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.


History of the US Flag

I know this blog has a very specific focus on European heraldry, but it’s good to branch out sometimes, right? I thought I’d take a quick dip into the semi-related field of vexillology in honor of US Independence Day, and look at the evolution of the United States flag.

During the Revolutionary War, various commanders and militia groups flew their own flags. The Gadsden flag was used by the Continental Navy starting in December 1775, possibly borrowing the symbolism and motto from the flag of the Culpeper Minutemen, established earlier that year. The rattlesnake was a fairly common symbol of the colonies, being both a native and extremely dangerous animal. The pine tree also appears pretty frequently, in both the Continental flag reportedly used at Bunker Hill and the eponymous Pine Tree Flag used by a small naval squadron under George Washington’s direct authority as well as the Massachusetts state navy.

Once the Second Continental Congress got properly up and running, they adopted the Grand Union Flag, possibly based on the flag of the British East India Company. If you take a look at that first link, you’ll notice the red saltire is missing from the Grand Union’s version of the British flag; it wasn’t added until Ireland joined the UK in 1801, and by then, the US flag had moved on. Putting the then-contemporary British Union Flag in the canton seems like an odd choice for a country trying to declare independence, but both Massachusetts and New York had been doing the same thing.

The Grand Union flag lasted for about two years before the Second Continental Congress adopted the first stars-and-stripes pattern in 1777, consisting of “thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” It’s not entirely clear where the stars came from. There’s a legend that they were adapted from the Washington coat of arms (argent two bars, in chief three molets of five points gules), but this seems unlikely. While the cult of personality that grew up around George Washington, especially after his death, could get pretty intense, the widespread cultural disdain for monarchy in early US history makes me doubt that they would adapt an individual’s personal arms for a national flag.

In 1795, two additional stars and stripes were added to represent the new states of Vermont and Kentucky. The fifteen stripes persisted until 1818, when Congress decided to add a new star for every state, but also to revert to 13 stripes for the original colonies. While the pattern of one new star per state has been consistent throughout US history, I find it fascinating that the specific arrangement of the stars wasn’t set until 1912. Throughout the 1800s, we see a wide variation of star arrangements – I think my personal favorites are the Great Star flags, though the snowflake is also pretty neat.

(Quick tangent – this is why describing the positioning of charges is so important in blazon. “Thirteen molets of five points, 3, 2, 3, 2, 3” is not the same as “a circle of thirteen molets of five points,” and writing only “thirteen molets” doesn’t help other heralds, artists, and historians distinguish between the cases.)

The last change to the flag was made in 1960, when the 50th star was added for Hawaii, making the current design the longest-lasting in US history at 59 years. Both Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have held statehood votes in the past few years, and American Samoa also explored the possibility of becoming a state, so a 51-star design may be necessary someday.

Introduction to True Use of Arms

I am particularly looking forward to working my way through True Use of Arms due to Wyrley’s background as an officer of the London College of Arms. Presumably, he knew his stuff. However, it’s likely that he wrote True Use of Arms well before his tenure with the College of Arms. He evidently showed a knack for heraldry from an early age. This talent may have gotten him the job he later held taking diction for the antiquary and genealogist Sampson Erdeswicke, though the fact that both men were from Staffordshire probably didn’t hurt either.

It was probably during his tenure with Erdeswicke that he did most of the research that eventually became True Use of Arms (or, to give it its proper and very long title, The true Use of Armorie, shewed by Historie, and plainly proved by Example). The book – more of an essay, really – was originally published in London in 1592. Two years later, Wyrley graduated from Balliol College in Oxford, where he had continued his studies in antiquity. In 1604, James I of England appointed him Rouge Croix pursuivant, and he would continue to serve in that office until his death in 1618. I’m fairly confident that he wouldn’t have been appointed as one of the thirteen official heraldic officers of the kingdom if he didn’t know what he was talking about, and that opinion seems to have been shared by others during his life; he was “a knowing and useful person in his profession.”

The four pursuivants of the College of Arms were, and are, the most junior of the officers; above them are the six Heralds of Arms, and above them, the three Kings of Arms. While the Kings and Heralds of Arms take their titles from various regions, orders, and dukedoms, the pursuivants are more colorfully named after heraldic badges used by English monarchs: the portcullis of the Tudors, the red dragon of Wales, the blue mantle of the French arms (when England was still claiming their right to rule France), and the red cross of St. George.

Despite Wyrley’s bona fides during his lifetime, True Use of Arms was orphaned for a little while after his death. William Dugdale, the early medieval historian (as in, one of the first people to formally study medieval history) reprinted part of True Use of Arms in his 1682 Ancient Usage of Bearing Arms – but he attributed the work to Wyrley’s old master Erdeswicke. I’m not sure when the mistake was rectified, but Dugdale’s contemporary Anthony Wood did question the attribution at the time.

Unfortunately, I do not have access to many sixteenth-century manuscripts, so I will be working from a reprint of True Use of Arms, published in 1853 by John Gray Bell. For better or worse, the reprint omits two long and apparently very dull poems of questionable literary merit that were included in the original printing. Wyrley might’ve been a good herald, but every source I’ve found, including fellow heraldic author James Dalloway, insists he was a pretty terrible poet. If you’re looking for “The Glorious Life and Honorable Death of Sir John Chandos, Lord of St. Saluiour” or “The Honorable Life and Languishing Death of Sir John de Gralhy, Capitall of Buz,” I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere. However, if you’re curious about what, exactly, the true use of arms is, we’ll dive into that next week.


The Cat in the Dairy-House Window

“The Cat in the Dairy-House Window” is not, as far as I am aware, an actual coat of arms representing any family or region. Instead, it is part of a very, very old satirical anecdote, though what it is satirizing depends on the teller. Sir John Ferne’s The Blazon of Gentrie, published in 1586, is the earliest written instance of this tale which I can find.

The text is written as a conversation among several travelers of different social classes, which centers on the values of the nobility and the technical points of heraldry. The herald (and Ferne’s authorial stand-in) Paradius, asks the knight, Torquatus, to blazon the coat shown above. Torquatus gives the following blazon: “Sable, a Musion passant guardant Or oppressed with a fret gules of eight parts, nails argent.” (188) The farmer, Collumell, surprised that “Arms should not have been of such trifling things,” breaks in to offer his own blazon: “the Cat in the milk house window.” Paradius takes the opportunity to mock Torquatus by telling him that he and Collumell are equally correct, since Torquatus had confused a lattice for a fret. However, Paradius goes on to mock Collumell’s understanding of the arms as undignified, attributing them to a vassal of King Childebert of France who captured King Gundemarus of Burgundy in battle. (The cat was the symbol of Burgundy).

However, in subsequent tellings, the tale seems to have evolved into a parody of the elevated language of blazon. In Quentin Durwald (1830), Sir Walter Scott sarcastically attributes Paradius’ account to the Burgundian herald Toison d’Or, who is “too learned to be intelligible.” (ch. 33) In this version, the jester’s blazon of “the cat looking out at the dairy window” is received as a good joke, and the pompous herald ends up being chased by the royal hounds. This revised version is much more popular than the original; Fox-Davies quotes Scott’s account in A Complete Guide to Heraldry in 1909, and John Vinycomb’s Fictious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, published the same year, refers to Scott’s interpretation as well. (258; “The Heraldic Muison”)

17th-Century Heraldry

I wondered if you had any examples of heraldry specifically from the 17th century, I’m really interested to see how things develop from the sort of height of heraldry, i.e it actually being used for its intended purpose, to later years. From what I’ve seen the 17th century crests get a little more decorative and baroque looking, I was wondering if you had anymore information on that.
(Sorry for the long post; I got a little carried away.)

You’re generally right. I do just want to point out that heraldic artists technically don’t have much license when it comes to the coats of arms themselves; they’re confined to what is specified by the herald in the blazon. (The same goes for crests and supporters.) Grants of arms in the seventeenth century were still relatively conventional; most heralds had yet to incorporate things like perspective, industrial machinery as charges, and colors beyond the traditional tinctures. On the other hand, though, the longer heraldry was around, the more complex coats could get, since they were often quartered, dimidiated, or differenced.


(Montague achievement from Sylvanus Morgan’s The Language of Arms, published 1666 in London)

There absolutely was a shift towards more elaborate art and decoration in the 17th century, and heraldry was no exception. It’s easiest to see this in things that are, in a sense, external to the blazon; mantling, compartments (when the supporters are drawn standing on some kind of base), the shape of shields, and so forth. 

Check out this table of shields from A. C. Fox-Davies’ The Art of Heraldry:


Going left to right, top to bottom, the first shield is what was common in the 12th and 13th centuries. The second is from the 14th century; numbers 3 through 6 and 8 are from the mid-15th century, while the 7th is from the very end of the 15th century. (The nock in shield #8 is a spear-rest; handy for spearing enemies while keeping yourself defended.) The rest are from the sixteenth century, and the trend continued into the 17th. Heraldry generally is a pretty good reflection of contemporary styles, for better or worse. Fox-Davies quotes Eve as saying “With the Restoration, heraldry naturally became again conspicuous, with the worst form of the Renaissance character in full sway, the last vestiges of the Gothic having disappeared.” (41)* The shield shape below was common, as was the mantling and scrolling at the bottom: 


(A. C. Fox-Davies, The Art of Heraldry, p41)

But I think I’ve rambled on long enough. Here are some more examples of 17th-century heraldry; note the elaborate mantling and decorative shield shapes, as well as the detailed depictions of beasts.


(Achievement of Sir Robert Spenser, Baron Spenser from Display of Heraldry by John Guillim, p273, published 1610)


(Achievement of Britain from An Essay to Heraldry in Two Parts by Richard Blome, p227, published 1684)


(Achievement of Scotland from The Science of Heraldry by Sir George Mackenzie, p98, published 1680)

*Don’t mind Fox-Davies. He has very strong opinions on heraldic design, and they inevitably color his writing. Better or worse is, of course, a matter of taste.

Why Heraldry?

In a way, it’s the most natural thing in the world that I should be interested in heraldry and coats of arms. When I was young, I spent all my time reading sword-and-sorcery fantasy, which leads quite easily to a fascination with the medieval period. When I got to late high school, early undergrad, and started developing my own academic interests, I was very quickly drawn to Shakespeare. It wasn’t long before I followed the histories back to (real) early English history and rediscovered the beauties of coats of arms.

I am an extremely visual person. I work best when I can translate abstract concepts into something I can picture. Heraldry is probably the best way possible for me to grasp the complexities of historical and political situations. One of my favorite things about heraldry is the stories that it can tell about history in only a few symbols. Think of the famous French quarters in the arms of England, which Edward III assumed when he first put forward his claim to the throne of France and which were then removed for about a decade- between the signing of the Treaty of Bretigny and Edward changing his mind and declaring war on France again. In my opinion, the batons that litter the arms of many of the dukedoms established in the Stuart period say more about the infidelity and nepotism of Charles II than any history text could.

Besides, I love being able to “read” coats of arms. I loved walking into Westminster Abbey and seeing the Tudor rose emblazoned on King Henry VII’s tomb- his way of claiming victory in the Wars of the Roses. During my first weeks on campus, I loved analyzing the grave rubbings framed on our classroom walls- someone who claims descent from King Edward III, one very worrying one that seemed to indicate an incestuous marriage. (It took me a month and a half to position myself close enough to see the very, very faint lioncels on the dexter half of the coat. Possibly related; definitely not incest.) I love having that other dimension available to me.

So, tl;dr: why heraldry? Because it’s beautiful; because it works well with my brain; because it gives me information I wouldn’t have otherwise. And, well, because it’s fun.

Alerions: What they Are, Aren’t, and Might Be

Snipped from a post I saw on Tumblr about the mythology of birds:


Also known as alerion or the king of the birds

The avalerion is a mythological bird from Indian mythology. At any given time, only two of these birds exist. They lay a pair of eggs every sixty years, which take sixty days to hatch. After they hatch, the parents drown themselves. Other birds care for the newly hatched birds until they can fly.

In European heraldry, the avalerion is a heraldic eagle known as the king of the bird. Avalerions are depicted as having no beak and no legs, or sometimes feathery stumps.

It is said to resemble an eagle, but is larger, has sharp razor-like wings, and is the color of fire.

The rest of the information is interesting, but this part is… well, confused. There may very well be a mythical bird called the avalerion, that is larger than an eagle, the king of birds, colored like fire, etc. but the part about heraldry is pretty inaccurate. And I just can’t resist debunking heraldic inaccuracies. Let’s go step-by-step.

In European heraldry, the avalerion is a heraldic eagle known as the king of the bird.

Well… not really. First, I’ve never seen it referred to as an “avalerion”. That doesn’t make it impossible, of course, but I’m a bit suspicious. Also, the eagle is the undisputed heraldic king of the birds. You could make a case for the phoenix, but that would be more dependent upon mythology rather than its use in heraldry. Kind of like lions and lioncels, the eagle is considered so noble that there can only properly be one in a field; two or more are called eaglets. (With exceptions, of course; there are always exceptions.) Alerions are not eaglets. Or eagles, for that matter.

Avalerions are depicted as having no beak and no legs, or sometimes feathery stumps.

True! Alerions look much like eaglets displayed (spread out), but without the beak or legs. Don’t confuse them with martlets, though- martlets also have no beak or legs, but look more like a dove or sparrow close (wings closed and sitting). Besides, martlets are a much more common charge, at least in English heraldry, due to their use as a mark of cadency. I’ve only ever encountered alerions in arms from a specific region of France.

The traditional (i.e., unsubstantiated but entertaining-to-heraldic-writers) story about the alerion has to do with the coat of arms where it was originally found: that of the Duchy of Lorraine.

The story goes that one of the old Dukes of Lorraine shot and killed three eaglets with one arrow- or said he did, anyway- and he was so proud of the feat that he displayed it on his arms. The story doesn’t explain why they have no beaks or feet, though. No one quite seems to know that.

There is another theory that says that ancient heralds really needed to come up with a way to describe these peculiar birds in the arms of Lorraine, so they anagrammatized the name of the duchy (roughly): LORAINE became ALERION. Some writers who follow this theory use it to classify Lorraine as a kind of canting arms, but I’m not sure. Firstly, it’s just a theory, and secondly, I don’t know if it counts as canting arms if you name the charge after the family rather than using the charge to allude to the family’s name. It’s an interesting, even plausible, theory, but I doubt it’ll ever be  proved one way or the other. It’s just another one of those almost-but-not-quite historical tales that seem to proliferate around heraldry.