A Complete Guide to Heraldry/Chapter 27

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CHAPTER XXVII

THE COMPARTMENT

A compartment is anything depicted below the shield as a foothold or resting-place for the supporters, or indeed for the shield itself. Sometimes it is a fixed part of the blazon and a constituent part of the heritable heraldic bearings. At other times it is a matter of mere artistic fancy, and no fixed rules exist to regulate or control nor even to check the imagination of the heraldic artist. The fact remains that supporters must have something to stand upon, and if the blazon supplies nothing, the discretion of the artist is allowed considerable laxity.

Fig. 672.

Fig. 672.

On the subject of compartments a great deal of diversity of opinion exists. There is no doubt that in early days and early examples supporters were placed to stand upon some secure footing, but with the decadence of heraldic art in the seventeenth century came the introduction of the gilded "freehand copy" scroll with which we are so painfully familiar, which one writer has aptly termed the heraldic gas-bracket. Arising doubtless from and following upon the earlier habit of balancing the supporters upon the unstable footing afforded by the edge of the motto scroll, the "gas-bracket" was probably accepted as less open to objection. It certainly was not out of keeping with the heraldic art of the period to which it owed its evolution, or with the style of armorial design of which it formed a part. It still remains the accepted and "official" style and type in England, but Scotland and Ireland have discarded it, and "compartments" in those countries are now depicted of a nature requiring less gymnastic ability on the part of the animals to which they afford a foothold. The style of compartment is practically always a matter of artistic taste and design. With a few exceptions it is always entirely disregarded in the blazon of the patent, and the necessity of something for the supporters to stand upon is as much an understood thing as is the existence of a shield whereon the arms are to be displayed. But as the shape of the shield is left to the fancy of the artist, so is the character of the compartment, and the Lyon Register nowadays affords examples of achievements where the supporters stand on rocks and flowery mounds or issue from a watery abiding-place. The example set by the Lyon Register has been eagerly followed by most heraldic artists.

It is a curious commentary upon the heraldic art of the close of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth centuries that whilst the gymnastic capabilities of animals were admitted to be equal to "tight-rope" exhibitions of balancing upon the ordinary scroll, these feats were not considered practicable in the case of human beings, for whom little square platforms were always provided. Fig. 672, which represents the sinister supporter of Lord Scarsdale (viz. the figure of Liberality represented by a woman habited argent, mantled purpure, holding a cornucopia proper) shows the method by which platform accommodation was provided for human figures when acting as supporters.

At the same time this greater freedom of design may occasionally lead to mistakes in relation to English supporters and their compartments. Following upon the English practice already referred to of differentiating the supporters of different families, it has apparently been found necessary in some cases to place the supporters to stand upon a definite object, which object is recited in the blazon and becomes an integral and unchangeable portion of the supporter. Thus Lord Torrington's supporters are each placed upon dismounted ships' guns ["Dexter, an heraldic antelope ermine, horned, tusked, maned and hoofed or, standing on a ship gun proper; sinister, a sea-horse proper, on a like gun"], Lord Hawke's[1] dexter supporter rests his sinister foot upon a dolphin, and Lord Herschell's supporters each stand upon a fasces ["Supporters: on either side a stag proper, collared azure, standing on a fasces or"]. The supporters of Lord Iveagh each rest a hind-foot upon an escutcheon ["Supporters: on either side a stag gules, attired and collared gemel or, resting the inner hoof on an escutcheon vert charged with a lion rampant of the second"], whilst the inner hind-foot of each of Lord Burton's supporters rests upon a stag's head caboshed proper. Probably absurdity could

Fig. 673.—Arms of Cape Town: Or, an anchor erect sable, stock proper, from the ring a riband flowing azure, and suspended therefrom an escocheon gules charged with three annulets of the field; and for the crest, on a wreath of the colours, upon the battlements of a tower proper, a trident in bend dexter or, surmounted by an anchor and cable in bend sinister sable.

Fig. 673.—Arms of Cape Town: Or, an anchor erect sable, stock proper, from the ring a riband flowing azure, and suspended therefrom an escocheon gules charged with three annulets of the field; and for the crest, on a wreath of the colours, upon the battlements of a tower proper, a trident in bend dexter or, surmounted by an anchor and cable in bend sinister sable.

go no further. But in the case of the supporters granted to Cape Town (Fig. 673), the official blazon runs as follows: "On the dexter side, standing on a rock, a female figure proper, vested argent, mantle and sandals azure, on her head an estoile radiated or, and supporting with her exterior hand an anchor also proper; and on the sinister side, standing on a like rock, a lion rampant guardant gules." In this case it will be seen that the rocks form an integral part of the supporters, and are not merely an artistic rendering of the compartment. The illustration, which was made from an official drawing supplied from the Heralds' College, shows the curious way in which the motto scroll is made to answer the purpose of the compartment.

Occasionally the compartment itself—as a thing apart from the supporters—receives attention in the blazon, e.g. in the case of the arms of Baron de Worms, which are of foreign origin, recorded in this country by Royal Warrant. His supporters are: "On a bronze compartment, on either side a lion gold, collared and chained or, and pendent from the compartment a golden scroll, thereon in letters gules the motto, 'Vinctus non victus.'"

In the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom the motto "Dieu et mon Droit" is required to be on the compartment below the shield, and thereon the Union Badge of the Rose, Thistle, and Shamrock engrafted on the same stem.

The city of Norwich is not officially recognised as having the right to supporters, and doubtless those in use have originated in the old artistic custom, previously referred to, of putting escutcheons of arms under the guardianship of angels. They may be so deciphered upon an old stone carving upon one of the municipal buildings in that city. The result has been that two angels have been regularly adopted as the heraldic supporters of the city arms. The point that renders them worthy of notice is that they are invariably represented each standing upon its own little pile of clouds.

The arms of the Royal Burgh of Montrose (Forfarshire) afford an official instance of another variety in the way of a compartment, which is a fixed matter of blazon and not depending upon artistic fancy. The entry in Lyon Register is as follows:—

"The Royal Burgh of Montrose gives for Ensignes Armoriall, Argent, a rose gules. The shield adorned with helmet, mantling, and wreath suteable thereto. And for a crest, a hand issuing from a cloud and reaching down a garland of roses proper, supported by two mermaids aryseing from the sea proper. The motto, 'Mare ditat Rosa decorat.' And for a revers, Gules, St. Peter on the cross proper, with the keyes hanging at his girdle or. Which Arms, &c., Ext. December 16, 1694."

An English example may be found in the case of the arms of Boston,[2] which are depicted with the supporters (again two mermaids) rising from the sea, though to what extent the sea is a fixed and unchangeable part of the achievement in this case is less a matter of certainty.

Probably of all the curious "supporters" to be found in British armory, those of the city of Southampton (Plate VII.) must be admitted to be the most unusual. As far as the actual usage of the arms by the corporation is concerned, one seldom if ever sees more than the simple shield employed. This bears the arms: "Per fess gules and argent, three roses counterchanged." But in the official record of the arms in one of the Visitation books a crest is added, namely: "Upon a mount vert, a double tower or, and issuing from the upper battlements thereof a demi-female affronté proper, vested purpure, crined and crowned with an Eastern coronet also or, holding in her dexter hand a sword erect point upwards argent, pommel and hilt of the second, and in her sinister hand a balance sable, the pans gold. The shield in the Visitation book rests upon a mount vert, issuing from waves of the sea, and thereupon placed on either side of the escutcheon a ship of two masts at anchor, the sails furled all proper, the round top or, and from each masthead flying a banner of St. George, and upon the stern of each vessel a lion rampant or, supporting the escutcheon."

From the fact that in England the compartment is so much a matter of course, it is scarcely ever alluded to, and the term "Compartment" is practically one peculiar to Scottish heraldry. It does not appear to be a very ancient heraldic appendage, and was probably found to be a convenient arrangement when shields were depicted erect instead of couché, so as to supply a resting-place (or standpoint) for the supporters. In a few instances the compartment appears on seals with couché shields, on which, however, the supporters are usually represented as resting on the sides of the escutcheon, and bearing up the helmet and crest, as already mentioned. Sir George Mackenzie conjectures that the compartment "represents the bearer's land and territories, though sometimes (he adds) it is bestowed in recompense of some honourable action." Thus the Earls of Douglas are said to have obtained the privilege of placing their supporters with a pale of wood wreathed, because the doughty lord, in the reign of King Robert the Bruce, defeated the English in Jedburgh Forest, and "caused wreathe and impale," during the night, that part of the wood by which he conjectured they might make their escape. Such a fenced compartment appears on the seal of James Douglas, second Earl of Angus, "Dominus de Abernethie et Jedworth Forest" (1434), on that of George Douglas, fourth Earl (1459), and also on those of several of his successors in the earldom (1511-1617). A still earlier example, however, of a compartment "representing a park with trees, &c., enclosed by a wattled fence," occurs on the seal of Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl (c. 1430), where the escutcheon is placed in the entrance to the park between two trees. Nisbet refers to a seal of William, first Earl of Douglas (1377), exhibiting a single supporter (a lion) "sitting on a compartment like to a rising ground, with a tree growing out of it, and semé of hearts, mullets, and cross crosslets," these being the charges of Douglas and Mar in the escutcheon.

According to Sir George Mackenzie, these compartments were usually allowed only to sovereign princes; and he further informs us that, besides the Douglases, he knows of no other subject in Britain, except the Earl of Perth, whose arms stand upon a compartment. In the case of the Perth family, the compartment consists of a green hill or mount, semé of caltraps[3] (or cheval-traps), with the relative motto, "Gang warily," above the achievement. "Albeit of late," says Mackenzie, "compartments are become more common, and some families in Scotland have some creatures upon which their achievement stands, as the Laird of Dundas, whose achievement has for many hundreds of years stood upon a salamander in flames proper (a device of the kings of France), and Robertson of Struan has a monstrous man lying under the escutcheon chained, which was given him for his taking the murderer of James I...." Such figures, however, as Nisbet remarks, cannot properly be called compartments, having rather the character of devices; while, in the case of the Struan achievement, the chained man would be more accurately described as "an honourable supporter." Sir George Mackenzie engraves "the coat of Denham of ould," viz. a stag's head "caboshed," below a shield couché charged with three lozenges, or fusils, conjoined in bend. In like manner, Nisbet represents the crest and motto of the Scotts of Thirlstane, "by way of compartment," below the escutcheon of Lord Napier, and a blazing star, with the legend "Luceo boreale," under that of Captain Robert Seton, of the family of Meldrum; while in the case of the illumination which accompanies the latest entry in the first volume of the Lyon Register (1804), relative to the arms of John Hepburn Belshes of Invermay, the trunk of an oak-tree sprouting forth anew is placed on a compartment under the shield, with the motto, "Revirescit."

Two other instances of regular compartments are mentioned by Nisbet, viz. those carried by the Macfarlanes of that Ilk and the Ogilvies of Innerquharity. The former consists of a wavy representation of Loch Sloy, the gathering-place of the clan, which word is also inscribed on the compartment as their cri-de-guerre or slogan; while the latter is a "green hill or rising terrace," on which are placed two serpents, "nowed," spouting fire, and the motto, "Terrena pericula sperno." For some of the foregoing instances I am indebted to Seton's well-known "Law and Practice of Heraldry in Scotland."


  1. Supporters of Lord Hawke: Dexter, Neptune, his mantle of a sea-green colour, edged argent, crowned with an Eastern coronet or, his dexter arm erect, darting downwards his trident sable, headed silver, resting his sinister foot on a dolphin, also sable; sinister a sea-horse or, sustaining in his forefins a banner argent the staff broken proper.
  2. Arms of Boston: Sable, three coronets composed of crosses patté and fleurs-de-lis in pale or. Crest: A woolpack charged with a ram couchant all proper, ducally crowned azure.
  3. The caltrap was an instrument thrown on the ground to injure the feet of horses, and consisted of four iron spikes, of which one always pointed upwards.