The supposedly learned and educated class of the 17th and 18th century had such a poor opinion of the Middle Ages that it may have been expected that Heraldry , deprived of several of its former supporters, might fall into disrepair. This disrepair was perfectly illustrated by the terrible style in which Coats of Arms were produced during this time period. One prominent example of this is the dreadful Coat of Arms granted to Admiral Nelson. Admiral Nelson’s career is symbolized on his shield. The Nelsons were an ancient family, and the original Coat of Arms was simply a single black cross on a gold field with a red diagonal line: Or a cross sable, overall a bend gules. The system of augmentation that was in place meant that with each major victory of Lord Nelson’s the Coat of Arms was changed. On top of the red diagonal line ( bend) is placed another in gold which is charged with three bombs fired proper. Then a chief ( across the top of the shield ) was granted as an honorable augmentation in recognition of Nelson’s victory at the battle of the Nile. This chief is not straight but undulated having upon it “ waves of the sea from which a palm tree issues between a disabled ship on the right and a battery in ruins on the left, all proper. “
The trouble with this type of Heraldic design is that it does not merely mark a few Coats of Arms but the style, which it enshrines, has a tendency to perpetuate itself, which happened in the 18th century. Unfortunately many examples abound from Arms that were issued in this period.
Another important occasion where Heralds were very much in evidence was the Knights Tournaments. These faded in frequency and popularity after the death of the eldest son of King James I, Prince Henry in 1612. At tournaments it had been the duty of the Herald to note the style and quality of the entrants and to check that they were of noble birth. Another duty of a Herald at the tournament was keeping the scores of the contestants.
Another function of the Heralds was to attend and supervise the funerals of the nobility and gentry. The Coats of Arms of the deceased were displayed on banners at the funeral, but the heraldic marshaling of arms and arrangement of precedence among mourners ceased at the end of the 17th century. Up to the end of the 17th century there are many references to to the use of Arms in English literature, but after the gradual curtailment of the Heralds’ functions, the discontinuance of the Visitations, and the cessation of the Court of Chivalry references became fewer and fewer and Heraldry faded somewhat from the zeitgeist. While the officers at the Heralds’ College were thus thrown back on their own resources, the Middle Ages became an object of ridicule and dislike to the cultured men of the 18th century. David Hume wrote of the medieval history of England in the following terms, speaking of Alfred the Great as one who might for virtue be “set in opposition to that of any monarch which the annals of any age or nation can present to us, fortune, alone, by throwing him into that barbarous age, deprived him of historians worthy to transmit his name to posterity” Writing of Thomas Ă Beckett, Hume says, “ No man who enters into the genius of that age can reasonably doubt of this prelate’s sincerity. The spirit of superstition was so prevalent, that it infallibly caught every careless reasoner” The cover of Hume’s first volume shows an allegorical picture of Britannica with the caption “ The state of Britain during the early period of its history. Brittania appears sunk in slavery and superstition.”
During the Tudor and early Stuart periods in England, there was a lot of activity in the field of Heraldry. As we have previously seen, many of the Heralds’ Visitations were ignored or not fully attended. Despite this the Heralds did succeed in making many people take out grants of Coats of Arms, and also register pedigrees. This activity was brought to an untimely halt by the abdication of James II from the throne in 1688 and by the failure of the Court of Chivalry to sit after 1735.As no Visitations took place and the Court of Chivalry did not sit after this time, the Heralds were placed in a position where no one was obliged to come to them.
In the Middle Ages and right up until the reign of Charles II (1630-1685) Heralds had had many functions. In the Medieval battles Heralds not only traveled with the armies but also tallied the dead and injured according to their rank. Chaucer alluded to this in the Knight’s Tale when he says that the particular corpses were recognized “in the tass of bodies dead” by their coat armour. In Henry V, when the short tale of English dead is rendered, the few persons of quality are recognized and described by their arms emblazoned on surcoats and shields. But the passing of body armor did away with this heraldic function. The ambassadorial functions of the Heralds lasted much longer. As late as the reign of Charles II we find Heralds being used as ambassadors. The family of St. George had as many as five Kings of Arms, one of them Sir Henry St. George, Garter King of Arms, was sent in 1625 with William le Neve, the York Herald, to accompany Princess Henrietta Maria to England for her marriage to Charles I, for which service he received from King Louis XIII of France the sum of 1,000 French crowns. In 1627 Sir Henry was joined in a commission with Lord Spencer and Peter Young to present the insignia of the Order of the Garter to Gustavus Adolphus when the latter was made a Knight of that order. From Gustavus Adolphus , Sir Henry had an augmentation of his arms, showing the royal arms of Sweden.
The language of Heraldry had become an anachronism by the 17th century; to speak of shields, helmets and crests when none of these things were actually worn or used anymore is simply the continuation of a way of speaking and writing which is inseparable from the use of Heraldic terms. But it is important to remember that the uses of Heraldry described in the previous few posts are mainly responsible for keeping the art and science of Coats of Arms alive. Heraldry had ceased to fulfill its original function and had become either ornamental or snobbish, the sign of gentility. The idea that the proper definition of a gentleman is “ one who has received a grant of arms ‘ is quite wrong, but it is as old as Tudor England. The Shakespearean evidence on the snobbery of Tudor Heraldry is well known. In the Taming of the Shrew Act II, Scene I, when Petruchio offers to cuff Katharina, she says,
“So may you lose your arms;
If you strike me you are no gentleman;
And if no gentleman, why then no arms”
To which Petruchio replies, “ A Herald, Kate? Oh put me in thy books” William Shakespeare was more than willing to be put in the Heralds’ books. In 1599 arms were granted to William Shakespeare by the College of Arms. He had petitioned in 1596 for a coat of arms to be assigned to his father John, and the draft of the grant is dated 20 October 1596. The Arms granted were; or on a bend sable a speare or,steeled argent. ( On a field of gold, a black diagonal line with a spear with a gold handle and silver blade). Shakespeare’s interest in the matter may have been stirred by the possession of Arms on the part of his mother’s family. The Arden’s, which still exists in the male line to this day and is one of the very few English families that can be traced back prior to the Norman Conquest. Dethick, from the College of Arms, who granted arms to Shakespeare was criticized by his peers for the type of people to whom he granted Arms. Theatre artists were not rated very highly in the Tudor period and for one of them to become a gentleman was not viewed favorably by many. There are large numbers of allusions to Heraldry throughout Shakespeare’s work.
Shakespeare Coat of Arms
The uses of Heraldry as a form of decoration are many. Banners, flags and pennants were all used in the older days of Heraldry and the house flag lived on long after these early days. There are many countries that use either the Coat of Arms of the land or at least some of the colors of the Arms for the flag. Spain, for example, has the royal arms contained within its national flag, see image above. Firearms often have Coats of Arms engraved on them, in the case of pistols the engraving is usually on the butt of the gun. In the case of some 17th century pistols which can be quite valuable, the Coat of Arms marking is often used in determining the ownership and value of the gun. Heraldic china is also a popular part of heraldic collections. Many distinguished families had their Coats of Arms on Worcester or Stafford china and much of this still exists today.
Two other instances of Heraldry in the public domain are inn signs and the use of royal arms. The royal arms are frequently displayed in old churches where they were placed at the time of the Reformation as a sign of the royal supremacy over the church. A fine example of this can be found at St. Etheldreda’s church in Holborn, London. The church was bought by the Roman Catholic Church and the royal arms were removed from the church into the precincts as a sign that the Roman Church is under the rule of the Pope and does not acknowledge royal supremecy. St. Etheldreda’s also has a fascinating collection of heraldic engravings, placed there by one of the officers of the College of Arms, Edward Bellasis, they illustrate the history of his family.
St. Etheldreda's Church
As noted previously Coats of Arms played a large part in the tombs of the deceased in the Middle Ages. Another instance of this particular usage can be found on the brasses on the floor of many churches and cathedrals. In the medieval and early modern periods in particular, monumental brasses and incised slabs were popular forms of monuments or memorials used to cover the tombs of those buried inside churches. An incised slab is a flat memorial with an effigy of the deceased, a cross or Coat of Arms, with epitaph, cut directly into the stone; they originated before the Norman Conquest. A monumental brass, by contrast, is engraved on sheets of metal inlaid in matrices cut into the stone; they have been made in England from the thirteenth century to the present day.
The earliest known example of English Brass is the brass of Sir John D’Abernon at St. Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon which dates from 1277.The D’Abernons came to England as retainers to the Clare family, who served William the Conqueror. For their part in the Conquest the Clares were given lands in Surrey and Sussex some of which they passed on to their followers. At first the D’Abernons had two manors, one in Molesey and one in Albury. Later they acquired the Manor of Stoke and went to live there, giving it the name of Stoke D’Abernon.Three knights called John D’Abernon, are buried in Stoke D’Abernon Church. The Brass is question, see image above, shows the knight in chain mail armor and bearing his Coat of Arms on a shield Azure a chevron or ( a gold chevron on a blue field).Tombs brasses and hatchments, these were the honors of the dead, their epitaphs being the Coats of Arms displayed thereon. These nobles lived on through the depiction of their arms in their final resting places and these arms have in many cases endured to the present day.