What is the True Use of Arms?

The title of Wyrley’s text necessarily begs the question: what is the true use of arms? What is their purpose? What, exactly, is the point of this entire discipline? (Full disclosure: this is a question near and dear to my heart, as evidenced by a passionate, if not particularly well-written, graduate paper I completed titled “What Is Heraldry For?”) Later on, we’ll get into the how of heraldry, and the ways in which Wyrley asserts that arms should be used, but for now, let’s take a look at the question implied by his title.

We can find the short answer to this question on the very first page, where Wyrley addresses his text to “the professors of martiall discipline.” (1) His argument, here and in the rest of the text, is going to be couched in explicitly militaristic terms. He begins by laying out a tiered argument for the necessity of heraldry: war is (sometimes) necessary and just, therefore it needs to be conducted as effectively as possible; wars are fought by people, often in large groups, who need to be able to identify each other and their leaders in order to be effective combatants, therefore they need a simple, easy-to-read system of identification, preferably in multiple forms (eg. the tabard, shield, and crest). (4-5) I appreciate that Wyrley doesn’t assume any of these precepts. He takes the time to go through each point, even briefly, to make sure his argument for the purpose of arms as markers of identity is on solid ground.  

This is, so far, not a particularly controversial or unique stance. Virtually all heraldic texts from pretty much every era emphasize the military origins of arms and their use in identifying virtually identically clad combatants. What I find fascinating about Wyrley is how he draws out the implicit assumption in that historical fact: arms are for everyday people, in the person of “the meanest & simplest common Soldier.” (4) Armory does not have a point, and in fact, is borderline illegitimate if it is not easily legible to someone who doesn’t know a fess from a pale. Arms that do not fulfill this cardinal purpose are hardly deserving of the name.

Take Wyrley’s screed against quartering as an example. It’s fairly common for heraldic writers of this period to condemn overly-quartered shields. Wyrley’s “thirty or forty” quarters isn’t an exaggeration; I’ve seen coats with dozens of quarters. (7) Again, though, Wyrley couches his objections to quartering in terms of legibility to common people. The problem with quartered arms isn’t (just) that they are foolish or vain; it’s that they’re hard to read. Nobles who prioritize their assertion of multiple titles over the ability of their followers to identify them end up with confusing arms, of which Wyrley says, “I see not to any use in the world they serve.” (8)

His objections to the English system of differencing follow much the same pattern. He’s not against the idea of differencing per se, but he advocates large, easily visible changes to arms instead of the tiny markers commonly used in English heraldry. He engages in a few scare tactics on this topic, citing an unnamed author’s account of a company of soldiers confusing one brother’s banner for another’s and subsequently being slaughtered. It’s unclear whether this actually happened, but again, we see the emphasis on the common soldier as the intended audience of arms. (13)

For obvious reasons, heraldry typically tends to center around the upper classes and nobility – the people who own enough land and/or money to command soldiers in battle. But Wyrley repeatedly insists on the lower classes as the ultimate audience for armory. The fact that they belong to nobles is almost incidental. I haven’t run across this particular take on the subject before, and I think it merits notice (if maybe not necessarily credit.) Next week, we’ll consider differencing, genealogy, and how it has always been better in the Old Days.

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