A Review of the Historical Regalia of Officers of Arms
By Mark B. Wroth
known in the SCA as Eiríkr Mjoksiglandi Sigurðarson
Revision 3.2 (September 27, 2007)
The distinctive garments and other accoutrements worn and carried by heralds mark them and their function clearly. The principal identifying mark of heralds was the wearing of a garment bearing their master’s arms. Originally, this garment appears to have had the same form as the lord himself might have worn, but in time seems to have settled into what we identify as a tabard. Other identifying regalia was used at times, either instead of or in addition to the tabard. The main additional items were the staff and escutcheon, and for kings of arms, the crown.
Any work of scholarship depends heavily on the contributions of others. I would like to express my thanks especially to Angela Martin (Lady Catrin ferch Dafydd, then Crescent Principal Herald), who asked the question that started this research; Bruce Miller and Esther Benedict (Baron Bruce Draconarius of Mistholme and Mistress Astra Christiana Benedict), who shared the results of their research and provided a number of cogent comments on drafts of this paper; and most importantly, to my lady wife, Ercil Howard-Wroth (Lady the Honorable Astriðr Selr Leifsdottir) who provided assistance in too many ways to mention. This paper was originally presented at the Second Caerthan Known World Heraldic Symposium, and a version of it is available from the Laurel web site. It has not been fundamentally changed since that presentation, but some minor updates and additions have been made.
As with any other aspect of life in the Middle Ages, there is no one answer to the question of what—if anything—heralds used as identifying regalia; while this paper does not attempt to document all of the regional and temporal variations that existed, it is clear that there were significant variations in time and space. However, some practices became common enough during the later Middle Ages that we can regard them as distinctive marks of heralds(1).
The principal practice identifying heralds was the wearing of their master’s arms emblazoned on a garment. Originally, this garment appears to have had the same form as the lord himself might have worn, but in time seems to have settled into the garment we now identify as a tabard. As will be seen in the illustrations discussed below, there is considerable variation in the actual construction of the garments I have lumped together as “tabards”. A discussion of these variations is beyond the scope of this paper, but would repay further research.
Other identifying regalia were used at times, either instead of or in addition to the tabard. The major additional items were the staff, which was not unique to the heralds, and a small escutcheon worn on the person. Kings of Arms had additional identifying regalia, and there appears to have been some practices adopted by free-lance heralds which are unique to that status.
Sir Anthony Wagner, Garter King of Arms, in his work on the history of the English College of Arms [WagHOE], provides considerable insight into the work of the heralds in the Middle Ages—focused, as one might expect, on English and to a much lesser extent French practice. It is his belief that early heralds wore their master’s surcoat or—later—jupon, transitioning to the wear of the tabard about the time of Henry VI (1421–1471) (p. 79). The heralds continued this practice long after it died out among their masters— Wagner believes Henry VII (1457–1509) to have been the last English King to wear a tabard of arms(2), while the English heralds to this day wear tabards on official occasions.
One of the earlier references to the wear of some form of—probably—armorial garment for heralds is in the Statum Armorium(3), which directs that Kings of Heralds should wear their “houces des armes” and no more. While this occurs in the context of a discussion of tournament equipment (Kings of Heralds and marshals are also directed to carry no weapons except blunted swords), by this time such a reference appears to be to what we would call a surcoat.
Neubecker [Neu76] in his chapter on “The Herald”, provides a great deal of pictorial evidence that that heralds wore tabards. Among a wide variety of pictures showing heralds in what we can fairly clearly recognize as tabards(4), there are a few exceptions to the normal mode.
There is a small detail on page 12 which shows six heralds riding in a column of twos. The leading pair wear their tabards athwart, while the remaining four wear them normally. All six tabards appear to be identical (and are of Great Britain(5)). Neubecker identifies the leading pair as pursuivants apparently because of this mode of wear(6).
A second detail, this one from a tourney book of King René of Anjou-Sicily, also shows a group of heralds, one of whom wears this tabard athwart while the other two wear it normally. The herald wearing the tabard athwart appears to be a subordinate, and is shown with his mouth open at though making an announcement. These heralds, who appear in a series of illustrations of the course of the tourney as the heralds of the Duke of Brittany, are all wearing plain ermine tabards. The one picture which shows them with their lord has him sitting on a throne covered with an ermine cloth(7). Also of interest in this series of illustrations is that the two men who accompany the herald don tabards only in one of the four reproduced scenes. Wagner [WagHOE] also discusses this picture, and points out that the other heralds are in fact wearing small shields or escutcheons, a point which will be further discussed below.
All in all, Neubecker’s chapter on “The Herald” shows twenty-eight pictures of individuals in tabards with arms, three of whom are wearing them athwart. It also shows six apparently sleeveless tabards in use. Additionally, it shows photographs of ten tabards, two apparently without sleeves (although one of them may have lost the arms—it appears in physically bad shape).
Wagner provides a number of interesting illustrations of heralds, ranging over much of the history of the English College of Arms but not completely limited to them. Two especially interesting illustrations are [WagHOE, plates VI and VII], which show the Clarenceux and Garter Kings of Arms in the first half of the Fifteenth Century. The drawing of Clarenceux is from a funeral brass, and shows the herald in a knee-length or slightly longer overrobe covered with the arms of Great Britain. This robe has very short sleeves, ending level with the armpits, and showing no evidence of a repetition of the arms on the sleeves. By contrast, the drawing of Garter is clearly a tabard, although one with an uncommon split part way up its front.
The Oxford Guide [WR88] has a few relevant illustrations. In its color plate 9, which is a photograph of a grant of arms dated 6 Oct, 1547, the decorative initial contains a man wearing a tabard of Great Britain. The caption identifies him as Gilbert Dethick, Norroy. Plate 26, a reproduction from ‘Vincent’s Precedents’, shows a part of the ceremony for the creation of Garter King of Arms. In it, the candidate is flanked and followed by seven heralds, all wearing tabards (front-and-back). The painting is identified as being “early seventeenth century.”
Dennys [De82] provides some additional evidence of the tabard being worn by heralds. In Plate VII (facing page 174), which shows the opening of Parliament on 15 April 1523, there is a man wearing a tabard of Great Britain, and apparently acting as a herald. This work, incidentally, shows the continuation of the tradition into the present day in its illustrations of heralds during their ceremonial duties(8).
From these examples, it seems clear that “tabards” of various forms became a common form of identification for heralds during our period of study. They supplanted other forms of armorial garments which were worn in earlier times, and continued through the end of the Middle Ages—to the present day, in fact.
But What Arms on the Tabard?
Together, Wagner [WagHOE, p. 84] and Neubecker [Neu76] make a good case for heralds wearing the undifferenced arms of their masters, as befitted their status of speaking for their masters. Wagner [WagHOE, p. 84] also mentions the practice of heralds taking the coat of their current employer when doing temporary service for someone other than their usual master. Wagner points out a few specific examples; two heralds(9)were sent to the besieged town of Troyes in 1380 wearing the arms of the Duke of Buckingham. In 1465, Chester Herald was authorized by his master the King to carry a challenge from Lord Scales, and for that purpose wore Scales’ arms. In a possibly related manner, he also describes heralds as wearing the arms of the deceased in funeral processions—as distinct from carrying them, a separate practice which he illustrates in, for example [WagHOE, plate XVIII].
Neubecker also shows some examples (p. 13 and p. 20) of tournament officials wearing surcoats emblazoned with the badge of their jousting societies. In the example on page 13, the function of the officials is not clear; in the second example there is reason to believe that the individual is a pursuivant, since his identity is known. These illustrations are significant in that they provide examples of the use of a badge on a surcoat or tabard; the general applicability of this practice seems rather limited, however(10).
Dennys [De75, p. 34] in an illustration of the creation of a pursuivant shows a herald—wearing a tabard of England—leading in a second man, clothed in a tabard of (apparently) Gules a chevron Or between three bezants, worn athwart.
We note also in [WagHOE, p. 55] that in Henry V’s time, noblemen’s officers included Arundel, Cadran, Exeter, and Richmond Heralds, and Joyeulx, Blanch Lyverer, Bonespoir, and Bellesme Pursuivants. In later years we have a long list of heralds and pursuivants not in the crown’s service (including some fifteen whose service is not determined). The lists of names he gives, while interesting from the perspective of naming practice, are not particularly relevant to this discussion; what is important is that there were a significant number of non-royal heralds—despite the prevalence of royal heralds in the examples cited above.
The discussion above focuses on heralds who were in the regular employ of some noble. But not all heralds fit this description.
On page 18 of [Neu76], there is a picture of a man wearing what appears to be a poncho decorated with a large number(11) of small shields bearing arms. The caption says “The unestablished, ‘freelance’ heralds decorated their tabards with small plain armorial shields, while those officials with tabards bore the arms of their lords.” In addition to the different decoration, this “tabard” appears to be of different construction, being shaped like a poncho without identifiable sleeves. Additionally, on page 161 Neubecker reproduces a “review of helmets” from Konrad Grünenberg’s Armorial (12). Centrally featured is a man wearing a plain green sleeveless tabard, bordered in gold and suspended from a capelet on which are shown many small escutcheons. Neubecker identifies the man as “a freelance herald hired for the occasion” in his caption. A German manuscript, apparently from the 15th century, shows a man who seems to be presiding over a joust, seated on horseback, and wearing a cape which appears to be emblazoned with small shields around the neck area. Four are visible in this front view (13) [BB89, pp 62–3]. It seems clear that heralds wore emblazons of their master’s arms to identify their status. This seems a reasonable approach for those heralds who were without a permanent employer (14). It provides a simple way to identify a herald without making the claim to represent a specific noble that a tabard would. In addition, the multiple emblazons would act as a visual resume of the free-lance herald’s experience.
Wear of the Tabard Athwart
One of the interesting variations on the wear of the tabard is the practice of wearing it “athwart” or sidewise, with the large panels draped over the arms rather than at the front and back. This practice is strongly associated with heralds in the rank of pursuivant. In fact, at certain times and places this association was so strong that a pursuivant could be disciplined for daring to break the custom. At other times and places, however, there was no distinction in the manner of wear of the tabard between pursuivants and other ranks of heralds.
For example, the pictures in Neubecker [Neu76] discussed above seem to demonstrate that some heralds wore their tabards athwart during their normal duties. The description in [vK94] also demonstrates that this usage was associated with pursuivants. On the other hand, on page 19, Neubecker shows an illustration of a pursuivant—known by name—with the comment that German pursuivants wore their tabards “in the same fashion as heralds.”
Wagner [WagHOE] mentions the wear of tabards transversely, and points out that the practice was sufficiently well established that a pursuivant in the Sixteenth Century was fined for wearing his tabard as a herald. He also notes that the practice dies out in the late Seventeenth Century, which may be why it looks odd to our modern eyes. Brooke-Little [BL75, p. 201] dates the end of this practice to the time of James ii (1633–1701) The illustration on [De75, p. 34], mentioned above in relation to the question of which arms appear on the tabard, also clearly shows the about-to-be-created herald—identified by Dennys as to be created a pursuivant—wearing the tabard athwart.
This evidence permits several conclusions relevant to the wear of tabards ”athwart“:
- At certain times and places (specifically England in the Sixteenth Century), the wear of the tabard ”athwart“ was a distinctive mark of the pursuivant, and was required for heralds of that rank.
<li>Earlier in history the practice of some pursuivants, particularly in England, wearing their tabards ”athwart“ clearly existed.
- At the same time the English practice of wearing the tabard ”athwart“ was well established, in at least some other parts of Europe the practice was not common.
Distinction By Material
In parallel with different modes of wear and other regalia, there was—and is—a distinction among the tabards worn by the English heralds by material. This appears at least as early as 1544, when Kings of Arms were issued tabards of satin, heralds of damask, and pursuivants of sarsenet(16). This practice continues to the present day, at least according to J. P. Brooke- Little [BL75, p. 201], who tells us that today kings of arms wear velvet, heralds satin, and pursuivants damask-silk, all embroidered with the Royal arms(17).
Neubecker, on page 18 shows a man dressed in a dark robe with several small shields on a chain around his neck, carrying a wand about a yard long. Neubecker’s caption indicates that this was the identification of the herald on “unimportant occasions.”
vThis assertion is paralleled by the discussion in [Unk63, p. 249ff.], which says that “on ordinary occasions” heralds were identified by an “escocheon or cognizance, worn conspicuously on the person.” The description of this is a small badge or box fastened to the “girdle” bearing a shield of arms. In other cases, the badge is fastened to the left breast(18).
Wagner [WagHOE, p. 86ff.] also points out the practice of heralds of all ranks wearing a small escutcheon of the arms of their master, and possibly of other lords as well—the giving of such a shield was a mark of “favour to the herald and amity towards his master.” This insignia was given at the time of the creation of a pursuivant (as part of the ceremony) and at other times, occasionally on the petition of the herald.
Wagner further cites Upton as saying that messengers on foot, messengers on horseback, pursuivants, and heralds wear these shields respectively at their belt, behind the right shoulder, on the left shoulder, and on the breast. Burgundian offcers of arms, according to Olivier de la Marche, wear the escutcheon on the right shoulder. Neubecker shows several examples of this custom as well, most notably on page 20 and in the examples from King Renés book.
According to Wagner, the custom was lost by the English College in the early 1600s [WagHOE, p. 89]. However, it seems clear that a variation of this practice survived for another century, at least in the form of enameled pendant insignia for the Garter King-of-Arms. The Heralds Exhibition Catalogue—1934 The Victoria and Albert’s collection of John Anstis the Elder’s regalia as Garter (circa 1719) includes a chain and badge worn by him in his portrait. The badge in this case consists of a shield bearing St. George impaling the British Royal Arms, surrounded by a garter (or strap and buckle) and surmounted by a royal crown [MP78, page 56].
Wagner [WagHOE, pp. 91–92] discusses the use of rods of offce in his discussion of regalia. The primary use he documents is the carrying of white rods by Kings of Arms, beginning about the time of Bruges. In the early Tudor times, the creation ceremonies for a herald call for him to carry a silvered white rod in his hand. However, Wagner finds not other trace of this practice, nor of what he reports as the fifteenth and early sixteenth century practice of Kings of Arms giving a rod to a herald appointed Marshal or deputy. However, a number of the illustrations in [Neu76] show heralds carrying wands or staffs, spread across a fairly wide range of times and places. Innes [IoL71, plate V] shows Lyon King of Arms in the 1685 Riding of the Parliament of Scotland carrying a rod about two feet in length. A. C. Fox-Davies asserts that the rods by Scots heralds, rather than being rods of oce, result from the need to keep a scroll or parchment steady when reading it aloud [FD88, Notes to Plate 26]. In this discussion, Fox-Davies is commenting on a rod shown in a portrait of one of his contemporaries(19).
The Victoria and Albert Museum collection includes a “scepter” belonging to Garter John Anstis the Elder, dated to about 1719[MP78, page 56]; it consists of a wooden handle with a pacel-gilt shaft and cut-card worked pommel; the head is in the approximate form of a cube, decorated on its faces with the Cross of St. George—on two sides impaling the royal arms. The wand is about 61cm (24 inches) long.
The available evidence seems to support an assertion that at least some heralds carried wands at times in period. Modern illustrations (e.g. in [De82]) of English heralds demonstrate that at some point the use of wands became part of the common regalia of the English College; every modern herald in the photographs in that text seems to be carrying a short white wand, about three feet in length. A more specific conclusion regarding the uses of wands by heralds in the Middle Ages must await further study.
Kings of Arms
In the illustrations mentioned above of Garter and Clarenceux, [WagHOE, Plates VI and VII], both of the Kings of Arms are shown crowned, Clarenceux with a relatively conventional coronet of “strawberry leaves” and Garter with a huge crown covered with small shields.
Similarly, a number of illustrations of Kings of Arms in the initial capitals of English grants of arms depict the King of Arms as wearing a crown. Examples include [Neu76, p. 23]and [WR88, Plate 9]. While depicting the King of Arms in the initial capital seems to have been common, it was not universal.
Also in [WR88], at Plate 26, is an early seventeenth century illustration from Vincent’s Precedents showing the creation of a Garter King of Arms (mentioned above in connection with the wear of tabards shown in it). One of the items being carried, presumably for use in the ceremony, is a crown apparently of conventional tri-lobed design, but including crowning arches with the basic circlet.
The English Kings of Arms crowns are described in [Wil92, p. 94] as “silver gilt and composed of a circlet surmounted by acanthus leaves”. Given the context, I presume Williamson is describing the modern regalia. Fox-Davies [FD69] provides a drawing of the coronet of the kings of arms at the end of Chapter 22; he also remarks that “anciently” the Lyon King of Arms wore a crown identical to that of the King of Scotland except that it was not jeweled.
Also in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (and shown in [MP78]) is the Garter crown of Anstis the Elder from about 1719. The accompanying text indicates that at least parts of the form of the crown date to Elizabeth’s reign.
The general practice of the Middle Ages seems to have been that heralds were identified by the use of the arms of their masters. The way these arms were displayed varied both over time (as fashions for both nobles and their heralds changed) and with the rank and duties of the offcer at arms in question. The form of heraldic regalia most commonly associated with the heralds is the tabard, a form that came into use in the middle of the Fifteenth Century and has remained in use to this day. This form originated, as did its predecessors, with the then fashionable manner of wear by the great lords who were the heralds masters. Unlike the earlier forms, however, it remained the garment of the heralds long after it had died out in fashion elsewhere. Other items of regalia were used at various times, including small escutcheons worn on the breast. Small staffs or scepters were also carried by heralds at various times; the extent to which this was an identifying mark of heralds is not clear.
The various ranks of officers at arms below kings of arms distinguished themselves from each other by variations in how they wore the arms of their masters, if they distinguished themselves at all. One of the more picturesque variations on this theme was the wear of the tabard athwart by pursuivants, the lowest of the three common heraldic ranks. This practice came into fashion in England shortly after the tabard itself did, and died out after the end of the Middle Ages.
2. There is a plate in [IoL71, plate XVa] dated to ca 1567 which purports to show James II of Scotland wearing a tabard of the appropriate arms. However, it is not obvious that the source, which is the Armorial Register of Lord Lyon Sir Robert Forman of Luthrie, would show the actual dress of the period in preference to a clear armorial depiction.
5. In order to avoid confusion, I will refer to the quartered coats by which the English Crown asserted its claim to other thrones as “Great Britain” in order to distinguish it from the simple coats of the various kingdoms involved. In this particular case, the arms are France modern quartering England.
6. The detail is stated to be “from a tourney book of the time of Henry VIII (1509–1547)”. (It also appears in [WagHOE], or a very similar illustration does.) There, it is identified as being a roll of the Great Tournament of Westminster held 12–13 February 1510/1
8. And in the form of the grant of arms. Plate III shows a modern grant, containing in its initial capital the portrait of a herald in his tabard that could have been lifted right out of the 1547 Grant mentioned above.
10. It has been suggested that this practice provides some justification for the use of badges such as the heralds’ crossed trumpets or the marshals’ crossed swords in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Since the examples present seem to show the badges as identifying the sponsors rather than the functions of the officials, this appears to me to be stretching the precedent a bit.
13. Above the shields is a circlet that could be either trim around the neck of the garment (or the underlying doublet) or a chain collar; I interpret the drawing as showing shields attached to the cape, with trim showing at the neck, but other interpretations are possible.
14. As with other topics, it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the employment patterns of early heralds. But it seems clear that being unemployed was an occupational hazard of heralds, especially early in their history.
15. A possible resolution of this would be if the rank of pursuivant itself was relatively rare, and pursuivants were rapidly promoted to the rank of Herald, thus accounting for their relative rarity. The assertion in [vK94] that “when he [the just created ‘purcevante’] hath served any time, he may be at the pleasure of the prince be created an Herehaught, even the next daye after he is created Purcevante, which is done in this order.” However, this is contradicted by the author of the Argentaye Tract [Unk92], who believes that a pursuivant should serve in that office for seven years before being created a herald. I note, however, that the author believes that this should be the case—he appears to be arguing that pursuivants should serve in that office longer before being granted their “coats of arms” than occurs “at present”. Similarly, Wagner, with his lists of pursuivants and heralds [WagHOE, p. 55ff.], shows no indications of pursuivants being less common than heralds—in fact, if anything they tend to show the contrary.
17. Una Campbell’s Robes of the Realm (London: Michael O’Mara Books Ltd, 1989) is recommended for its discussion of this point; I have not been able to examine the book in any detail, but it appears fascinating.
18. The author states that, following the discussion in Legh and Planch’s notes to Strutt’s Manners and Customs, that the distinction is one of rank, with “Cursores” or “Currours”, the foot messengers who were the “lowest class of heraldic officers” wearing the shields on their girdles, while the next higher rank wore them on their shoulders. He also gives an example of a “private herald” (of Sir Randolph Malateste) wearing such an escutcheon.
19. Fox-Davies was writing in 1904, according to the publication date, while the portrait is of Captain Swinton, March Pursuivant from 1901–1923. While there must have been at least some updating of the text, or the end of Captain Swinton’s tenure could not have been noted, Fox-Davies writes in the present tense, and is clearly discussing what he believes to be then current practice.
[FD69] Arthur Charles Fox-Davies. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. Bonanza Books, New York, 1978. Reprint of the 1909 ed. published by Dodge Pub. Co., New York. Introduction and annotations by J.P. Brooke- Little.
[IoL71] Thomas Innes of Learney. Scots Heraldry: A Practical Handbook on the Historical Principles and Modern Applications of the Art and Science. Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Baltimore, Maryland, 1971. Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged. Reprint of the 1956 edition.
[vK94] Lothar von Katzenellenbogen. “Two Elizabethan heraldic creation ceremonies”. The Millrind, 5(2), 1994. Originally from The Accedence of Armory by Gerald Legh (1581). Transcribed and annotated by Lothar.
This paper was originally written for the SCA Second Caerthan Heraldic and Scribes Symposium. It was somewhat updated and offered for republication in the 1998 KWHS proceedings (which wound up not using the paper). I have been flattered by the amount of interest it has generated over the years, especially including a request to include a copy of it on the Laurel Sovereign of Arms web site.
Unfortunately, since its original publication, the original computer files have been lost, and the paper has been recovered by combining several electronic and paper sources—in a few cases with additional information gleaned since the paper was originally written. As a result, this version is not exactly the same as the version originally published.