A Complete Guide to Heraldry/Chapter 40

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A custom formerly prevailed in England, which at one time was of very considerable importance. This was the setting up of a hatchment after a death. No instances of hatchments of a very early date, as far as I am aware, are to be met with, and it is probably a correct conclusion that the custom, originating rather earlier, came into vogue in England during the seventeenth century and reached its height in the eighteenth. It doubtless originated in the carrying of ceremonial shields and helmets (afterwards left in the church) at funerals in the sixteenth century, and in the earlier practice of setting up in the church the actual shield of a deceased person. The cessation of the ceremonial funeral, no doubt, led to the cult of the hatchment. Hatchments cannot be said even yet to have come entirely to an end, but instances of their use are nowadays extremely rare, and since the early part of the nineteenth century the practice has been steadily declining, and at the present time it is seldom indeed that one sees a hatchment in use. The word "hatchment" is, of course, a corruption of the term "achievement," this being the heraldic term implying an emblazonment of the full armorial bearings of any person.

The manner of use was as follows. Immediately upon the death of a person of any social position a hatchment of his or her arms was set up over the entrance to his house, which remained there for twelve months, during the period of mourning. It was then taken down from the house and removed to the church, where it was set up in perpetuity. There are few churches of any age in this country which do not boast one or more of these hatchments, and some are rich in their possession. Those now remaining—for example, in St. Chad's Church in Shrewsbury—must number, I imagine, over a hundred. There does not appear to have been any obligation upon a clergyman either to permit their erection, or to allow them to remain for any specified period. In some churches they have been discarded and relegated to the vestry, to the coal-house, or to the rubbish-heap, whilst in others they have been carefully preserved.

The hatchment was a diamond-shaped frame, painted black, and enclosing a painting in oils upon wood, or more frequently canvas, of the full armorial bearings of the deceased person. The frame was usually about five feet six in height, and the rules for the display of arms upon hatchments afford an interesting set of regulations which may be applied to other heraldic emblazonments. The chief point, however, concerning a hatchment, and also the one in which it differs from an ordinary armorial emblazonment, lay in the colour of the groundwork upon which the armorial bearings were painted. For an unmarried person the whole of the groundwork was black, but for a husband or wife half was black and half white, the groundwork behind the arms of the deceased person being black, and of the surviving partner in matrimony white. The background for a widow or widower was entirely black.