A Complete Guide to Heraldry/Chapter 6

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CHAPTER VI

THE SHIELD

The shield is the most important part of the achievement, for on it are depicted the signs and emblems of the house to which it appertains; the difference marks expressive of the cadency of the members within that house; the augmentations of honour which the Sovereign has conferred; the quarterings inherited from families which are represented, and the impalements of marriage; and it is with the shield principally that the laws of armory are concerned, for everything else is dependent upon the shield, and falls into comparative insignificance alongside of it.

Let us first consider the shield itself, without reference to the charges it carries. A shield may be depicted in any fashion and after any shape that the imagination can suggest, which shape and fashion have been accepted at any time as the shape and fashion of a shield. There is no law upon the subject. The various shapes adopted in emblazonments in past ages, and used at the present time in imitation of past usage—for luckily the present period has evolved no special shield of its own—are purely the result of artistic design, and have been determined at the periods they have been used in heraldic art by no other consideration than the particular theory of design that has happened to dominate the decoration, and the means and ends of such decoration of that period. The lozenge certainly is reserved for and indicative of the achievements of the female sex, but, save for this one exception, the matter may be carried further, and arms be depicted upon a banner, a parallelogram, a square, a circle, or an oval; and even then one would be correct, for the purposes of armory, in describing such figures as shields on all occasions on which they are made the vehicles for the emblazonment of a design which properly and originally should be borne upon a shield. Let no one think that a design ceases to be a coat of arms if it is not displayed upon a shield. Many people have thought to evade the authority of the Crown as the arbiter of coat-armour, and the penalties of taxation imposed by the Revenue by using designs without depicting them upon a shield. This little deception has always been borne in mind, for we find in the Royal Warrants of Queen Elizabeth commanding the Visitations that the King of Arms to whom the warrant was addressed was to "correcte, cumptrolle and refourme all mann' of armes, crests, cognizaunces and devices unlawfull or unlawfully usurped, borne or taken by any p'son or p'sons within the same p'vince contary to the due order of the laws of armes, and the same to rev'se, put downe or otherwise deface at his discrecon as well in coote armors, helmes, standerd, pennons and hatchmets of tents and pavilions, as also in plate jewells, pap', parchement, wyndowes, gravestones and monuments, or elsewhere wheresoev' they be sett or placed, whether they be in shelde, schoocheon, lozenge, square, rundell or otherwise howsoev' contarie to the autentiq' and auncient lawes, customes, rules, privileges and orders of armes."

Fig. 28.—Taken from the tomb of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou.

Fig. 28.—Taken from the tomb of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou.

The Act 32 & 33 Victoria, section 19, defines (for the purpose of the taxation it enforced) armorial bearings to mean and include "any armorial bearing, crest, or ensign, by whatever name the same shall be called, and whether such armorial bearing, crest, or ensign shall be registered in the College of Arms or not."

The shape of the shield throughout the rest of Europe has also varied between wide extremes, and at no time has any one particular shape been assigned to or peculiar to any country, rank, or condition, save possibly with one exception, namely, that the use of the cartouche or oval seems to have been very nearly universal with ecclesiastics in France, Spain, and Italy, though never reserved exclusively for their use. Probably this was an attempt on the part of the Church to get away from the military character of the shield. It is in keeping with the rule by which, even at the present day, a bishop or a cardinal bears neither helmet nor crest, using in place thereof his ecclesiastical mitre or tasselled hat, and by which the clergy, both abroad and in this country, seldom made use of a crest in depicting their arms. A clergyman in this country, however, has never been denied the right of using a crest (if he possesses one and chooses to display it) until he reaches episcopal rank. A grant of arms to a clergyman at the present day depicts his achievement with helmet, mantling, and crest in identical form with those adopted for any one else. But the laws of armory, official and amateur, have always denied the right to make use of a crest to bishop, archbishop, and cardinal.

At the present day, if a grant of arms is made to a bishop of the Established Church, the emblazonment at the head of his patent consists of shield and mitre only. The laws of the Church of England, however, require no vow of celibacy from its ecclesiastics, and consequently the descendants of a bishop would be placed in the position of having no crest to display if the bishop and his requirements were alone considered. So that in the case of a grant to a bishop the crest is granted for his descendants in a separate clause, being depicted by itself in the body of the patent apart from the emblazonment "in the margin hereof," which in an ordinary patent is an emblazonment of the whole achievement. A similar method is usually adopted in cases in which the actual patentee is a woman, and where, by the limitations attached to the patent being extended beyond herself, males are brought in who will bear the arms granted to the patentee as their pronominal arms. In these cases the arms of the patentee are depicted upon a lozenge at the head of the patent, the crest being depicted separately elsewhere.

Whilst shields were actually used in warfare the utilitarian article largely governed the shape of the artistic representation, but after the fifteenth century the latter gradually left the beaten track of utility and passed wholly into the cognisance of art and design. The earliest shape of all is the long, narrow shape, which is now but seldom seen. This was curved to protect the body, which it nearly covered, and an interesting example of this is to be found in the monumental slab of champlevé enamel, part of the tomb of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou (Fig. 28), the ancestor of our own Royal dynasty of Plantagenet, who died in the year 1150. This tomb was formerly in the cathedral of Le Mans, and is now in the museum there. I shall have occasion again to refer to it. The shield is blue; the lions are gold.

Other forms of the same period are found with curved tops, in the shape of an inverted pear, but the form known as the heater-shaped shield is to all intents and purposes the earliest shape which was used for armorial purposes.

The church of St. Elizabeth at Marburg, in Hesse, affords examples of shields which are exceedingly interesting, inasmuch as they are original and contemporary even if only pageant shields. Those which now remain are the shields of the Landgrave Konrad (d. 1241) of Thuringia and of Henry of Thuringia (d. 1298). The shield of the former (see Fig. 29) is 90 centimetres high and 74 wide. Konrad was Landgrave of Thuringia and Grand Master of the Teutonic Order of Knighthood. His arms show the lion of Thuringia barry of gules and argent on a field of azure, and between the hind feet a small shield, with the arms of the Teutonic Order of Knights. The only remains of the lion's mane are traces of the nails. The body of the lion is made of pressed leather, and the yellow claws have been supplied with a paint-brush. A precious stone probably represented the eye.

Fig. 29.—Shield of the Landgrave Konrad of Thuringia (died 1241).

Fig. 29.—Shield of the Landgrave Konrad of Thuringia (died 1241).

The making and decorating of the shields lay mostly in the hands of the herald painters, known in Germany as Schilter, who, in addition to attending to the shield and crest, also had charge of all the riding paraphernalia, because most of the articles comprised therein were heraldically decorated. Many of these shield-workers' fraternities won widespread fame for themselves, and enjoyed great consideration at that time.

Thus the "History of a Celebrated Painters' Guild on the Lower Rhine" tells us of costly shields which the shield-workers of Paris had supplied, 1260, &c. Vienna, too, was the home of a not unimportant shield-workers' guild, and the town archives of Vienna contain writings of the fifteenth century treating of this subject. For instance, we learn that in an order of St. Luke's parish, June 28, 1446, with regard to the masterpiece of a member of the guild—

"Item, a shield-worker shall make four new pieces of work with his own hand, a jousting saddle, a leather apron, a horse's head-piece, and a jousting shield, that shall he do in eight weeks, and must be able to paint it with his own hand, as Knight and man-at-arms shall direct."

The shield was of wood, covered with linen or leather, the charges in relief and painted. Leather plastic was very much esteemed in the early Middle Ages. The leather was soaked in oil, and pressed or beaten into shape. Besides piecing and leather plastic, pressed linen (linen dipped in chalk and lime) was also used, and a kind of tempera painting on a chalk background. After the shield was decorated with the charges, it was frequently strengthened with metal clasps, or studs, particularly those parts which were more especially exposed to blows and pressure. These clasps and nails originally had no other object than to make the shield stronger and more durable, but later on their nature was misunderstood; they were treated and used as genuine heraldic charges, and stereotyped into hereditary designs. The long strips with which the edge was bound were called the "frame" (Schildgestell), the clasps introduced in the middle of the shield the "buckle" or "umbo" (see on Fig. 28), from which frequently circularly arranged metal snaps reached the edge of the shield. This latter method of strengthening the shield was called the "Buckelrîs," a figure which was afterwards frequently employed as a heraldic charge, and is known in Germany by the name of Lilienhaspel (Lily-staple) or Glevenrad, or, as we term it in England, the escarbuncle.

In the second half of the fourteenth century, when the tournament provided the chief occasion for the shield, the jousting-shield, called in Germany the Tartsche or Tartscher, came into use, and from this class of shield the most varied shapes were gradually developed. These Tartschen were decidedly smaller than the earlier Gothic shields, being only about one-fifth of a man's height. They were concave, and had on the side of the knight's right hand a circular indentation. This was the spear-rest, in which to place the tilting-spear. The later
Fig. 30.

Fig. 30.

Fig. 31.

Fig. 31.

Fig. 32.

Fig. 32.

art of heraldic decoration symmetrically repeated the spear-rest on the sinister side of the shield, and, by so doing, transformed a useful fact into a matter of mere artistic design. Doubtless it was argued that if indentations were correct at one point in the outline they were correct at another, and when once the actual fact was departed from the imagination of designers knew no limits. But if the spear-rest as such is introduced into the outline of a shield it should be on the dexter side.

Reverting to the various shapes of shield, however, the degeneration is explained by a remark of Mr. G. W. Eve in the able book which he has recently published under the title of "Decorative Heraldry," in which, alluding to heraldic art in general, he says (p. 235):—

"With the Restoration heraldry naturally became again conspicuous, with the worst form of the Renaissance character in full sway, the last vestiges of the Gothic having disappeared. Indeed, the contempt with which the superseded style was regarded amounted to fanaticism, and explains, in a measure, how so much of good could be relinquished in favour of so weak a successor."

Later came the era of gilded embellishments, of flowing palms, of borders decorated with grinning heads, festoons of ribbon, and fruit and flowers in abundance. The accompanying examples are reproduced from a book, Knight and Rumley's "Heraldry." The book is not particularly well known to the public, inasmuch as its circulation was entirely confined to heraldic artists, coach-painters, engravers, and die-sinkers. Amongst these handicraftsmen its reputation was and is great. With the school of design it adopted, little or no sympathy now exists, but a short time ago (how short many of those who are now vigorous advocates of the Gothic and mediæval styles would be startled to realise were they to recognise actual facts) no other style was known or considered by the public. As examples of that style the plates of Knight and Rumley were admittedly far in advance of any other book, and as specimens of copperplate engraving they are superb. Figs. 30, 31, and 32 show typical examples of escutcheons from Knight and Rumley; and as the volume was in the hands of most of the heraldic handicraftsmen, it will be found that this type of design was constantly to be met with. The external decoration of the shield was carried to great lengths, and Fig. 31 found many admirers and users amongst the gallant "sea-dogs" of the kingdom. In fact, so far was the idea carried that a trophy of military weapons was actually granted by patent as part of the supporters of the Earl of Bantry. Fig. 30, from the same source, is the military equivalent. These plates are interesting as being some of the examples from which most of the heraldic handicraft of a recent period was adapted. The official shield eventually stereotyped itself into a shape akin to that shown in Fig. 32, though nowadays considerable latitude is permitted. For paintings which are not upon patents the design of the shield rests with the individual taste of the different officers of arms, and recently some of the work for which they have been responsible has reached a high standard judged even by the strictest canons of art. In Scotland, until very recently, the actual workmanship of the emblazonments which were issued from Lyon Office was so wretchedly poor that one is hardly justified in taking them into consideration as a type. With the advent into office of the present Lyon King of Arms (Sir James Balfour Paul), a complete change has been made, and both the workmanship and design of the paintings upon the patents of grant and matriculation, and also in the Lyon Register, have been examples of everything that could be desired.