The Grammar of Heraldry/Introduction

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That it has been the practice of various communities, in all ages, to distinguish themselves by certain recognised devices, or insignia, we possess abundant and irrefragable testimony, not only in the pages of Sacred History, but in the works of the earliest profane authors of whom we have any record. In the book of Numbers, and elsewhere, constant reference is made the standards, Degalim, which served to distinguish the various Israelitish tribes; and this, too, in such a manner that it is evident the people were previously familiar with the institution.[1]

So Æschylus, who lived nearly 2,500 years ago, in his account of the seven chiefs who warred against Thebes, not only mentions the fact of their having assumed distinctive insignia, but minutely describes the charges blazoned on their respective shields.[2]

We read also, in Virgil, of Aventinus bearing a hydra, which was the device of his father,[3] and of Astur, who bore a silver swan addorsed.[4]

The Roman eagle was probably the first heraldic device seen in Britain, although it is possible that the aborigines may have used distinctive emblems, as is the custom of the American Indians even at the present day.

On the withdrawal of the Roman army, and when the Saxons held rule over our country, each separate kingdom forming the Heptarchy was distinguished by some device. Of these, the White Horse of Kent, which Hengist and Horsa bore on their shields, is a familiar example. Egbert (A.D. 827) is represented to have borne for arms a cross patonce, to which his great-grandson Edward added four martlets, and Edward the Confessor a fifth. It is but right, however, to mention, that these arms ascribed to the Confessor wore not sculptured on his monument in Westminster Abbey until the reign of Edward II.

In the Bayeux tapestry, the shields of the Saxons

are simply charged with bordures and crosses; whilst some of the Norman invaders are represented as bearing heraldic animals, extremely grotesque in appearance, and seemingly of Eastern origin.

It was not, however, until the early part of the thirteenth century, that Heraldry, as a science, began to receive attention. Until that period, any knight might blazon his shield according to the dictates of his own fancy, without any reference to sovereign or king-at-arms; but, at the time of the Crusades, when such a number of soldiers of all nationalities were gathered together, it became absolutely necessary to arrange and digest the various devices into some recognised order, to prevent the confusion that was inevitable from so many different leaders bearing similar arms. The laws that were then laid down have, with very slight modifications, continued to regulate the science ever since; and heraldic records of that period, such as the famous roll of Caerlaverock,[5] are as intelligible to the modern herald as they were when originally compiled. The practice of embroidering heraldic insignia on the surcoat, which was worn over the armour, was introduced about this time; hence the expression, coats of arms.

Towards the close of the reign of Edward III., Heraldry attained its zenith; but, with the decadence of knightly chivalry and the arts, it lost much of its reputation and popularity. A reawakening to the importance of Heraldry is now, in the nineteenth century, taking place amongst us; and although, in the present state of society, it is impossible that it can ever attain the exalted position it once occupied, yet are its historical teachings too precious to allow of its ever becoming extinct.

I shall cite a few examples to illustrate the intimate relation that exists between Heraldry and History. The arms of William, Duke of Normandy, were two lions passant; and, after the Conquest, these became the arms of England. When Henry II. married Eleanor, he added her single lion of Guienne and Aquitaine to his own; thus forming the three lions which have ever since served as the royal arms. Thus, then, whenever we see a royal shield charged with only two lions, we know it to be the arms of one of the four kings between 1066 and 1154.[6] Three lions borne without any other charge indicate the period between 1154 and 1299, the year in which Edward I. married Margaret of France, when her paternal arms—Azure, semée de fleurs-de-lys, or,—were quatered on the royal shield of England. In 1380, Charles VI. of France substituted three fleurs-de-lys for the field semée, which change Henry V. adopted on his accession to the English throne.

In the reign of James I., the lion of Scotland and harp of Ireland appeared, to which were added, in 1689, the arms of Nassau for William and Mary. On the union of England and Ireland in 1801, the fleurs-de-lys were relinquished, and the Hanoverian arms—which had since 1714 been quatered—were placed on a shield of pretence, where they remained until the accession of our present queen, who, on account of the Salic law which obtains in Hanover, is precluded from inheriting that crown.

Heraldry has been styled 'the science of fools with long memories.’ That its true objects have been misunderstood, and that its reputation has been seriously damaged by injudicious writers in attempting to attach fanciful interpretations to devices and tinctures, there can be no question; but, as the noble science has existed from time immemorial, so must it continue to flourish as long as the pride of ancestry forms any part of the nature of man. Indeed, in the present day, the education of no gentleman can be considered complete unless he possess at least an elementary knowledge of Heraldry.

Gibbon, in his Autobiography, very justly remarks: 'A lively desire of knowing and recording our ancestors so generally prevails, that it must depend on the influence of some common principle in the minds of men. We seem to have lived in the persons of our forefathers; it is the labour and reward of vanity to extend the term of this ideal longevity. The satirist may laugh, the philosopher may preach, but Reason herself will respect the prejudices and habits which have been consecrated by the experience of mankind. Few there are who can seriously despise in others an advantage of which they are secretly ambitious to partake. The knowledge of our own family from a remote period will always be esteemed as an abstract preeminence, since it can never be promiscuously enjoyed. If we read of some illustrious line, so ancient that it has no beginning, so worthy that it ought to have no end, we sympathise in its various fortunes; nor can we blame the generous enthusiasm, or even the harmless vanity, of those who are allied to the honours of its name.’

  1. ‘So they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, everyone after their families, according to the house of their fathers.’—Numbers, ii. 34.
  2. The shields are thus described:—
    Tydeus: ‘The sky emblazoned bright with stars; and the bright full moon … shines conspicuously in the middle of the shield.’ Line 384.
    Capaneus: ‘A naked man bearing fire, armed with a blazing torch.’ Line 428.
    Eteoclus: ‘A warrior in complete armour, advancing up the steps of a ladder to a tower of the enemy.’ Line 462.
    Hippomedon: ‘A Typhon emitting dark smoke from his fire-breathing mouth, within a wreath of serpents.’ Line 488.
    Parthenopœus: ‘The bright embossed figure of the ravenous Sphinx, bearing in her talons a Cadmean.’ Line 536.
    Polynices: ‘Justice guiding an armed warrior, embossed in gold.’ Line 641.
    Ampiaraus: uncharged.
  3. Æneid, lib. vii. line 656.
  4. Lib. x. line 186.
  5. In this roll are blazoned the arms of all the principal nobles who, in the year 1300, laid siege to the castle of Caerlaverock.
  6. Henry married Eleanor in 1151, but it was not until three years later that he succeeded to the throne.