A Complete Guide to Heraldry/Chapter 35

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Bearing in mind that armory was so deeply interwoven with all that was best in chivalry, it is curious that the armorial status of a woman should have been left so undefined. A query as to how a lady may bear arms will be glibly answered for her as maid (Fig. 749) and as widow (Figs. 750, 751, and 752) by the most elementary heraldic text-book. But a little consideration will show how far short our knowledge falls of a complete or uniform set of rules.

Let what is definitely known be first stated. In the first place, no woman (save a Sovereign) can inherit, use, or transmit crest or motto, nor may she use a helmet or mantling. All daughters, if unmarried, bear upon a lozenge the paternal arms and quarterings of their father, with his difference marks. If their mother were an heiress, they quarter her arms with those of her father. In England (save in the Royal Family, and in this case even it is a matter of presumption only) there is no seniority amongst daughters, and the difference marks of all daughters are those borne by the father, and none other. There are no marks of distinction as between the daughters themselves. In Scotland, however, seniority does exist, according to priority of birth; and, though Scottish heraldic law provides no marks of cadency as between sister and sister, the laws of arms north of the Tweed recognise seniority of birth in the event of a certain set of circumstances arising.

In Scotland, as doubtless many are aware, certain untitled Scottish families, for reasons which may or may not be known, have been permitted to use supporters to their arms. When the line vests in coheirs, the eldest born daughter, as heir of line, assumes the supporters, unless some other limitation has been attached to them. Scottish supporters are peculiar things to deal with, unless the exact terms of the patent of grant or matriculation are known.

The lozenge of an unmarried lady is frequently surmounted by a true lover's knot of ribbon, usually painted blue (Fig. 749). It has no particular meaning and no official recognition, though plenty of official use, and practically its status is no more than a piece of supposedly artistic ornament.

Concerning the law for unmarried ladies, therefore, there is neither doubt nor dispute. A widow bears arms upon a lozenge, this showing the arms of her late husband impaled with those of her own family (Fig. 750), or with these latter displayed on an escutcheon of pretence if she be an heir or coheir (Fig. 751).

The other state in the progress of life in which a lady may hope or expect to find herself is that of married life. Now, how should a married lady display arms? Echo and the text-books alike answer, "How?" Does anybody know? This "fault," for such it undoubtedly is, is due to the fact that the laws of arms evolved themselves in that period when a married woman was little accounted of. As an unmarried heiress she undoubtedly was a somebody; as a widowed and richly-jointured dowager she was likewise of account, but as a wedded wife her identity was lost, for the Married Women's Property Act was not in existence, nor was it thought of. So completely was it recognised that all rights and inheritance of the wife devolved of right upon the husband, that formerly the husband enjoyed any peerage honours which had descended to the wife, and was summoned to Parliament as a peer in his wife's peerage. Small wonder, then, that the same ideas dominated the rules of armory. These only provide ways and methods for the husband to bear the wife's arms. This is curious, because there can be no doubt that at a still earlier period the practice of impalement was entirely confined to women, and that, unless the wife happened to be an heiress, the husband did not trouble to impale her arms. But a little thought will show that the two are not at variance, for if monuments and other matters of record are ignored, the earliest examples of impalement which have come down to us are all, almost without exception, examples of arms borne by widows. One cannot get over the fact that a wife during coverture had practically no legal status at all. The rules governing impalement, and the conjunction of the arms of man and wife, as they are to be borne by the husband, are recited in the chapter upon Marshalling, which also details the ways in which a widow bears arms in the different ranks of life. Nothing would be gained by repeating them here.

It may be noted, however, that it is not considered correct for a widow to make use of the true lover's knot of blue ribbon, which is sometimes used in the case of an unmarried lady. A divorce puts matters in statu quo ante.

There still remains, however, the question of the bearing of arms in her own right by a married woman under coverture at the present day.

The earliest grant of arms that I can put my hands upon to a woman is one dated 1558. It is, moreover, the only grant of which I know to one single person, that person being a wife. The grant is decidedly interesting, so I print it in full:—

"To all and singular as well kinges heraldes and officers of armes as nobles gentlemen and others which these presents shall see or here Wyllyam Hervye Esquire otherwise called Clarencieux principall heralde and kinge of armes of the south-east and west parties of England fendith due comendacons and greting fforasmuch as auncientlye ffrom the beginnynge the valyant and vertuous actes off excellent parsons have ben comended to the worlde with sondry monumentes and remembrances off theyr good desertes among the which one of the chefist and most usuall hath ben the beringe of figures and tokens in shildes called armes beinge none other thinges then Evidences and demonstracons of prowes and valoure diverselye distributed accordinge to the quallyties and desertes of the parsons. And for that Dame Marye Mathew daughter and heyre of Thomas Mathew of Colchester in the counte of Essex esquire hath longe contynued in nobylyte she and her auncestors bearinge armes, yet she notwithstandinge being ignorant of the same and ffor the advoydinge of all inconvenyences and troubles that dayleye happeneth in suche cases and not wyllinge to preiudyce anye person hath instantlye requyred me The sayde Clarencieux kinge of armes accordinge to my registers and recordes To assigne and sett forthe ffor her and her posterite The armes belonging and descendinge To her ffrom her saide auncesters. In consideracon whereof I have at her ientle request assigned geven and granted unto her and her posterite The owlde and auncient armes of her said auncesters as followeth. That is to saye—partye per cheveron sables and argent a Lyon passant in chefe off the second the poynt goutey[1] of the firste as more plainly aperith depicted in this margent. Which armes I The Saide Clarencieux kinge of Armes by powre and authorite to myne office annexed and graunted By the Queenes Majesties Letters patentes under The great Seale of England have ratefyed and confirmed and By These presentes do ratefye and confyrme unto and for the saide dame marye Mathew otherwise called dame Mary Jude wiffe to Sir Andrew Jude Knight late Mayor and Alderman off London and to her posterite To use bear and show for evermore in all places of honour to her and theyr wourshipes at theyr Lybertie and pleasur without impediment lett or interupcon of any person or persons.
"In witness whereof the saide Clarencieux Kinge of Armes have signed these presentes with my hand and sett thereunto The Seale off myne office and The Seale of myne armes geven at London The xth daye off October in the Yeare of owre Lord Godd 1558 and in the ffourth and ffifth yeares off the reignes off owre Souereignes Lorde and Layde Phellip and Marye by the grace of God Kinge and Queene of England france both cycles Jerusalem Irland deffendors of the faythe Archedukes of Austrya Dukes of Burgoyne myllain & braband erles of haspurgie, Flanders and Tyrrell.
"W. Hervey als Clarencieux
"King of Armes.
"Confirmation of Arms to Dame Mary Mathew, 'otherwise called Dame Marye Jude, wyffe to Sir Andrew Jude, Knight, Late Lord Mayor and Alderman off London,' 1558."

In this grant the arms are painted upon a shield. The grant was made in her husband's lifetime, but his arms are not impaled therewith. Evidently, therefore, the lady bears arms in her own right, and the presumption would seem to be that a married lady bears her arms without reference to her husband, and bears them upon a shield. On the other hand, the grant to Lady Pearce, referred to on an earlier page, whilst not blazoning the Pearce arms, shows the painting upon the patent to have been a lozenge of the arms of Pearce, charged with a baronet's hand impaled with the arms then granted for the maiden name of Lady Pearce. On the other hand, a grant is printed in vol. i. of the Notes to the "Visitation of England and Wales." The grant is to Dame Judith Diggs, widow of Sir Maurice Diggs, Bart., now wife of Daniel Sheldon, and to Dame Margaret Sheldon, her sister, relict of Sir Joseph Sheldon, Knight, late Alderman, and sometime Lord Mayor of the City of London, daughters and coheirs of Mr. George Rose, of Eastergate. The operative clause of the grant is: "do by these Presents grant and assign to ye said Dame Judith and Dame Margaret the Armes hereafter mentioned Vizt: Ermine, an Eagle displayed Sable, membered and beaked Gules, debruised with a Bendlet Componè Or and Azure, as in the margin hereof more plainly appears depicted. To be borne and used for ever hereafter by them ye said Dame Judith Diggs and Dame Margaret Sheldon, and the descendants of their bodies respectively, lawfully begotten, according to the Laws, Rules and practice of Armes."

In each case it will be noted that the sisters were respectively wife and widow of some one of the name of Sheldon; and it might possibly be supposed that these were arms granted for the name of Sheldon. There seems, however, to be very little doubt that these are the arms for Rose. The painting is, however, of the single coat of Rose, and one is puzzled to know why the arms are not painted in conjunction with those of Sheldon. The same practice was followed in the patent which was granted to Nelson's Lady Hamilton. This patent, which both heraldically and historically is excessively interesting, was printed in full on p. 168, vol. i. of the Genealogical Magazine. The arms which in the grant are specifically said to be the arms of Lyons (not of Hamilton) are painted upon a lozenge, with no reference to the arms of Hamilton. In each of these cases, however, the grantee of arms has been an heiress, so that the clause by which the arms are limited to the descendants does not help. An instance of a grant to a man and his wife, where the wife was not an heiress, is printed in "The Right to Bear Arms"; and in this case the painting shows the arms impaled with those of the husband. The grant to the wife has no hereditary limitations, and presumably her descendants would never be able to quarter the arms of the wife, no matter even if by the extinction of the other issue she eventually became a coheir. The fact that the arms of man and wife are herein granted together prevents any one making any deduction as to what is the position of the wife alone.

There was a patent issued in the year 1784 to a Mrs. Sarah Lax, widow of John Lax, to take the name and arms of Maynard, such name and arms to be borne by herself and her issue. The painting in this case is of the arms of Maynard alone upon a lozenge, and the crest which was to be borne by her male descendants is quite a separate painting in the body of the grant, and not in conjunction with the lozenge. Now, Mrs. Maynard was a widow, and it is manifestly wrong that she should bear the arms as if she were unmarried, yet how was she to bear them? She was bearing the name of Lax because that had been her husband's name, and she took the name of Maynard, which presumably her husband would have taken had he been alive; she herself was a Miss Jefferson, so would she have been entitled to have placed the arms of Jefferson upon an escutcheon of pretence, in the centre of the arms of Maynard? Presumably she would, because suppose the husband had assumed the name and arms of Maynard in his lifetime, he certainly would have been entitled to place his wife's arms of Jefferson on an escutcheon of pretence.

On March 9, 1878, Francis Culling Carr, and his second wife, Emily Blanche, daughter of Andrew Morton Carr, and niece of the late Field-Marshal Sir William Maynard Gomm, G.C.B., both assumed by Royal Licence the additional surname and arms of Gomm. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Carr-Gomm appear to have had any blood descent from the Gomm family; consequently the Gomm arms were granted to both husband and wife, and the curious part is that they were not identical, the marks (showing that there was no blood relationship) being a canton for the husband and a cross crosslet for the wife. In this case the arms were impaled. One is puzzled to know why the grant to the wife was necessary as well as the grant to the husband.

In 1865 Mrs. Massy, widow of Hugh Massy, assumed the name and arms of Richardson in lieu of Massy. Mrs. Massy was the only child of Major Richardson Brady, who had previously assumed by Royal Licence the arms of Brady only. The painting upon the patent is a lozenge, bearing the arms of Massy, and upon an escutcheon of pretence the arms of Richardson. Of course, the arms of Mrs. Massy, as a widow, previously to the issue of the Royal Licence were a lozenge of the arms of Massy, and on an escutcheon of pretence the arms of Brady.

A few years ago a Grant of Arms was issued to a Mrs. Sharpe, widow of Major Sharpe. The arms were to be borne by herself and the descendants of her late husband, and by the other descendants of her husband's father, so that there is no doubt whatever that these were the arms of Sharpe. I have no idea who Mrs. Sharpe was, and I do not know that she possessed any arms of her own. Let us presume she did not. Now, unless a widow may bear the arms of her late husband on a lozenge, whether she has arms to impale with them or not, how on earth is she to bear arms at all? And yet the grant most distinctly was primarily to Mrs. Sharpe.

After the death of General Ross, the victor of Bladensburg, a grant of an augmentation was made to be placed upon the monument to the memory of the General (Plate II.). The grant also was for the augmentation to be borne by his widow during her widowhood. But no mention appears of the arms of Mrs. Ross, nor, as far as I can ascertain, was proof officially made that Mrs. Ross was in her own right entitled to arms; consequently, whether she really was or was not, we may assume that as far as the official authorities officially knew she was not, and the same query formulated with regard to the Sharpe patent holds good in this case. The painting on the patent shows the arms upon a shield, and placed above is a helmet surmounted by the crest of augmentation and the family crest of Ross.

So that from the cases we have mentioned instances can be found of the arms of a wife upon a shield alone, and of a widow having arms depicted upon a lozenge, such arms being on different occasions the impaled arms of her husband and herself, or the arms of herself alone or of her husband alone; and we have arms granted to a wife, and depicted as an impalement or upon a lozenge. So that from grants it seems almost impossible to deduce any decided and unquestionable rule as to how wife or widow should bear a coat of arms. There is, however, one other source from which profitable instruction may be drawn. I refer to the methods of depicting arms upon hatchments, and more particularly to the hatchment of a married woman. Now a hatchment is strictly and purely personal, and in the days when the use of such an article was an everyday matter, the greatest attention was paid to the proper marshalling of the arms thereupon. There are so many varying circumstances that we have here only space to refer to the three simple rules, and these uncomplicated by any exceptional circumstances, which governed the hatchments of maid, wife, and widow. In the first case, the hatchment of an unmarried lady showed the whole of the background black, the paternal arms on a lozenge, and this suspended by a knot of blue ribbon. In the hatchment of a widow the background again was all black, the arms were upon a lozenge (but without the knot of ribbon), and the lozenge showed the arms of husband and wife impaled, or with the wife's in pretence, as circumstances might dictate. The hatchment of a wife was entirely different. Like the foregoing, it was devoid, of course, of helmet, mantling, crest, or motto; but the background was white on the dexter side (to show that the husband was still alive), and black on the sinister (to show the wife was dead). But the impaled arms were not depicted upon a lozenge, but upon a shield, and the shield was surmounted by the true lover's knot of blue ribbon.

I have already stated that when the rules of arms were in the making the possibility of a married woman bearing arms in her own right was quite ignored, and theoretically even now the husband bears his wife's arms for her upon his shield. But the arms of a man are never depicted suspended from a true lover's knot. Such a display is distinctly feminine, and I verily believe that the correct way for a married woman to use arms, if she desires the display thereof to be personal to herself rather than to her husband, is to place her husband's arms impaled with her own upon a shield suspended from a true lover's knot, and without helmet, mantling, crest, or motto. At any rate such a method of display is a correct one, it is in no way open to criticism on the score of inaccuracy, it has precedent in its favour, and it affords a very desirable means of distinction. My only hesitation is that one cannot say it is the only way, or that it would be "incorrect" for the husband. At any rate it is the only way of drawing a distinction between the "married" achievements of the husband and the wife.

The limitations attached to a lady's heraldic display being what they are, it has long been felt, and keenly felt, by every one attempting heraldic design, that artistic treatment of a lady's arms savoured almost of the impossible. What delicacy of treatment can possibly be added to the hard outline of the lozenge? The substitution of curvilinear for straight lines in the outline, and even the foliation of the outline, goes but a little way as an equivalent to the extensive artistic opportunities which the mantling affords to a designer when depicting the arms of a man.

To a certain extent, two attempts have been made towards providing a remedy. Neither can properly claim official recognition, though both have been employed in a quasi-official manner. The one consists of the knot of ribbon; the other consists of the use of the cordelière. In their present usage the former is meaningless and practically senseless, whilst the use of the latter is radically wrong, and in my opinion, little short of imposture. The knot of ribbon, when employed, is usually in the form of a thin streamer of blue ribbon tied in the conventional true lover's knot (Fig. 749). But the imbecility and inconsistency of its use lies in the fact that except upon a hatchment it has been denied by custom to married women and widows, who have gained their lovers; whilst its use is sanctioned for the unmarried lady, who, unless she be affianced, neither has nor ought to have anything whatever to do with lovers or with their knot. The women who are fancy-free display the tied-up knot; women whom love has fast tied up, unless the foregoing opinion as to the correct way to display the arms of a married lady which I have expressed be correct, must leave the knot alone. But as matters stand heraldically at the moment the ribbon may be used advantageously with the lozenge of an unmarried lady.

With reference to the cordelière some writers assert that its use is optional, others that its use is confined to widow ladies. Now as a matter of fact it is nothing whatever of the kind. It is really the insignia of the old French Order of the Cordelière, which was founded by Anne of Bretagne, widow of Charles VIII., in 1498, its membership being confined to widow ladies of noble family. The cordelière was the waist girdle which formed a part of the insignia of the Order, and it took its place around the lozenges of the arms of the members in a manner similar to the armorial use of the Garter for Knights of that Order. Though the Order of the Cordelière is long since extinct, it is neither right nor proper that any part of its insignia should be adopted unaltered by those who can show no connection with it or membership of it.

  1. Gutté-de-poix.