Saturday, 18 April 2009

Heraldry .. "a shorthand of history" - part 2/4

Dear Mr Postman - it is good to see you and you've just arrived as the sun comes out, how lovely; we did enjoy yesterday's letter .. and today we're looking forward to reading more about this shorthand of heraldry ...

Today's the day to see if we can start to make head or tail of this 'floral border in the garden of history' - or perhaps a bit more background will make it easier to piece together our garden of history ..

... as far back as warfare takes us in history there was a need to distinguish our own military allegiances - the stave or standards of the military units were affixed with animal mascots, or representations of a palace or city, then a crane, scorpion or other animal drawn on the top - hence the Pharoah's Horus-falcon symbol. The Roman army's units were identified by the distinctive markings on their shields.

The knights in the Bayeux Tapestry (depicting the Norman Invasion of England in 1066) carry emblemic shields, but the system of inheritable arms, or an heraldic structure had not been necessary - and only became so once the nobility settled and extended their lands, and new lands were granted by the Crown to the newly ennobled knights.

The first development came in the form of a surcoat (= an overcoat today) - a long sleeveless garment worn over chainmail - as the coats of mail became hot in the sun! The surcoat became shorter and it became the custom to bear emblems. As you might expect the designs were applied to other areas .. tunics, saddle blankets, banners and tapestries to name a few; as noblemens' wealth became more established the designs were also put to good use in sculpture and architectural features ... carved into coins, jewellery (eg signet rings) and the seals used to seal letters. A plethora of early advertising!

The helmet protected the head, again with a piece of drapery tied round the helmet in order to shade it from the sun. To distinguish the helm, a crest was worn over it. This was made of feathers, leather or wood, somtimes similar to the device on the shield, but often different from it.

An achievement of arms could also include a crown or coronet if those nobles were of the rank of barnonet or higher; again there is a strict set of rules to be followed - the crown sits below the helmet, above the shield. Wikiepedia has a useful article on the heraldic crown.

Blazonry - the art of describing or painting heraldic devices or armorial bearings - was originally developed by the Officers of Arms to identify the proclaimed & rightful owner of such ennoblement - as depicted in the various parts of that person's heraldic arms - and to rule on questions of rank or protocol.

Heraldry by the 1100s was well entrenched, however in England the cadence was introduced .. as the oldest surving member would hold the "plain coat" - the simple blazoned shield - however family members would then be distinguished by added marks to the "plain coat" - so the hierarchal ranks could be identified.

Heraldry, in the late Middle Ages, also became adopted by professional and educated individuals as well as early institutions .. the Church, educational establishments - the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge Universities; heraldry flourishes in the modern world - institutions, companies, and private persons continue using coats of arms as their pictorial identification. Heraldry is both legally protected and lawfully assumed.

So now we have a simple structure of how the coats of arms are made up and tomorrow we'll start looking at the colours, the plants, animals, specific flowers, mythical creatures as well as some world wide examples of heraldic shields in use today ..

Mr Postman - thank you for delivering our letter .. I see there are a lot of building blocks to give us even a simple understanding of how the coats of arms are made up .. it is tantalising that we have to wait another day - but I can understand that .. Mum and I can mull over these facts and go back to yesterday's post - it takes her a little while to absorb things, but she will definitely comment and make some salient points - that is what is wonderful .. that she's still with us. Thank you - til tomorrow then ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters


Peter Baca said...

Hello Hilary,

Thank you for the next post on Heraldry! Those Normans really got around....they were a real problem in England at that time!

My thoughts about your post also brought up knights, chivalry, feasts, jousts etc. Maybe food for future posts!

Heraldry is now practiced around the world by a number of different institutions. Thank you for this insightful look back in history!

Best Regards

Pete Baca
The Car Enthusiast Online

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Pete .. thank you .. actually fortunately for us the Normans conquered .. I think probably they did the world a good favour - we all stem from the Norman conquest & William's amazing democratic rule! through the Domesday book.

The Domesday book, knights, chivalry, feasts, jousts etc .. all food for thought - I think I'll deviate away for a while .. food & cloth .. could be interesting subjects.

As you say heraldic customs are protected and taught around the world .. it is certainly a large subject.

Many thanks for visiting .. all the best
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters