A Complete Guide to Heraldry/Chapter 25

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CHAPTER XXV

THE TORSE, OR WREATH

The actual helmet, from the very earliest heraldic representations which have come down to us, would sometimes appear not to have had any mantling, the crest being affixed direct to the (then) flat top of the helmet in use. But occasional crests appear very early in the existence of "ordered" armory, and at much about the same time we find the "textile" covering of the helmet coming into heraldic use. In the earliest times we find that frequently the crest itself was continued into the mantling. But where this was not possible, the attaching of the crest to the helmet when the mantling intervened left an unsightly joining. The unsightliness very soon called forth a remedy. At first this remedy took the form of a coronet or a plain fillet or ribbon round the point of juncture, sometimes with and sometimes without the ends being visible. If the ends were shown they were represented as floating behind, sometimes with and sometimes without a representation of the bow or knot in which they were tied. The plain fillet still continued to be used long after the torse had come into recognised use. The consideration of crest coronets has been already included, but with regard to the wreath an analysis of the Plantagenet Garter plates will afford some definite basis from which to start deduction.

Of the eighty-six achievements reproduced in Mr. St. John Hope's book, five have no crest. Consequently we have eighty-one examples to analyse. Of these there are ten in which the crest is not attached to the lambrequin and helmet by anything perceptible, eight are attached with fillets of varying widths, twenty-one crests are upon chapeaux, and twenty-nine issue from coronets. But at no period governed by the series is it possible that either fillet, torse, chapeau, or coronet was in use to the exclusion of another form. This remark applies more particularly to the fillet and torse (the latter of which undoubtedly at a later date superseded the former), for both at the beginning and at the end of the series referred to we find the fillet and the wreath or torse, and at both periods we find crests without either coronet, torse, chapeau, or fillet. The fillet must soon afterwards (in the fifteenth century) have completely fallen into desuetude. The torse was so small and unimportant a matter that upon seals it would probably equally escape the attention of the engraver and the observer, and probably there would be little to be gained by a systematic hunt through early seals to discover the date of its introduction, but it will be noticed that no wreaths appear in some of the early Rolls. General Leigh says, "In the time of Henry the Fifth, and long after, no man had his badge set on a wreath under the degree of a knight. But that order is worn away." It probably belongs to the end of the fourteenth century. There can be little doubt that its twisted shape was an evolution from the plain fillet suggested by the turban of the East. We read in the old romances, in Mallory's "Morte d'Arthur" and elsewhere, of valiant knights who in battle or tournament wore the favour of some lady, or even the lady's sleeve, upon their helmets. It always used to be a puzzle to me how the sleeve could have been worn upon the helmet, and I wonder how many of the present-day novelists, who so glibly make their knightly heroes of olden time wear the "favours" of their lady-lovers, know how it was done? The favour did not take the place of the crest. A knight did not lightly discard an honoured, inherited, and known crest for the sake of wearing a favour only too frequently the mere result of a temporary flirtation; nor to wear her colours could he at short notice discard or renew his lambrequin, surcoat, or the housings and trappings of his horse. He simply took the favour—the colours, a ribbon, or a handkerchief of the lady, as the case might be—and twisted it in and out or over and over the fillet which surrounded the joining-place of crest and helmet. To put her favour on his helmet was the work of a moment. The wearing of a lady's sleeve, which must have been an honour greatly prized, is of course the origin of the well-known "maunch," the solitary charge in the arms of Conyers, Hastings, and Wharton. Doubtless the sleeve twined with the fillet would be made to encircle the base of the crest, and it is not unlikely that the wide hanging mouth of the sleeve might have been used for the lambrequin. The dresses of ladies at that period were decorated with the arms of their families, so in each case would be of the "colours" of the lady, so that the sleeve and its colours would be quickly identified, as it was no doubt usually intended they should be. The accidental result of twining a favour in the fillet, in conjunction with the pattern obviously suggested by the turban of the East, produced the conventional torse or wreath. As the conventional slashings of the lambrequin hinted at past hard fighting in battle, so did the conventional torse hint at past service to and favour of ladies, love and war being the occupations of the perfect knight of romance. How far short of the ideal knight of romance the knight of fact fell, perhaps the frequent bordures and batons of heraldry are the best indication. At first, as is evident from the Garter plates, the colours of the torse seem to have had little or no compulsory relation to the "livery colours" of the arms. The instances to be gleaned from the Plantagenet Garter plates which have been reproduced are as follows:—

Sir John Bourchier, Lord Bourchier. Torse: sable and vert. Arms: argent and gules.

Sir John Grey, Earl of Tankerville. Torse: vert, gules, and argent. Arms: gules and argent.

Sir Lewis Robsart, Lord Bourchier. Torse: azure, or, and sable. Arms: vert and or. [The crest, derived from his wife (who was a daughter of Lord Bourchier) is practically the same as the one first quoted. It will be noticed that the torse differs.]

Sir Edward Cherleton, Lord Cherleton of Powis. Torse: gules and sable. Arms: or and gules.

Sir Gaston de Foix, Count de Longueville. Torse: or and gules. Arms: or and gules.

Sir William Nevill, Lord Fauconberg. Torse: argent and gules. Arms: gules and argent.

Sir Richard Wydville, Lord Rivers. Torse: vert. Arms: argent and gules.

Sir Henry Bourchier, Earl of Essex. Torse: sable and vert. Arms: argent and gules. [This is the same crest above alluded to.]

Sir Thomas Stanley, Lord Stanley. Torse: or and azure. Arms: or and azure.

Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners. Torse: gules and argent. Arms: argent and gules. [This is the same crest above alluded to.]

Sir Walter Devereux, Lord Ferrers. Torse: argent and sable. Arms: argent and gules. [The crest really issues from a coronet upon a torse in a previous case, this crest issues from a torse only.]

Sir Francis Lovel, Viscount Lovel. Torse: azure and or. Arms: or and gules.

Sir Thomas Burgh, Lord Burgh. Torse: azure and sable. Arms: azure and ermine.

Sir Richard Tunstall, K.G. Torse: argent and sable. Arms: sable and argent.

I can suggest no explanation of these differences unless it be, which is not unlikely, that they perpetuate "favours" worn; or perhaps a more likely supposition is that the wreath or torse was of the "family colours," as these were actually worn by the servants or retainers of each person. If this be not the case, why are the colours of the wreath termed the livery colours? At the present time in an English or Irish grant of arms the colours are not specified, but the crest is stated to be "on a wreath of the colours." In Scotland, however, the crest is granted in the following words: "and upon a wreath of his liveries is set for crest." Consequently, I have very little doubt, the true state of the case is that originally the wreath was depicted of the colours of the livery which was worn. Then new families came into prominence and eminence, and had no liveries to inherit. They were granted arms and chose the tinctures of their arms as their "colours," and used these colours for their personal liveries. The natural consequence would be in such a case that the torse, being in unison with the livery, was also in unison with the arms. The consequence is that it has become a fixed, unalterable rule in British heraldry that the torse shall be of the principal metal and of the principal colour of the arms. I know of no recent exception to this rule, the latest, as far as I am aware, being a grant in the early years of the eighteenth century. This, it is stated in the patent, was the regranting of a coat of foreign origin. Doubtless the formality of a grant was substituted for the usual registration in this case, owing to a lack of formal proof of a right to the arms, but there is no doubt that the peculiarities of the foreign arms, as they had been previously borne, were preserved in the grant. The peculiarity in this case consisted of a torse of three tinctures. The late Lyon Clerk once pointed out to me, in Lyon Register, an instance of a coat there matriculated with a torse of three colours, but I unfortunately made no note of it at the time. Woodward alludes to the curious chequy wreath on the seals of Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany, in 1389. This appears to have been repeated in the seals of his son Murdoch.

The wreath of Patrick Hepburn appears to be of roses in the Gelre "Armorial," and a careful examination of the plates in this volume will show many curious Continental instances of substitutes for the conventional torse. Though by no means peculiar to British heraldry, there can be no manner of doubt that the wreath in the United Kingdom has obtained a position of legalised necessity and constant usage and importance which exists in no other country.

As has been already explained, the torse should fit closely to the crest, its object and purpose being merely to hide the joining of crest and helmet. Unfortunately in British heraldry this purpose has been ignored. Doubtless resulting first from the common practice of depicting a crest upon a wreath and without a helmet, and secondly from the fact that many English crests are quite unsuitable to place on a helmet, in fact impossible to affix by the aid of a wreath to a helmet, and thirdly from our ridiculous rules of position for a helmet, which result in the crest being depicted (in conjunction with the representation of the helmet) in a position many such crests never could have occupied on any helmet, the effect has been to cause the wreath to lose its real form, which encircled the helmet, and to become considered as no more than a straight support for and relating only to the crest. When, therefore, the crest and its supporting basis is transferred from indefinite space to the helmet, the support, which is the torse, is still represented as a flat resting-place for the crest, and it is consequently depicted as a straight and rigid bar, balanced upon the apex of the helmet. This is now and for long has been the only accepted official way of depicting a wreath in England. Certainly this is an ungraceful and inartistic rendering, and a rendering far removed from any actual helmet wreath that can ever have been actually borne. Whilst one has no wish to defend the "rigid bar," which has nothing to recommend it, it is at the same time worth while to point out that the heraldic day of actual helmets and actual usage is long since over, never to be revived, and that our heraldry of to-day is merely decorative and pictorial. The rigid bar is none other than a conventionalised form of the actual torse, and is perhaps little more at variance with the reality than is our conventionalised method of depicting a lambrequin. Whilst this conventional torse remains the official pattern, it is hopeless to attempt to banish such a method of representation: but Lyon King of Arms, happily, will have none of it in his official register or on his patents, and few heraldic artists of any repute now care to so design or represent it. As always officially painted it must consist of six links alternately of metal and colour (the "livery colours" of the arms), of which the metal must be the first to be shown to the dexter side. The torse is now supposed to be and represented as a skein of coloured silk intertwined with a gold or silver cord.