A Complete Guide to Heraldry/Chapter 28

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To the uninitiated, the subject of the motto of a family has a far greater importance than is conceded to it by those who have spent any time in the study of armory. Perhaps it may clear the ground if the rules presently in force are first recited. It should be carefully observed that the status of the motto is vastly different in England and in other countries. Except in the cases of impersonal arms (and not always then), the motto is never mentioned or alluded to in the terms of the patent in a grant of arms in England; consequently they are not a part of the "estate" created by the Letters Patent, though if it be desired a motto will always be painted below the emblazonment in the margin of the patent. Briefly speaking, the position in England with regard to personal armorial bearings is that mottoes are not hereditary. No one is compelled to bear one, nor is any authority needed for the adoption of a motto, the matter is left purely to the personal pleasure of every individual; but if that person elects to use a motto, the officers of arms are perfectly willing to paint any motto he may choose upon his grant, and to add it to the record of his arms in their books. There is no necessity expressed or implied to use a motto at all, nor is the slightest control exercised over the selection or change of mottoes, though, as would naturally be expected, the officers of arms would decline to record to any private person any motto which might have been appropriated to the sovereign or to any of the orders of knighthood. In the same way no control is exercised over the position in which the motto is to be carried or the manner in which it is to be displayed.

In Scotland, however, the matter is on an entirely different footing. The motto is included within the terms of the patent, and is consequently made the subject of grant. It therefore becomes inalienable and unchangeable without a rematriculation, and a Scottish patent moreover always specifies the position in which the motto is to be carried. This is usually "in an escroll over the same" (i.e. over the crest), though occasionally it is stated to be borne on "a compartment below the arms." The matter in Ireland is not quite the same as in either Scotland or England. Sometimes the motto is expressed in the patent—in fact this is now the more usual alternative—but the rule is not universal, and to a certain extent the English permissiveness is recognised. Possibly the subject can be summed up in the remark that if any motto has been granted or is recorded with a particular coat of arms in Ireland, it is expected that that shall be the motto to be made use of therewith.

As a general practice the use of mottoes in England did not become general until the eighteenth century—in fact there are very few, if any, grants of an earlier date on which a motto appears. The majority, well on towards the latter part of the eighteenth century, had no motto added, and many patents are still issued without such an addition. With rare exceptions, no mottoes are to be met with in the Visitation books, and it does not appear that at the time of the Visitations the motto was considered to be essentially a part of the armorial bearings. The one or two exceptions which I have met with where mottoes are to be found on Visitation pedigrees are in every case the arms of a peer. There are at least two such in the Yorkshire Visitation of 1587, and probably it may be taken for granted that the majority of peers at that period had begun to make use of these additions to their arms. Unfortunately we have no exact means of deciding the point, because peers were not compelled to attend a Visitation, and there are but few cases in which the arms or pedigree of a peer figure in the Visitation books. In isolated cases the use of a motto can, however, be traced back to an even earlier period. There are several instances to be met with upon the early Garter plates.

Many writers have traced the origin of mottoes to the "slogan" or war-cry of battle, and there is no doubt whatever that instances can be found in which an ancient war-cry has become a family motto. For example, one can refer to the Fitzgerald "Crom-a-boo": other instances can be found amongst some of the Highland families, but the fact that many well-known war-cries of ancient days never became perpetuated as mottoes, and also the fact that by far the greater number of mottoes, even at a much earlier period than the present day, cannot by any possibility have ever been used for or have originated with the purposes of battle-cries, inclines me to believe that such a suggested origin for the motto in general is without adequate foundation. There can be little if any connection between the war-cry as such and the motto as such. The real origin would appear to be more correctly traced back to the badge. As will be found explained elsewhere, the badge was some simple device used for personal and household purposes and seldom for war, except by persons who used the badge of the leader they followed. No man wore his own badge in battle. It generally partook of the nature of what ancient writers would term "a quaint conceit," and much ingenuity seems to have been expended in devising badges and mottoes which should at the same time be distinctive and should equally be or convey an index or suggestion of the name and family of the owner. Many of these badges are found in conjunction with words, mottoes, and phrases, and as the distinction between the badge in general and the crest in general slowly became less apparent, they eventually in practice became interchangeable devices, if the same device did not happen to be used for both purposes. Consequently the motto from the badge became attached to the crest, and was thence transferred to its present connection with the coat of arms. Just as at the present time a man may and often does adopt a maxim upon which he will model his life, some pithy proverb, or some trite observation, without any question or reference to armorial bearings—so, in the old days, when learning was less diffuse and when proverbs and sayings had a wider acceptance and vogue than at present, did many families and many men adopt for their use some form of words. We find these words carved on furniture, set up on a cornice, cut in stone, and embroidered upon standards and banners, and it is to this custom that we should look for the beginning of the use of mottoes. But because such words were afterwards in later generations given an armorial status, it is not justifiable to presume such status for them from their beginnings. The fact that a man put his badges on the standard that he carried into battle, and with his badges placed the mottoes that thereto belonged, has led many people mistakenly to believe that these mottoes were designed for war-cries and for use in battle. That was not the case. In fact it seems more likely that the bulk of the standards recorded in the books of the heralds which show a motto were never carried in battle.

With regard to the mottoes in use at the moment, some of course can be traced to a remote period, and many of the later ones have interesting legends connected therewith. Of mottoes of this character may be instanced the "Jour de ma vie" of West, which was formerly the motto of the La Warr family, adopted to commemorate the capture of the King of France at the battle of Poictiers. There are many other mottoes of this character, amongst which may be mentioned the "Grip fast" of the Leslies, the origin of which is well known. But though many mottoes relate to incidents in the remote past, true or mythical, the motto and the incident are seldom contemporary. Nothing would be gained by a recital of a long list of mottoes, but I cannot forbear from quoting certain curious examples which by their very weirdness must excite curiosity as to their origin. A family of Martin used the singular words, "He who looks at Martin's ape, Martin's ape shall look at him," whilst the Curzons use, "Let Curzon hold what Curzon helde." The Cranston motto is still more grasping, being, "Thou shalt want ere I want;" but probably the motto of the Dakyns is the most mysterious of all, "Strike Dakyns, the devil's in the hempe." The motto of Corbet, "Deus pascit corvos," evidently alludes to the raven or ravens (corby crows) upon the shield. The mottoes of Trafford, "Now thus," and "Gripe griffin, hold fast;" the curious Pilkington motto, "Pilkington Pailedown, the master mows the meadows;" and the "Serva jugum" of Hay have been the foundation of many legends. The "Fuimus" of the Bruce family is a pathetic allusion to the fact that they were once kings, but the majority of ancient mottoes partake rather of the nature of a pun upon the name, which fact is but an additional argument towards the supposition that the motto has more relation to the badge than to any other part of the armorial bearings. Of mottoes which have a punning character may be mentioned "Mon Dieu est ma roche," which is the motto of Roche, Lord Fermoy; "Cavendo tutus," which is the motto of Cavendish; "Forte scutum salus ducum," which is the motto of Fortescue; "Set on," which is the motto of Seton; "Da fydd" of Davies, and "Ver non semper viret," the well-known pun of the Vernons. Another is the apocryphal "Quid rides" which Theodore Hook suggested for the wealthy and retired tobacconist. This punning character has of late obtained much favour, and wherever a name lends itself to a pun the effort seems nowadays to be made that the motto shall be of this nature. Perhaps the best pun which exists is to be found in the motto of the Barnard family, who, with arms "Argent, a bear rampant sable, muzzled or," and crest "A demi-bear as in the arms," use for the motto, "Bear and Forbear," or in Latin, as it is sometimes used, "Fer et perfer." Others that may be alluded to are the "What I win I keep" of Winlaw; the "Libertas" of Liberty; the "Ubi crux ibi lux" of Sir William Crookes; the "Bear thee well" of Bardwell; the "Gare le pied fort" of Bedford; the "Gare la bête" of Garbett; and the "Cave Deus videt" of Cave. Other mottoes—and they are a large proportion—are of some saintly and religious tendency. However desirable and acceptable they may be, and however accurately they may apply to the first possessor, they sometimes are sadly inappropriate to later and more degenerate successors.

In Germany, a distinction appears to be drawn between their "Wahlsprüche" (i.e. those which are merely dictated by personal choice) and the "armorial mottoes" which remained constantly and heritably attached to the armorial bearings, such as the "Gott mit uns" ("God with us") of Prussia and the "Nihil sine Deus" of Hohenzollern.

The Initial or Riddle Mottoes appear to be peculiar to Germany. Well-known examples of these curiosities are the "W. G. W." (i.e. "Wie Gott will"—"As God wills"), or "W. D. W." (i.e. "Wie du willst"—"As thou wilt"), which are both frequently to be met with. The strange but well-known alphabet or vowel-motto "A. E. I. O. V." of the Emperor Frederick III. has been variously translated, "Aquila Electa Juste Omnia Vincit" ("The chosen eagle vanquishes all by right"), "Aller Ehren Ist Oesterrich Voll" ("Austria is full of every honour"), or perhaps with more likelihood, "Austria Est Imperare Orbe Universo" ("All the earth is subject to Austria").

The cri-de-guerre, both as a heraldic fact and as an armorial term, is peculiar, and exclusively so, to British and French heraldry. The national cri-de-guerre of France, "Montjoye Saint Denis," appeared above the pavilion in the old Royal Arms of France, and probably the English Royal motto, "Dieu et mon Droit," is correctly traced to a similar origin. A distinction is still made in modern heraldry between the cri-de-guerre and the motto, inasmuch as it is considered that the former should always of necessity surmount the crest. This is very generally adhered to in Scotland in the cases where both a motto and a cri-de-guerre (or, as it is frequently termed in that country, a "slogan") exist, the motto, contrary to the usual Scottish practice, being then placed below the shield. It is to be hoped that a general knowledge of this fact will not, however, result in the description of every motto found above a crest as a cri-de-guerre, and certainly the concentrated piety now so much in favour in England for the purposes of a motto can be quite fitly left below the shield.

Artists do not look kindly on the motto for decorative purposes. It has been usually depicted in heraldic emblazonment in black letters upon a white scroll, tinted and shaded with pink, but with the present revival of heraldic art, it has become more general to paint the motto ribbon in conformity with the colour of the field, the letters being often shown thereon in gold. The colour and shape of the motto ribbon, however, are governed by no heraldic laws, and except in Scottish examples should be left, as they are purely unimportant accessories of the achievement, wholly at the discretion of the artist.