he didn’t relish. His family crest, however, was added as an inescutcheon to complete the picture.
The coat of arms of the Protectorate 1653 – 1659
In the full achievement of arms – that is, the shield with its surrounding embellishments – the red dragon of Wales replaced the white unicorn of Scotland as one of the supporters of the shield. The white unicorn was associated with the Stuart dynasty, so it had to go. Cromwell’s personal shield was, in the language of heraldry, inescutcheon sable (black), lion rampant argent (silver), armed and langued gules (red). The inscription below: Pax Quaeritur bello, means ‘Peace is obtained through war’. This replaced the French inscription: ‘Dieu et mon droit’, meaning God and my right, expressing the divine right of monarchs.
They also got rid of the inscription on the ‘garter’ surrounding the royal escutcheon, which read: ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, an Anglo-Norman phrase meaning ‘evil unto him who thinks evil of it.’ After Cromwell’s demise the British coat of arms reverted to carrying both of these inscriptions, and reinstating the Stuart unicorn as below:
The modern British royal coat of arms
The unicorn is shown as chained to the ground. This dates back to a medieval belief that unicorns were dangerous unless tamed. It is not true that the unicorn is chained because of a reference to English rule over Scotland. In the original Scottish coat of arms there are two chained unicorns supporting the Scottish lion rampant, shown below. Heraldic unicorns were always depicted in this way.
Coat of arms of Kingdom of Scotland, pre-union of Crowns, showing chained unicorns supporting an escutcheon with Scottish lion rampant.
You may also notice in the modern version of the British full achievement of arms that the French fleur-de-lys has disappeared from the English quarterings. King George III abandoned the French claim in 1800, as by this time France had become a republic. Any monarch claiming ownership of France was theoretically for the guillotine! The Georgian kings made another addition to the British coat of arms during the early 19th century by adding their own Hanoverian arms as an inescutcheon:
Coat of arms of George III
By the time Victoria had ascended to the throne however, this was again taken out, as Victoria’s reign ended the Hanoverian link with Britain. The only change since has been made by Elizabeth II who had the old Kingdom of Ireland harp replaced with a Celtic harp without the female representation. Today the Celtic harp represents Northern Ireland.
The story of the British coat of arms shows the long and complex history of heraldry in one noble family, in this case the Royal family of Britain, but gives us a fair indication of how heraldry works. Each member of the family has his or her own variations. In heraldry this is called ‘differencing’. Prince Charles, for example, as Prince of Wales has had an inescutcheon added to his coat of arms of the coat of arms of Wales:
Coat of arms of Charles, Prince of Wales
His coat of arms also shows his status as heir apparent with the white cadency label on the top of his shield and a coronet over the Welsh escutcheon. The Welsh coat of arms was the original heraldic representation of the last native monarch of Wales, Llywelyn the Great. In the early twentieth century David Lloyd George complained that the Prince of Wales’s coat of arms was the only place poor old Wales was recognised anywhere in the array of British union arms, badges and flags. This is still true.
Another common differencing is in the shape of the escutcheon. Females in a family traditionally hold a lozenge or diamond shaped escutcheon, as a male was traditionally considered the only authorised holder of a military shield. So Princess Anne, the Princess Royal’s coat of arms is lozenge-shaped, while also bearing a cadency mark to show her proximity to the family inheritance:
Princess Royal’s coat of arms
Today in England the College of Arms, founded by Richard III (who was greatly interested in the subject of Heraldry), is still operational as a receptacle of heraldic tradition and knowledge. Today it is overseen by the Earl Marshall and one is still required to petition directly to him for a grant of arms.
During the reign of Henry VIII the College of Arms rose in prominence, as Henry VIII was in the business of granting many new arms, not least to his several wives. According to one contemporary writer, the augmentation granted to Anne Boleyn’s coat of arms when she married was a sign of the ‘degenerate’ condition to which heraldry had sunk. The college of Arms was required to follow Henry’s many royal processions and was present at the famous “Field of the Cloth of Gold” in 1520.
Officers from the College of Arms – detail from a tournament book from the reign of Henry VIII.
The Scottish equivalent of the College of Arms is the Court of Lord Lyon. Today it still has the power to impose fines for what it deems to be misuse of arms – that is individuals inventing their own arms instead of applying directly to Lord Lyon for a grant of arms. Today in Scotland one still cannot bear arms unless a number of conditions are met, among which includes proof of a virtuous and deserving character.
This is also true in England. A petitioner must submit a CV. Evidence of good character, worthy deeds and even whether or not one has a degree are taken into account. Elsewhere in the world a coat of arms can be bought, at a price.
Artist from the College of Arms working on Kate Middleton’s coat of arms prior to her marriage to Prince William. Source: WPA Pool/Getty Images Europe
This article has merely scratched the surface of the complex subject of heraldry, a subject which invokes artistry, symbolism, history, familial roots and nationhood. The language of heraldry no longer holds the authority of nobility that it once did, but it still retains the romance of history. The language and symbols involved in heraldry are part of a much deeper subject than we can truly do justice to here, but we hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into this fascinating subject.
If you’d like to further delve into the history of heraldry around the word, here is a good resource to get you started.
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