A Complete Guide to Heraldry/Chapter 2
THE STATUS AND THE MEANING OF A COAT OF ARMS IN GREAT BRITAIN
It would be foolish and misleading to assert that the possession of a coat of arms at the present date has anything approaching the dignity which attached to it in the days of long ago; but one must trace this through the centuries which have passed in order to form a true estimate of it, and also to properly appreciate a coat of arms at the present time. It is necessary to go back to the Norman Conquest and the broad dividing lines of social life in order to obtain a correct knowledge. The Saxons had no armory, though they had a very perfect civilisation. This civilisation William the Conqueror upset, introducing in its place the system of feudal tenure with which he had been familiar on the Continent. Briefly, this feudal system may be described as the partition of the land amongst the barons, earls, and others, in return for which, according to the land they held, they accepted a liability of military service for themselves and so many followers. These barons and earls in their turn sublet the land on terms advantageous to themselves, but nevertheless requiring from those to whom they sublet the same military service which the King had exacted from themselves proportionate with the extent of the sublet lands. Other subdivisions took place, but always with the same liability of military service, until we come to those actually holding and using the lands, enjoying them subject to the liability of military service attached to those particular lands. Every man who held land under these conditions—and it was impossible to hold land without them—was of the upper class. He was nobilis or known, and of a rank distinct, apart, and absolutely separate from the remainder of the population, who were at one time actually serfs, and for long enough afterwards, of no higher social position than they had enjoyed in their period of servitude. This wide distinction between the upper and lower classes, which existed from one end of Europe to the other, was the very root and foundation of armory. It cannot be too greatly insisted upon. There were two qualitative terms, "gentle" and "simple," which were applied to the upper and lower classes respectively. Though now becoming archaic and obsolete, the terms "gentle" and "simple" are still occasionally to be met with used in that original sense; and the two adjectives "gentle" and "simple," in the everyday meanings of the words, are derived from, and are a later growth from the original usage with the meaning of the upper and lower classes; because the quality of being gentle was supposed to exist in that class of life referred to as gentle, whilst the quality of simplicity was supposed to be an attribute of the lower class. The word gentle is derived from the Latin word gens (gentilis), meaning a man, because those were men who were not serfs. Serfs and slaves were nothing accounted of. The word "gentleman" is a derivative of the word gentle, and a gentleman was a member of the gentle or upper class, and gentle qualities were so termed because they were the qualities supposed to belong to the gentle class. A man was not a gentleman, even in those days, because he happened to possess personal qualities usually associated with the gentle class; a man was a gentleman if he belonged to the gentle or upper class and not otherwise, so that "gentleman" was an identical term for one to whom the word nobilis was applied, both being names for members of the upper class. To all intents and purposes at that date there was no middle class at all. The kingdom was the land; and the trading community who dwelt in the towns were of little account save as milch kine for the purposes of taxation. The social position conceded to them by the upper class was little, if any, more than was conceded to the lower classes, whose life and liberties were held very cheaply. Briefly to sum up, therefore, there were but the two classes in existence, of which the upper class were those who held the land, who had military obligations, and who were noble, or in other words gentle. Therefore all who held land were gentlemen; because they held land they had to lead their servants and followers into battle, and they themselves were personally responsible for the appearance of so many followers, when the King summoned them to war. Now we have seen in the previous chapter that arms became necessary to the leader that his followers might distinguish him in battle. Consequently all who held land having, because of that land, to be responsible for followers in battle, found it necessary to use arms. The corollary is therefore evident, that all who held lands of the King were gentlemen or noble, and used arms; and as a consequence all who possessed arms were gentlemen, for they would not need or use arms, nor was their armour of a character upon which they could display arms, unless they were leaders. The leaders, we have seen, were the land-owning or upper class; therefore every one who had arms was a gentleman, and every gentleman had arms. But the status of gentlemen existed before there were coats of arms, and the later inseparable connection between the two was an evolution.
The preposterous prostitution of the word gentleman in these latter days is due to the almost universal attribute of human nature which declines to admit itself as of other than gentle rank; and in the eager desire to write itself gentleman, it has deliberately accepted and ordained a meaning to the word which it did not formerly possess, and has attributed to it and allowed it only such a definition as would enable almost anybody to be included within its ranks.
The word gentleman nowadays has become meaningless as a word in an ordinary vocabulary; and to use the word with its original and true meaning, it is necessary to now consider it as purely a technical term. We are so accustomed to employ the word nowadays in its unrestricted usage that we are apt to overlook the fact that such a usage is comparatively modern. The following extract from "The Right to Bear Arms" will prove that its real meaning was understood and was decided by law so late as the seventeenth century to be "a man entitled to bear arms":—
- "The following case in the Earl Marshal's Court, which hung upon the definition of the word, conclusively proves my contention:—
- "'21st November 1637.—W. Baker, gent., humbly sheweth that having some occasion of conference with Adam Spencer of Broughton under the Bleane, co. Cant., on or about 28th July last, the said Adam did in most base and opprobrious tearmes abuse your petitioner, calling him a base, lying fellow, &c. &c. The defendant pleaded that Baker is noe Gentleman, and soe not capable of redresse in this court. Le Neve, Clarenceux, is directed to examine the point raised, and having done so, declared as touching the gentry of William Baker, that Robert Cooke, Clarenceux King of Arms, did make a declaration 10th May 1573, under his hand and seale of office, that George Baker of London, sonne of J. Baker of the same place, sonne of Simon Baker of Feversham, co. Cant., was a bearer of tokens of honour, and did allow and confirm to the said George Baker and to his posterity, and to the posterity of Christopher Baker, these Arms, &c. &c. And further, Le Neve has received proof that the petitioner, William Baker, is the son of William Baker of Kingsdowne, co. Cant., who was the brother of George Baker, and son of Christopher aforesaid.' The judgment is not stated. (The original Confirmation of Arms by Cooke, 10th May 1573, may now be seen in the British Museum.—Genealogist for 1889, p. 242.)"
It has been shown that originally practically all who held land bore arms. It has also been shown that armory was an evolution, and as a consequence it did not start, in this country at any rate, as a ready-made science with all its rules and laws completely known or promulgated. There is not the slightest doubt that, in the earliest infancy of the science, arms were assumed and chosen without the control of the Crown; and one would not be far wrong in assuming that, so long as the rights accruing from prior appropriation of other people were respected, a landowner finding the necessity of arms in battle, was originally at liberty to assume what arms he liked.
That period, however, was of but brief duration, for we find as early as 1390, from the celebrated Scrope and Grosvenor case, (1) that a man could have obtained at that time a definite right to his arms, (2) that this right could be enforced against another, and we find, what is more important, (3) that the Crown and the Sovereign had supreme control and jurisdiction over arms, and (4) that the Sovereign could and did grant arms. From that date down to the present time the Crown, both by its own direct action and by the action of the Kings of Arms to whom it delegates powers for the purpose, in Letters Patent under the Great Seal, specifically issued to each separate King of Arms upon his appointment, has continued to grant armorial bearings. Some number of early grants of arms direct from the Crown have been printed in the Genealogical Magazine, and some of the earliest distinctly recite that the recipients are made noble and created gentlemen, and that the arms are given them as the sign of their nobility. The class of persons to whom grants of arms were made in the earliest days of such instruments is much the same as the class which obtain grants of arms at the present day, and the successful trader or merchant is now at liberty, as he was in the reign of Henry VIII. and earlier, to raise himself to the rank of a gentleman by obtaining a grant of arms. A family must make its start at some time or other; let this start be made honestly, and not by the appropriation of the arms of some other man.
The illegal assumption of arms began at an early date; and in spite of the efforts of the Crown, which have been more or less continuous and repeated, it has been found that the use of "other people's" arms has continued. In the reign of Henry V. a very stringent proclamation was issued on the subject; and in the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and her successors, the Kings of Arms were commanded to make perambulations throughout the country for the purpose of pulling down and defacing improper arms, of recording arms properly borne by authority, and of compelling those who used arms without authority to obtain authority for them or discontinue their use. These perambulations were termed Visitations. The subject of Visitations, and in fact the whole subject of the right to bear arms, is dealt with at length in the book to which reference has been already made, namely, "The Right to Bear Arms."
The glory of a descent from a long line of armigerous ancestors, the glory and the pride of race inseparably interwoven with the inheritance of a name which has been famous in history, the fact that some arms have been designed to commemorate heroic achievements, the fact that the display of a particular coat of arms has been the method, which society has countenanced, of advertising to the world that one is of the upper class or a descendant of some ancestor who performed some glorious deed to which the arms have reference, the fact that arms themselves are the very sign of a particular descent or of a particular rank, have all tended to cause a false and fictitious value to be placed upon all these pictured emblems which as a whole they have never possessed, and which I believe they were never intended to possess. It is because they were the prerogative and the sign of aristocracy that they have been coveted so greatly, and consequently so often assumed improperly. Now aristocracy and social position are largely a matter of personal assertion. A man assumes and asserts for himself a certain position, which position is gradually and imperceptibly but continuously increased and elevated as its assertion is reiterated. There is no particular moment in a man's life at the present time, the era of the great middle class, at which he visibly steps from a plebeian to a patrician standing. And when he has fought and talked the world into conceding him a recognised position in the upper classes, he naturally tries to obliterate the fact that he or "his people" were ever of any other social position, and he hesitates to perpetually date his elevation to the rank of gentility by obtaining a grant of arms and thereby admitting that before that date he and his people were plebeian. Consequently he waits until some circumstance compels an application for a grant, and the consequence is that he thereby post-dates his actual technical gentility to a period long subsequent to the recognition by Society of his position in the upper classes.
Arms are the sign of the technical rank of gentility. The possession of arms is a matter of hereditary privilege, which privilege the Crown is willing should be obtained upon certain terms by any who care to possess it, who live according to the style and custom which is usual amongst gentle people. And so long as the possession of arms is a matter of privilege, even though this privilege is no greater than is consequent upon payment of certain fees to the Crown and its officers; for so long will that privilege possess a certain prestige and value, though this may not be very great. Arms have never possessed any greater value than attaches to a matter of privilege; and (with singularly few exceptions) in every case, be it of a peer or baronet, of knight or of simple gentleman, this privilege has been obtained or has been regularised by the payment at some time or other of fees to the Crown and its officers. And the only difference between arms granted and paid for yesterday and arms granted and paid for five hundred years ago is the simple moral difference which attaches to the dates at which the payments were made.
Gentility is merely hereditary rank, emanating, with all other rank, from the Crown, the sole fountain of honour. It is idle to make the word carry a host of meanings it was never intended to. Arms being the sign of the technical rank of gentility, the use of arms is the advertisement of one's claim to that gentility. Arms mean nothing more. By coronet, supporters, and helmet can be indicated one's place in the scale of precedence; by adding arms for your wife you assert that she also is of gentle rank; your quarterings show the other gentle families you represent; difference marks will show your position in your own family (not a very important matter); augmentations indicate the deeds of your ancestors which the Sovereign thought worthy of being held in especial remembrance. By the use of a certain coat of arms, you assert your descent from the person to whom those arms were granted, confirmed, or allowed. That is the beginning and end of armory. Why seek to make it mean more?
However heraldry is looked upon, it must be admitted that from its earliest infancy armory possessed two essential qualities. It was the definite sign of hereditary nobility and rank, and it was practically an integral part of warfare; but also from its earliest infancy it formed a means of decoration. It would be a rash statement to assert that armory has lost its actual military character even now, but it certainly possessed it undiminished so long as tournaments took place, for the armory of the tournament was of a much higher standard than the armory of the battlefield. Armory as an actual part of warfare existed as a means of decoration for the implements of warfare, and as such it certainly continues in some slight degree to the present day.
Armory in that bygone age, although it existed as the symbol of the lowest hereditary rank, was worn and used in warfare, for purposes of pageantry, for the indication of ownership, for decorative purposes, for the needs of authenticity in seals, and for the purposes of memorials in records, pedigrees, and monuments. All those uses and purposes of armory can be traced back to a period coeval with that to which our certain knowledge of the existence of armory runs. Of all those usages and purposes, one only, that of the use of armorial bearings in actual battle, can be said to have come to an end, and even that not entirely so; the rest are still with us in actual and extensive existence. I am not versed in the minutiæ of army matters or army history, but I think I am correct in saying that there was no such thing as a regular standing army or a national army until the reign of Henry VIII. Prior to that time the methods of the feudal system supplied the wants of the country. The actual troops were in the employment, not of the Crown, but of the individual leaders. The Sovereign called upon, and had the right to call upon, those leaders to provide troops; but as those troops were not in the direct employment of the Crown, they wore the liveries and heraldic devices of their leaders. The leaders wore their own devices, originally for decorative reasons, and later that they might be distinguished by their particular followers: hence the actual use in battle in former days of private armorial bearings. And even yet the practice is not wholly extinguished, for the tartans of the Gordon and Cameron Highlanders are a relic of the usages of these former days. With the formation of a standing army, and the direct service of the troops to the Crown, the liveries and badges of those who had formerly been responsible for the troops gave way to the liveries and badges of the Crown. The uniform of the Beefeaters is a good example of the method in which in the old days a servant wore the badge and livery of his lord. The Beefeaters wear the scarlet livery of the Sovereign, and wear the badge of the Sovereign still. Many people will tell you, by the way, that the uniform of a Beefeater is identical now with what it was in the days of Henry VIII. It isn't. In accordance with the strictest laws of armory, the badge, embroidered on the front and back of the tunic, has changed, and is now the triple badge—the rose, the thistle, and the shamrock—of the triple kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Every soldier who wears a scarlet coat, the livery of his Sovereign, every regiment that carries its colours, every saddle-cloth with a Royal emblem thereupon, is evidence that the use of armory in battle still exists in a small degree to the present day; but circumstances have altered. The troops no longer attack to the cry of "A Warwick! a Warwick!" they serve His Majesty the King and wear his livery and devices. They no longer carry the banner of their officer, whose servants and tenants they would formerly have been; the regiment cherishes instead the banner of the armorial bearings of His Majesty. Within the last few years, probably within the lifetime of all my readers, there has been striking evidence of the manner in which circumstances alter everything. The Zulu War put an end to the practice of taking the colours of a regiment into battle; the South African War saw khaki substituted universally for the scarlet livery of His Majesty; and to have found upon a South African battlefield the last remnant of the armorial practices of the days of chivalry, one would have needed, I am afraid, to examine the buttons of the troopers. Still the scarlet coat exists in the army on parade: the Life Guards wear the Royal Cross of St. George and the Star of the Garter, the Scots Greys have the Royal Saltire of St. Andrew, and the Gordon Highlanders have the Gordon crest of the Duke of Richmond and Gordon; and there are many other similar instances.
There is yet another point. The band of a regiment is maintained by the officers of the regiment, and at the present day in the Scottish regiments the pipers have attached to their pipes banners bearing the various personal armorial bearings of the officers of the regiment. So that perhaps one is justified in saying that the use of armorial bearings in warfare has not yet come to an end. The other ancient usages of armory exist now as they existed in the earliest times. So that it is foolish to contend that armory has ceased to exist, save as an interesting survival of the past. It is a living reality, more widely in use at the present day than ever before.
Certainly the military side of armory has sunk in importance till it is now utterly overshadowed by the decorative, but the fact that armory still exists as the sign and adjunct of hereditary rank utterly forbids one to assert that armory is dead, and though this side of armory is also now partly overshadowed by its decorative use, armory must be admitted to be still alive whilst its laws can still be altered. When, if ever, rank is finally swept away, and when the Crown ceases to grant arms, and people cease to use them, then armory will be dead, and can be treated as the study of a dead science.