DEFINITION AND ORIGIN OF HERALDRY
HERALDRY, or Armory as it was anciently called, was in the first place a kind of picture-writing to distinguish a man from his fellows. Quite possibly it originated in such games as children still play, where one pretends to be a bear, another a wolf, another a lion, and so on. From this it was but a step to the painting or tattooing of a device or totem upon a man's breast, and as soon as defensive weapons had been invented, to the transfer and repetition of such figures on shields and targets. This fashion of adorning shields with devices of all kinds has existed from very early times, and any series of Greek vases or Roman monumental sculptures (such as those on Trajan's Column) will furnish examples. Quite a gallery of distinctive emblems may be seen upon the banners and shields of the English and the Normans in the famous Bayeux Stitchwork; but it is clear that at the time of the Norman Conquest such devices did not follow any definite system, and there was nothing in the nature of descent from father to son such as arose later.
During the twelfth century a systematic treatment of the devices on shields gradually grew up, and by the end of it had become crystallized. Gilbert of Clare, who died in 1152, used between 1138 and 1146 a seal with the well-known cheverons of his house (Fig. 1); and the three lions or leopards which are still the arms of the King of England (Fig. 2) had become so as early as 1177, when they occur on a seal used by John the son of Henry II, as Lord of Ireland. Much about this time there are other indications of the general growth of systematic bearings, and owing probably to the influence of the Crusades, by the beginning of the thirteenth century heraldry had become a recognized science. So many armorial bearings, too, had now been invented as to necessitate the entering of them for reference on long rolls of parchment.
Fig. 1. Clare
(Gold three cheverons gules)
Fig. 2. England
(Gules three gold leopards)
These rolls of arms, as they are called, are the most important records available for the study of heraldry. They consisted at first of rows of painted shields, with the name of the owner written over each shield; but it was found more convenient later to enter only a description of them, and it is by the comparison of these written rolls with those that are merely pictorial, and with contemporary armorial seals, that the simple language may be learned by which arms were first described.
The oldest descriptions of arms are in French, but at the beginning of King Edward IV's reign heraldic language emerged from the French and took an English form, all save purely technical words being simply translated. The old French names of the colours were, however, generally retained, but or became 'gold' and argent 'silver.'
One of the earliest armorial records consists of a series of shields and banners painted on the margins of a manuscript of the Historia Anglorum of Matthew Paris, now in the British Museum1 written down to the events of the year 1253 by Matthew himself.
1 Royal MS. 14 c vii.
The oldest of the pictorial rolls is possibly one in the Heralds' College, now cut up into sections and pasted into a scrap-book. It consists of rows of shields with names over, and may be as early as 1250.
Another pictorial roll of the end of the thirteenth century, of equal authority, belongs to the Society of Antiquaries of London, but the names have evidently been written in afterwards.
Of the descriptive rolls the most important is that known from its length as the Great Roll, and is of the reign of Edward II. Further reference to this will be made later.
Rolls that combine picture and description are very rare. A good typical example known as the Stacy-Grimaldi Roll is in the John Rylands Library at Manchester.
The value of the pictorial rolls is of course greatly enhanced by their authority for the drawing of arms as well as the colours employed.
Heraldry appears upon seals almost as soon as it became systematized; and about the same time that the earliest rolls were drawn it began to be displayed upon monuments and in association with architecture in buildings. Where monumental heraldry has retained the colouring that was so universally applied to it, the shields are evidence as valuable as the rolls. A beautiful early instance of such shields combined with architecture can be seen in the aisles behind the quire in the abbey church of Westminster (Figs. 3 and 101), which aisles can be proved by these very shields to have been built before 1269. Another good series, mostly in pairs to denote alliances, is carved upon the gate-house of Kirkham Priory in Yorkshire, which can thus be shown to have been built between 1289 and 1296. Heraldry plays a prominent part in the nave and presbytery of York Minster, and in part of the nave of St Albans, as well as in many a parish church, like that at Lavenham in Suffolk. A fine array of early Tudor shields and badges is to be seen upon the old prior's gateway at Peterborough. Chimney-pieces have at all times been used for the display of heraldry. Early window glass often contains beautiful coloured shields of arms, as at York, Tewkesbury, Gloucester, and many other places.
Fig. 3. Shield of the arms of Old France in Westminster abbey church
(From Heraldry for Craftsmen and Designers)
Heraldic seals are especially valuable objects of study. They extend in an unbroken and ever-growing series from the close of the twelfth century, at the time that armory was becoming a thing of life, and they were constantly being engraved for men of every rank, and even for ladies (Fig. 4), who bore and used arms, and for cities and towns and other corporate bodies (like the monastic houses, the halls and colleges at the universities, and the London livery companies) entitled to have seals.
Moreover, since seals were produced under the direction of, and continually being used by their owners, the heraldry on them has a personal interest of the greatest value, as showing not only what arms the owners bore, but how they were intended to be seen. Seals were engraved too by the foremost craftsmen of the time; and owing to their small size, which rarely exceeds that of a crown piece and is usually much less, they present in a concentrated form everything that is beautiful and delightful in heraldry, all through the days when people revelled in it and played with it.
Seal of Cecily Nevill, wife of Richard duke of York and mother of King Edward IV, 1461
(From Heraldry for Craftsmen and Designers)