HISTORY

LEARN ABOUT THE UNIQUE TRADITION OF HERALDRY

PRECURSORS

Various symbols have been used to represent individuals or groups for thousands of years. The earliest representations of distinct persons and regions in Egyptian art show the use of standards topped with the images or symbols of various gods, and the names of kings appear upon emblems known as serekhs, representing the king’s palace, and usually topped with a falcon representing the god Horus, of whom the king was regarded as the earthly incarnation. Similar emblems and devices are found in ancient Mesopotamian art of the same period, and the precursors of heraldic beasts such as the griffin can also be found. In the Bible, the Book of Numbers refers to the standards and ensigns of the children of Israel, who were commanded to gather beneath these emblems and declare their pedigrees. The Greek and Latin writers frequently describe the shields and symbols of various heroes,[11] and units of the Roman army were sometimes identified by distinctive markings on their shields.

Until the nineteenth century, it was common for heraldic writers to cite examples such as these, and metaphorical symbols such as the “Lion of Judah” or “Eagle of the Caesars” as evidence of the antiquity of heraldry itself; and to infer therefrom that the great figures of ancient history bore arms representing their noble status and descent. The Book of Saint Albans, compiled in 1486, declares that Christ himself was a gentleman of coat armour. These claims are now regarded as the fantasy of medieval heralds, as there is no evidence of a distinctive symbolic language akin to that of heraldry during this early period; nor do many of the shields described in antiquity bear a close resemblance to those of medieval heraldry; nor is there any evidence that specific symbols or designs were passed down from one generation to the next, representing a particular person or line of descent.

The medieval heralds also devised arms for various knights and lords from history and literature. Notable examples include the toads attributed to Pharamond, the cross and martlets of Edward the Confessor, and the various arms attributed to the Nine Worthies and the Knights of the Round Table. These too are readily dismissed as fanciful inventions, rather than evidence of the antiquity of heraldry.

Origins of modern heraldry

The development of the modern heraldic language cannot be attributed to a single individual, time, or place. Although certain designs that are now considered heraldic were evidently in use during the eleventh century, most accounts and depictions of shields up to the beginning of the twelfth century contain little or no evidence of their heraldic character. For example, the Bayeux Tapestry, illustrating the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and probably commissioned about 1077, when the cathedral of Bayeux was rebuilt,[i] depicts a number of shields of various shapes and designs, many of which are plain, while others are decorated with dragons, crosses, or other typically heraldic figures. Yet no individual is depicted twice bearing the same arms, nor are any of the descendants of the various persons depicted known to have borne devices resembling those in the tapestry.

Similarly, an account of the French knights at the court of the Byzantine emperor Alexius I at the beginning of the twelfth century describes their shields of polished metal, devoid of heraldic design. A Spanish manuscript from 1109 describes both plain and decorated shields, none of which appears to have been heraldic. The Abbey of St. Denis contained a window commemorating the knights who embarked on the Second Crusade in 1147, and was probably made soon after the event; but Montfaucon’s illustration of the window before it was destroyed shows no heraldic design on any of the shields.

In England, from the time of the Norman conquest, official documents had to be sealed. Beginning in the twelfth century, seals assumed a distinctly heraldic character; a number of seals dating from between 1135 and 1155 appear to show the adoption of heraldic devices in England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. A notable example of an early armorial seal is attached to a charter granted by Philip I, Count of Flanders, in 1164. Seals from the latter part of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries show no evidence of heraldic symbolism, but by the end of the twelfth century, seals are uniformly heraldic in nature.

One of the earliest known examples of armory as it subsequently came to be practiced can be seen on the tomb of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, who died in 1151. An enamel, probably commissioned by Geoffrey’s widow between 1155 and 1160, depicts him carrying a blue shield decorated with six golden lions rampant.He wears a blue helmet adorned with another lion, and his cloak is lined in vair. A medieval chronicle states that Geoffrey was given a shield of this description when he was knighted by his father-in-law, Henry I, in 1128; but this account probably dates to about 1175

The earlier heraldic writers attributed the lions of England to William the Conqueror, but the earliest evidence of the association of lions with the English crown is a seal bearing two lions passant, used by the future King John during the lifetime of his father, Henry II, who died in 1189. Since Henry was the son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, it seems reasonable to suppose that the adoption of lions as an heraldic emblem by Henry or his sons might have been inspired by Geoffrey’s shield. John’s elder brother, Richard the Lionheart, who succeeded his father on the throne, is believed to have been the first to have borne the arms of three lions passant-guardant, still the arms of England, having earlier used two lions rampant combatant, which arms may also have belonged to his father. Richard is also credited with having originated the English crest of a lion statant (now statant-guardant).

The origins of heraldry are sometimes associated with the Crusades, a series of military campaigns undertaken by Christian armies from 1096 to 1487, with the goal of reconquering Jerusalem and other former Byzantine territories captured by Muslim forces during the seventh century. While there is no evidence that heraldic art originated in the course of the Crusades, there is no reason to doubt that the gathering of large armies, drawn from across Europe for a united cause, would have encouraged the adoption of armorial bearings as a means of identifying one’s commanders in the field, or that it helped disseminate the principles of armory across Europe. At least two distinctive features of heraldry are generally accepted as products of the crusaders: the surcoat, an outer garment worn over the armor to protect the wearer from the heat of the sun, was often decorated with the same devices that appeared on a knight’s shield. It is from this garment that the phrase “coat of arms” is derived. Also the lambrequin, or mantling, that depends from the helmet and frames the shield in modern heraldry, began as a practical covering for the helmet and the back of the neck during the Crusades, serving much the same function as the surcoat. Its slashed or scalloped edge, today rendered as billowing flourishes, is thought to have originated from hard wearing in the field, or as a means of deadening a sword blow and perhaps entangling the attacker’s weapon.

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Senectus erat sem tincidunt mi duis vehicula, est diam molestie. Mauris in ut eget wisi, et mollis bibendum nulla, amet malesuada. Mauris in ut eget wisi, et mollis bibendum nulla, amet malesuada.

Max Jewell