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Introduction To Heraldry Part 1

Discussion in 'Historical Heraldry Forums' started by Serena Valentina, Oct 24, 2016.

  1. Serena Valentina

    Serena Valentina Sorceress (mage) Lore Master Natus Gryphe Myths & Legends 2017 Waivers Blogger Elder

    Introduction to Heraldry Part 1: Uses, Historical and Modern

    By Kim Brunner

    Heraldry is something most people believe they can jump head first into after discovering their family “coat of arms” on Google. Heck I know I thought that upon first seeing the golden well tagged along to the Brunner family. Well digging, it's what my family once did over in Europe so that's why it's a well. Gotta be that simple, right?

    I could not have been more wrong
    A few years later, working along side a group known as the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) has taught me a few more things, like what colors mean what, and not to put metal on top of metal. But these all seemed to me things seen almost solely in the group. Rules of the SCA to keep things easy.

    So what was heraldry like during the middle ages? And how can it be attributed to groups outside of the SCA to areas such as LARP?

    First off, the big one. What was it like? What was it for? Were the arms for family names or for personal?

    These are questions easily answered at first before going into finer details. I will be using both historical and modern examples to help illustrate differences in meaning.

    Heraldy is, in essence, the art of telling who is who on the battlefield and in tournament. Oh, that man has a red lion on a gold and green field! He must be William Marshall! The man behind him has something similar, only has a white embattled chief on top! Must be his son, the arms look so similar! That man over there has a single golden lion on red! King Henry II!


    The images on the arms are far easier to draw than a perfect rendition of a face, so for learning names for those you have yet to see it was far easier to remember a particular pattern of images on a shield, or reading the blazoning of the device in a book. It also helps when you're out fighting and your face is completely closed in by a visor. That way, when in a major battle, a knight on the opposing side would know your rank and would decide if you're worth killing or taking hostage. A man in armor but no tabard displaying arms would be far more likely to be killed than the man on the horse with even a device as simple as Henry II. The simplicity of the arms meant very little in battle, it was the fact that he carried it on the battlefield that meant he was nobleman, and that he had money for ransom.

    (Image from the Combat of the Thirty at Pennsic 2016)

    Now, on top of being used to tell Henry apart from William it was also used to follow family lineages. It became common around the 12th century that sons of noblemen had the same arms as his father, with a slight addition: the white embattled chief, traditionally with 3 to seven embattlements.


    William's first son, however, opted to take his fathers full device unedited as opposed to my example above. Another common practice for the first century or two that heraldry started being around. But enough of that, how did heraldry go from simple images to something more complex? Such as the coat of arms from Edward, the Black Prince?


    As sons took their fathers arms, sometimes women took them as well. It was common that, with ruling families and landowning women, upon marriage a “family” device was pieced together, half from the husbands side and half from the wife’s. Occasionally, as seen in the arms of the Black Prince, the images would be doubled and the shield device quartered.

    Another trend with noblemen, primarily when coming from lower roots such as Sir William Marshal, is to imitate the arms of the current monarch. Lions, because of such, started to appear everywhere. From Williams red to England's gold to Spain's blue. Lions, because of their strength and power, became a sign of true nobility and were sought after to be displayed on arms.

    The various additions of new nobility, additions from children, and divides from marriage continue on to modern era. The longer and higher in rank the lineages go, the more gets added to the once simple images, going as far as adding much smaller, secondary shields within the arms themselves, as made apparent in the arms of Pillip II, English King Consort of Spain.


    Funny enough, most of the images displaying arms above are shown in the most basic depictions. In official scrolls arms would be viewed in a style known as full ornamentation, where you see the device centered between two supports, under a helmet with crest, and occasionally atop a mound with a crowd underneath. A motto, usually in French or Latin, is oftentimes seen depicted upon a banner anywhere on the image, and in the case of knights a belt or collar of office showed which order they belonged to. Both King Charles I and King Phillip II show that they are in the Order of the Golden Fleece.

    (Arms of King Charles I of Spain Fully Ornamented)


    I've gone over how heraldry became big in its' uses, and kept stating that it's used in the modern world as well. Game of Thrones(GoT), for example, is one of the biggest trends in this day, and has amazing uses of heraldry. However, using some images that were specifically made for the show can produce copyright issues, so I will show you how to avoid that as well.

    In GoT you can truly see some of heraldry in action. You see sigils flying in the wind atop banners, banners sitting behind the rulers, banners…. Alright, you mostly see banners. In true medieval times these sigils would be not only on banners, but would be worn over armor, stitched into a dress or tunic, and displayed proudly on shields.

    Many of the images in the GoT sigils are historically correct, notice how the House Lannister lion looks remarkably similar to that of Henry II. Others, such as the dragon of House Targaryen and the direwolf of House Stark, bare very little resemblance to how the images would have been properly depicted.

    (Image from TV Overmind)

    However modern advances in art and technology in the battlefield do allow for modern freedoms of heraldry. It has become an art picked up by businesses in modern times, and has found a new name: logo. A giant golden double-arch, normally displayed on red? You know that's McDonalds. A winking smiley face, that's Walmart. Modern heraldry even recognizable in modern blazoning.

    Some groups today also have the ability to give you your own heraldry, the SCA is one such group. Members of the Society have dug far more into heraldry research than I covered today. They are a re-enactment group regarding pre 16th century history. If you wish to go more in depth than what I can manage please, do feel free to join up and ask questions.

    Remember, history is always alive and should never be forgotten.


    Links to Sources:

    Heraldic Dictionary - Introduction and Index
    The University of Notre Dame Heraldry Section

    Henry II of England - Wikipedia
    Henry II

    William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke - Wikipedia
    Sir William Marshal

    Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc.
    The Society for Creative Anachronism

    Order of the Golden Fleece - Wikipedia
    The Order of the Golden Fleece

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