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The Origins of Heraldry
Heraldry arose, almost spontaneously, throughout Europe in a short space of time between 1130-1160 coinciding with the development of more sophisticated armour. It can be seen from the contemporary seal of William Ferrers, Earl of Derby, that the horseman would be unrecognisable in the encasing helmet, but easily spotted at a distance by the distinctive markings on his shield and on his horses's drapery.
It is generally supposed that heraldic markings were adopted when the face became invisible behind closed helmets, but equally the methods of warfare themselves demanded a system of instant recognition, as faces, after all, can only be discerned at relatively close quarters. Look at the great Bayeux needlework epic of the Norman Conquest. It is almost impossible to distinguish William from Harold - Norman from Saxon. At one point William is depicted raising his helmet to reassure his soldiers that he was still in the fray.
The signs adopted soon became jealously guarded and objects of pride just as present-day football supporters wear the colours of their teams and so can be instantly recognised. A son would inherit his father's markings and carry them in battle with pride. Heraldry, as we know it, had come into being. It flourished especially in the colourful tournaments which were held to give practice in the use of the lance. The armorial decorations at these jousts were supervised by heralds under the aegis of a Marshal and Constable. In these presiding officers we see the origins of the College of Arms.
The social importance of jousting must undoubtedly have advanced the nature of heraldry to an organised and scientific state. Jousting died out in the 16th century and was revived briefly in 1839 with Lord Eglinton's gorgeous tournament which Scotland's weather put a damper on, but there has been a revival of a milder version of this sport during the last decade at festivals and fairs.
The period when the use of heraldic markings on surcoats and shields served a vital purpose in war was short-lived. The introduction of gun powder made the sort of armour developed in the 12th century a useless handicap in battle. Heraldry, however, survived independently and flourished. Arms were displayed on seals and this was useful because in the early Middle Ages many of the nobility were illiterate. Arms in stone and on stained glass, silver and elsewhere have provided countless clues for historians in dating and identifying buildings and objects.
As heraldry flourished and became regulated it was necessary to have a language whereby a herald could accurately describe arms and that his descriptions should be comprehensible to other heralds. The language used was Norman French and so it is to this day.
Before the rigid regulation of personal coats of arms, they seemed to have been assumed at will and the only records we have of these can be found in the most important of all historic heraldic documents - the rolls of arms. The College of Arms possesses a splendid collection of these rolls including the earliest known one dating from about 1275.
The nature of heraldry, then, is first a system of personal devices appertaining to an individual and continuing, with certain restrictions (as will be seen), for his descendants. It is therefore an hereditary distinction. It is also an art. The proper delineation of coats of arms can achieve a high art form; the animals, objects and charges being highly stylised.
In the l9th century attempts were made to introduce realism into heraldry and this is generally regarded as the nadir of the science. For instance lions as supporters were depicted looking like the sleepy fellows in Regent's Park, and the augmentation granted to Lord Nelson's arms contained a scene on the river Nile complete with palm trees, a disabled ship and a battery in ruins! This is not what heraldry is for. A lion is symbolic and should be made to look the picture of lithe ferocity. A battle should be commemorated by something symbolic such as the Howard augmentation in the arms of the 3rd Duke of Norfolk and his descendants alluding to Flodden (where the Duke distinguished himself) in which the arms were augmented by a small shield showing the treassured lion of Scotland cut in half with an arrow through its mouth (see inside back cover).
Many purists have also derided the florid shields which appeared in the 18th and l9th centuries as opposed to the plain so-called 'heater' shaped shield of the Middle Ages. However, where arms are displayed in a baroque setting, so long as the rules of heraldry are observed, there would seem to be no objection to them being displayed in baroque or rococo shields if these designs are best for the surroundings. After all heraldry was meant to be decorative.
The actual origins of heraldry are obscure and many writers and historians have speculated on this subject. It is possible that we will never know the precise details but it does not really matter. What is important is that this colourful aspect of life arose and continues to brighten men's lives and has provided an endless source of both interest and pride for centuries, and never more so than at the present time.