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Medieval Heraldry › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 22 May 2018
Coat of Arms of Joan of Arc ()
Heraldry, that is the use of inherited coats of arms and other symbols to show personal identity and family lineage, began on the mid-12th century CE battlefield as an easy means to identify medieval royalty and princes who were otherwise unrecognisable beneath their armour. By the 13th century CE, the practice had spread to nobles and knights who began to take pride in bearing the colours and arms of their family predecessors. Shields and tunics were particularly good places to display such symbols as lions, eagles, crosses, and geometric forms. As more and more knights employed coats of arms so they had to become more sophisticated to differentiate them, and the use of heraldry even spread to institutions such as universities, guilds, and towns. The practice still continues today, with many countries having official colleges of arms which assign individuals and institutions with new arms, and although the medieval knight has long since disappeared, the symbolism of heraldry remains a common sight from company logos to sports teams' badges.


In the Middle Ages, heraldry was known as armoury (in Old French armoirie ) and it was distinct from other and more ancient symbols worn by warriors on the battlefield because heraldic arms were both personal and hereditary. The name heraldry derives from the heralds, those officials responsible for listing and proclaiming ancient armorial bearings, especially at medieval tournaments. In the tournaments, a large number of knights either fought in mock cavalry battles or jousted against each other, and it was the heralds' job to advertise the coming of a tournament, indicate the rules under which they would be held, and pass on challenges issued by one knight to another.


It was, above all, the heralds' task to keep track of all the coats of arms and be able to identify which arms belonged to which name, perhaps listing them in a 'roll of arms'. By the 14th century CE, as rulers grasped that heralds with their extensive knowledge of who's who could be very useful sources of information on exactly who they were fighting against in battles, the status of heralds steadily grew. The heralds wore a short tunic (tabard) which was embroidered with the arms of their master.Heralds also acted as messengers and were given safe passage during times of war. Eventually, heralds were organising such important events as weddings and funerals for royalty and the nobility. The specialised study of family arms known as heraldry was now fully established, and it had become a social science with its own vocabulary, history, rules, and social grades.
From the 15th century CE, heralds and apprentice heralds (pursuivants) were employed in colleges of arms, which settled disputes over conflicting arms and examined people's claims to have one in the first place. There arose a whole series of specific rules and conventions of heraldry, and it was these colleges of heralds who replaced the monarch as the power who granted or removed arms (due to cowardice or serious crimes). In England, for example, the function was and still is performed by the Royal College of Arms in, appropriately enough, Queen Victoria Street, London. Such offices helped to sort out the confusion which had arisen from anyone, even peasants, creating their own coat of arms, and they accumulated detailed records of all the arms that had ever been created in their jurisdiction. The oldest known English roll of arms dates to c. 1244 CE. Currently housed in the British Library, it is a single sheet, painted on both sides by Mathew Paris and showing 75 coats of arms starting with the king's.
Herald of Arms

Herald of Arms


Medieval heraldry originated, then, sometime in the 12th century CE as individual warriors - first kings and then knights, too - sought to show off to their opponents exactly who they were up against hidden behind the armour. The idea was that when the enemy saw the three lions motif of Richard I or the black shield of the Black Prince, they would tremble with fear in the knowledge they were not about to fight just any old knight. The retainers of a certain knight and those knights who fought for a particular baron or other nobleman might also wear their master's arms and colours in special purpose liveries.
The next step was the children of celebrated warriors reusing the arms of their father and so the idea of a hereditary symbol developed with even daughters having the right to bear the arms of their parents. The first recognised instance of a coat of arms being passed on from one generation to another is that of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou (d. 1151 CE) and his grandson William Longespée ('Longsword', d. 1226 CE), who both have six lions rampant on the carved shield on their tombs.


The first symbols of identification did not have to be very complicated, indeed, simplicity and boldness made them all the more visible on the battlefield. The most obvious and striking place to carry identification was the shield, which might bear a single specific colour or two colours separated by a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line. Then, as more and more knights took up the trend, so arms had to become more varied if they were to keep their purpose of identification. As a result, not just colours but also symbols were adopted, for example, lions, eagles, tools, flowers, crosses, and stars were all popular choices. Symbols were sometimes stylised because they had to be recognisable from a distance and fit into the peculiar shape of a shield. In addition, certain colours were not mixed as that made the shield difficult to identify (eg black on purple and vice-versa)
Coat of Arms of Anne of Brittany

Coat of Arms of Anne of Brittany

The next step was to create a unique combination of these designs with certain colours. An additional source of variety was when two families married and their coats of arms could be mixed (compounding) - from a simple half and half ensemble to including a miniature version in one corner of the other. There were also symbols added to coats of arms to indicate the offspring of a holder of arms, for example, a white line through the shield to indicate a first son who otherwise had the same arms as his father. Similarly, a coat of arms might carry an extra symbol to denote the holder was an illegitimate son of the original bearer of the arms.



Coats of arms could be repeated on other paraphernalia of warfare such as on the front and back of surcoats (a long sleeveless gown tied at the waist and worn over armour), pennons (triangular lance flags), horse coverings, banners, and hung below the trumpets of heralds. Although rare because it was expensive, some knights had their arms engraved on their armour. Coats of arms were not only useful in warfare, though. They were a good way to identify competitors in medieval tournaments and knights often had to hang their coat of arms outside the inn in which they were staying during the event.From this practice, the idea of a permanent inn sign took hold, a fact which explains why many of the oldest pubs in England have such names as the Red Lion, Rose and Crown, Black Swan, and White Horse, all classic heraldic symbols.
Coats of arms might appear in official records, where they were often used as seals instead of signatures, and they were painted on residence walls, appeared in the stained glass windows of churches, were sculpted in stone on building exteriors, painted on tableware, and, of course, were represented on the tomb of the person who had born the right to carry the arms while alive. The shield-shape was always maintained and even developed as real shield designs changed over the centuries.When the shield became redundant in the 15th century CE thanks to all-encompassing plate armour, the designs of coats of arms became ever more fanciful and the shield more elaborate. However, the classic kite-shaped shield, although a little squatter, remains the favourite of heralds even today. The notable exceptions are the arms of women who, from the 14th century CE, began to bear their own coat of arms, typically in a lozenge shape.
Pontbriand Coat of Arms

Pontbriand Coat of Arms

As heraldry evolved and it became more important to show off family lineage than to identify oneself on a battlefield, coats of arms became more and more impressive and complex. These devices are known as an achievement in heraldic terms. No longer merely a shield form, they have retainers either side holding the shield (lions, unicorns, knights etc.), the shield might be topped with a crested helmet and even a crown in royal cases. Scrollwork such as complicated leaf arrangements surround the shield and a motto may be added below which encapsulates a family saying or commemorates a memorable event in their history.


Heraldry employs an extensive range of specific vocabulary so that coats of arms may be precisely described in words (a blazon). The shield, known as the field or ground, is divided into specific areas such as the top (chief), middle (fesse) and bottom (base). The right side of the shield is the dexter and the left side the sinister, with the right and left being from the viewpoint of someone holding the shield from behind, as in battle. The colours used in a shield are known as tinctures and have their own particular heraldic names. The colours used in medieval times were generally limited to:
  • Gold (yellow) - or
  • Silver (white) - argent
  • Red - gules
  • Black - sable
  • Green - vert
  • Purple - purpure
Green and purple were less commonly used than the others, while in the 15th century CE mulberry (murrey) and orange (tenné) were added to the list. An alternative background to colour was furs, that is designs which resemble the furs which were commonly used in medieval aristocratic clothing. The two most popular were ermine (from the stoat) with many small black tail tips and vair (from the squirrel) which was represented by various white and blue patterns.
13th Century CE Roll of Arms

13th Century CE Roll of Arms

To increase combinations, the shield was divided (parted) into different zones of colour by a single vertical (per pale), horizontal (fess) or diagonal line (bend dexter or bend sinister). Alternatively, the shield was divided into four blocks (quarterly), had a chevron, or was divided into either four (saltire) or eight triangles (gyronny). These standard eight variations eventually evolved into a much larger number of divisions and designs. The dividing line between areas of colour could also be altered to provide even more variety, becoming, for example, wavy, crenellated, or zig-zag. Yet another variety was to give the shield a border (sub-ordinary) or impose thick lines of colour (ordinaries) such as stripes, chevrons, crosses and Y-shapes.
Another popular form of identity on shields was to use animate charges (birds and animals) or inanimate charges (everyday objects like spurs, hammers, axes etc.). Monsters from mythology generally only appeared on arms after the medieval period.
The description of a coat of arms had to be precise so that artists could reproduce them without a more expensive visual source. For this reason, a convention of description evolved where the elements which made up a coat of arms were always described in the following order and their exact position noted:
  1. the field and its divisions (background)
  2. the ordinary (lines)
  3. the principal charges (objects)
  4. the charge on the ordinary
  5. the sub-ordinaries
  6. the charges on the sub-ordinaries
Heraldry still thrives today, of course, and has spread from the individual to the group with clubs, sports teams, and even businesses all creating their own badges of identity. Colleges of arms continue to issue new coats of arms for families, although the process can be both lengthy and expensive so that, even in the more socially mobile societies of the modern world, there is still some distinction and cachet in having the right to them. Coats of arms can still be seen in all manner of places where they send clear visual messages such as those which proclaim state authority on military uniforms and banknotes, those which promote quality and history as on fine porcelain and foodstuffs, and those which promote civic pride such as on fountains and war memorials.

Order of the Garter › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 23 May 2018
Henry, Duke of Lancaster (Unknown Artist)
The Most Noble Order of the Garter is the highest order of knighthood in Britain and the most exclusive with traditionally only 24 knights as full members at any one time, along with the reigning monarch and the Prince of Wales. Created by Edward III c.1348 CE, the chivalric order was one of the first of a growing trend where rulers and noble knights sought to differentiate themselves from the increasing number of knights in the late medieval period. The order's annual gathering at Saint George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, with its magnificent procession of members and retainers in full regalia, maintains the traditions of pomp and pageantry for which the Middle Ages are rightly famous.


The Order of the Garter was created by the English monarch Edward III (r. 1327-1377 CE) around 1348 CE and dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint George. The king was still in a celebratory mood after England ’s famous victory over a much bigger French army at the Battle of Crécy in August 1346 CE and was eager to further emphasise the nation's martial prowess by creating an elite order of knights. In addition, by the 14th century CE, the number of knights had greatly increased so that the upper ranks of the nobility began to look for some way in which they could differentiate themselves from other knights and create a sort of private members club. These elite brotherhoods were designed to also pull together the greatest fighters and most useful military knowledge and experience so that in times of war the order would prove a useful part of the army's command structure. Finally, such secular chivalric orders were a good way for a sovereign to ensure the loyalty of their best knights who otherwise may have joined an order whose members, instead, swore allegiance to the church (the then-defunct Knights Templar being an example of such an order).


The Order of the Garter was the first of such chivalric orders in England, but there had been several already formed elsewhere, notably the Order of the Sash by King Alfonso XI of Castile and Leon (r. 1313-1350 CE) and the Order of Saint Catherine in France, both founded during the 1330s CE. The pomp and ceremony of the Order of the Garter was something more, though, and it would spawn many other famous orders at home and abroad such as the Order of the Golden Fleece, created by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1419-1467 CE) in 1430 CE.
Just like the legendary Round Table of King Arthur, the order of the Garter was, from the outset, intended to be a very exclusive club indeed. Its first two members were Edward III himself and his son, Edward the Black Prince and Prince of Wales. Alongside this pair were 24 knights, known as Companions of the Order of the Garter, all of whom had fought at the Battle of Crécy. Each member was granted the right to wear a dark blue garter as a symbol of their membership and new rank.A specific coat of arms was created for the order, which includes the flag of Saint George enclosed in a circle made up of a garter. Besides the knights, there were 26 priests and 26 'poor knights' (faith and charity being great chivalric ideals) who were expected to pray for the souls of the more illustrious full members, although they did receive free clothes, food, and lodgings at Windsor castle.
Order of the Garter Badge

Order of the Garter Badge


There was not much point in being a member of an exclusive set unless one could show the fact off, and there are various theories as to just why a garter was selected as the order's emblem. One view is that it is not actually a garter at all but a sword belt, and it is true that in many depictions of the order's arms the garter has a buckle. The more romantic (and later) explanation for the origin of the garter involves a certain ball in Calais, France. At this party, a lady, possibly Joan, Countess of Salisbury, was unfortunate enough to have lost her garter on the dance floor. King Edward III was in attendance at this ball and, seeing the mishap, he chivalrously collected the garter and uttered the following comment:
Honi soi, qui mal y pense
Evil be on him who thinks it.
These words now appear within the blue garter of the order's emblem, and they may refer to Edward admonishing anyone who drew attention to the mishap at the ball or, more likely, it actually refers to the King's claim of sovereignty over France and admonishes anyone who doubts it. A further connection to France is the colours of the garter which are also those of the French royal arms - blue and gold. However, the earliest depictions of the garter actually show it as mulberry (murrey in heraldic terms). The garter was certainly a practical choice as it could easily be worn on the upper arm by a knight wearing armour. The robes or mantle of the order, worn during ceremonies, was established by the 15th century CE as blue with a garter on the left shoulder. In addition, members were (and still are) expected to wear a real garter on the left leg above the knee when representing the order at official occasions.
As with most regalia, over time the robe became even more splendid. Henry VII (r. 1485-1509 CE) added a collar made up of gold knots and red roses encircled with garters. From the collar (actually a gold necklace) a representation of a mounted Saint George killing his dragon foe is suspended. Nowadays, members also wear a black Tudor bonnet with white ostrich plumage.Then, for those occasions when the full robes are not worn, say on a military dress uniform (see HRH Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge on his wedding day in 2011 CE) there is the star of the order which was introduced by Charles I (r. 1625-1649 CE) in 1629 CE. The star may be worn with a wide blue ribband or sash across the wearer's left shoulder.
Star of the Order of the Garter

Star of the Order of the Garter


The Garter King of Arms is the principal king of arms in Britain and most senior herald, responsible for all heraldic matters of the Order of the Garter (and many additional duties besides). The first holder of the office was Sir William Bruges in the mid-15th century CE. In official ceremonies involving other heralds, he is identified by his badge and gold sceptre which carries the flag of Saint George, the royal arms, and a crown. The Garter King of Arms is responsible for the administration of the order, although the appointment of members remains the right of the reigning monarch. For the first two centuries of the order's history only those with martial experience were eligible, but even today there is always a good number of the 24 knights who once held senior positions in the armed forces.
To the honour of God Omnipotent and in Memorial of the Blessed Martyr, Saint George, tie about they leg, for thy renown, this most Noble Garter. Wear it as a symbol of the Most Illustrious Order, never to be forgotten or laid aside, that thereby thou mayest be admonished to be courageous, and having undertaken a just war, with which thou shalt be engaged, thou mayest stand firm, valiantly fight courageously and successfully conquer. (Slater, 158)
In the medieval ceremony, knights of the Garter had to swear to certain rules of behaviour such as never fighting on opposing sides, never to leave England without the king's permission, and to always wear the garter at tournaments and battle.
Saint George's Chapel, Windsor

Saint George's Chapel, Windsor

Although membership is still limited to 24 knights today, there are a few extras known as supernumerary members, who usually include additional members of the royal family and selected foreign sovereigns and former politicians. Women were associated with the order in medieval times, and although they were not considered full members of the order, they could wear the garter on their left arm, as seen in several tomb effigies. The last woman to be so privileged was the mother of Henry VII, Margaret Beaufort (d. 1509 CE). Thereafter, only men could be members of any kind, except queens. From 1987 CE the order accepted women as members again, this time with full rights and known as Lady Companions of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. The former Prime minister Margaret Thatcher was made a member, for example.
Aside from the splendid finery members of the order may wear, they are also entitled to put the letters KG after their name and add “Sir” or “Lady” to their forename. Other perks include automatic invites to certain state events, including royal weddings, for example. A heraldic perk is to have the right to add the garter emblem to the family coat of arms (achievement) and add retainers to it (the figures who stand either side of the central shield). The coat of arms of a member, which may have to be created by the Royal College of Arms if the holder does not yet have one, is hung in Saint Georges' chapel in Windsor Castle, the religious headquarters, as it were, of the order. The flag hangs above the member's private stall in the church which is also indicated by a metal plaque bearing their name. The flag is removed when a member of the order dies, but the plaques always remain and so provide an interesting record of past membership.
Saint George's Chapel hosts the great annual gathering of the order, held on a Monday in mid-June. If there are to be any new knights invested in the order, there is a morning service in the Throne Room of Windsor Castle. After lunch, a magnificent procession with all members in their full regalia winds through Windsor Castle from Saint George's Hall to the chapel. The display of medieval pageantry is rivalled only by such royal occasions as a coronation and is a marvellous example of the continuity of medieval traditions in Britain.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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