Labels of the Royal Family

From Encyclopedia of Heraldry by John Burke and John Bernard Burke (1844)

The label is a very common mark of cadency, often used in English heraldry. Most of the time, it signifies the arms of a first son while his father is alive; once the father dies and the first son inherits, the label is removed from the arms and the son bears them undifferenced. The label then passes to the first son of the first son, and so on. However, because there are always exceptions for the royal family, anyone who bears the royal arms of the United Kingdom who isn’t the current sovereign always gets a label – typically argent, typically of three points. Anyone who isn’t the heir to the throne will have something put on their label to signify that they’re not the heir, just in the line of succession. Below) are the labels of some of the royal family in 1842.

Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa

Princess Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa, daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, later German Empress and Queen of Prussia : a label argent charged with a rose between two crosses gules

Ernest Augustus

Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover and Duke of Cumberland, fifth son of George III (i.e. Victoria’s uncle) (1771-1851): a label argent charged with a fleur-de-lis azure between two crosses gules

Augustus Frederick

Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, sixth son of George III: a label argent charged with two hearts in pale between as many crosses gules

Mary of Gloucester

Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester and Edinburgh, fourth daughter of George III (1776-1857): a label argent charged with a rose between two cantons gules

Princess Sophia

Princess Sophia, fifth daughter of George III (1777-1848): a label argent charged with a heart between two roses gules

Sophia Matilda of Gloucester

Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester, first daughter of Prince William Henry (i.e. Victoria’s cousin) (1773-1844): a label of five points argent charged with a fleur-de-lis azure between four crosses gules

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Same Difference: Marks of Cadency and the Good Old Days

As we briefly touched on two weeks ago, Wyrley is not a fan of the contemporary English system of differencing. (link back to prev. post) Put briefly, differencing or marks of cadency are ways of changing a coat of arms to tell one member of a family apart from another. This stems from the convention that all (adult male) members of a family are entitled to bear the same arms. So if you have, say, a father fighting on the same field with, or against, his three oldest sons, how do you tell them apart?

Around the sixteenth or seventeenth century, England had developed a fairly consistent system of differencing. At least, it had to have been pretty consistent by that time, to get Wyrley complaining about it. (I’m only speaking to English heraldry here; other countries had other systems that were applied with various degrees of consistency. Scotland did some fascinating things with bordures.)

 

The father of a family would bear the arms “plain” or “undifferenced,” with no special marks. His first son, while the father was still alive, would bear the family arms with a label across the top of the shield. This would usually be of a contrasting color, and usually (but not always) have three points, which are the bits that hang down onto the shield. Especially in royal families, labels were and are often decorated with additional charges. When the father died and the family title, lands, and arms passed to the first son, he would remove the label from his arms. The second son would bear the father’s arms, but with a crescent added, usually in the center of the shield. The third son would have a molet of five points, the fourth a martlet, the fifth an annulet, and the sixth a fleur-de-lis. Supposedly, the seventh son got a rose and the eighth a cross moline, but I’ve personally never seen anything more advanced than a martlet.

 

The real confusion came in around the second or third generation, especially in large families. If you have a second son bearing his father’s arms with a crescent for difference, that’s all well and good, but if he then has a son, those previously differenced arms become, for the new generation, the “plain” version. So the second son’s first son would bear the original arms with a crescent (for his father’s difference) and a label (for his own). This would only be exacerbated by the tendency to place marks of cadency on top of each other, so you could see a martlet charged with a crescent charged with a molet – and good luck deciphering that.

 

Wyrley is (fairly, I think) fed up with this system, and complains that very small marks of cadency make it extremely difficult to tell arms apart from a distance. As we’ve discussed, that is, for Wyrley, the entire point of arms. As a counterexample, he offers to “laie before you the differings that antiquitie used, that by comparing them together you may discerne the great wisedome of our ancestors and our owne imperfections in this point, for want of due consideration”. (8) He walks us through several generations of the Basset family. He starts with Ralph Basset, a royal justice of England in the early 12th century, who bore undy (I would say nebuly) or and gules. Wyrley says that Ralph’s oldest son Thomas bore his father’s coat “without distinction,” eg. undifferenced.

 

Richard’s line is where things start getting fun. As the second son, he didn’t inherit from Ralph, but his children inherited a title from Richard’s wife Maud, the heir of Sir Geoffrey Rydell. Richard’s oldest son Geoffrey bore his grandfather’s arms (or three palets gules, according to the blazon, though the drawing does look like piles) with a bend azure overall. Another Ralph, who was the son of Geoffrey’s younger brother Richard, bore or three palets gules within a bordure “of steele” charged with eight bezants. (I don’t know what tincture “of steel” is supposed to be. Argent, maybe?) (9) Yet another Ralph, the son of Richard and Maude’s third son, added a quarter ermine, and a Roger Basset (relation not specified) bore or three palets sable, a quarter ermine.

 

I’m not going to enumerate all of the different variations of the Basset coat of arms that Wyrley describes; suffice to say we see the nebuly arms again in several different tinctures combinations, with and without labels, and charged with bezants. (I lied; I’m going to post one more picture, of the arms of a Sir John Basset, whose relation to the original family is unclear, who bore or three palets gules, on a quarter argent a griffin segreant sable. I am doing this purely because of how dorky the griffin is. Look at its weird little beak! I love it.)

 

Just from this small selection, though, it should be pretty obvious that this method of differencing does result in clearly visually distinct arms that are very unlikely to be confused for each other. However, I said “method” for a reason; I don’t think this can be honestly called a system. Just looking at the coats themselves, it’s almost impossible to trace how one armiger is related to another. What are the original colors? Who added the quarter, and why? For someone (me) trying to recreate a family tree from a set of armorials, this is impossibly challenging.

 

Wyrley does anticipate this objection, writing “neither can it be known which of the Cressant bearers was the uncle or nephew,” that multiple differences “one on horseback upon an other” are nearly impossible to distinguish, and that social climbers who find an armiger with their same surname are apt “presently to usurpe the same with a Cressant or some such difference, so that (for my owne part) I do seldome credit such kinde of differinges nor their bearers.” (14-15) These are both fair counterpoints, and I’ll cop to my own biases; I have access to genealogical databases that can usually help differentiate an uncle from a nephew; as someone working in the digital age, I have the technology to help me distinguish multiple marks of cadency in the same coat; I’m more concerned with trying to trace familial records than policing the use of arms.

 

However, I think Wyrley succumbs here to a frequent temptation in heraldic writing: the tendency to assume that however things were done in the past is better than how they’re done today. This isn’t exclusive to heraldic writers, of course, but it pops up in pretty much every text I’ve read. I think heraldry as a field is especially susceptible to this tendency because a significant part of its practices and information – and yes, for many, its appeal – rests on the weight of tradition and history. There’s a strong pull to assume that older things are always better or more valid. Amusingly, though, this is the case for pretty much every text I’ve read – regardless of publication date. Wyrley bemoans the sixteenth-century differences, but in two hundred years, writers will be whining about unnecessary quartering and hearkening back to the halcyon days of 1592, and in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, heralds were pining for the (fictitious) ancient era, when properly symbolic arms were everywhere. (They were not.) Plus ça change, I guess.

Arms of Thomas Paynel

Thomas Paynel

From the Dering Roll (c. 1270-1300)

Blazon: Or two bars azure within an orle of martlets gules

Thomas was the son of William Paynel and an anonymous daughter of William fitzWimund. The arms use the same charges and positioning, but different tinctures. This is almost certainly an early form of differencing (changing arms to distinguish between members of a family). In England, differencing would later evolve into a codified system, at least according to most heraldic writers (though it is not clear how closely their rules were followed in practice).

Notwithstanding, this courtesy, hath the law of Arms, or rather but custom showed in this case, that if a Gentle-woman of blood or coat-armor, marryeth a husband wanting both those, and hath issue by him a son, her son yet may for his life time, bear her coat, with his difference of Cinquefoil.

– From The Blazon of Gentrie by Sir John Ferne (1586), p65-6

Notwithstanding, this courtesy, hath the law of Arms, or rather but custom showed in this case, that if a Gentle-woman of blood or coat-armor, marryeth a husband wanting both those, and hath issue by him a son, her son yet may for his life time, bear her coat, with his difference of Cinquefoil.

– From The Blazon of Gentrie by Sir John Ferne (1586), p65-66

Arms of Henry Wriothesley

2nd Earl of Southampton (1545-1581)

Blazon: Party of six; I azure a cross or between four crows close argent; II argent a fret gules, on a canton of the last a lion passant or; III argent five lozenges conjoined in pale gules within a bordure azure charged with seven bezants; IV per pale indented gules and azure, a lion rampant or; V argent on a chevron between three crows close sable, a crescent or for difference; VI sable a chevron or between three cross crosslets fitchy argent; all impaled with per quarterly I and IV chequy or and azure, a fess gules fretty argent and II and III argent a lion rampant per fess sable and gules

Arms of Francis Talbot

5th Earl of Shrewsbury (1500-1560)

Blazon: Per fess, the first party per pale of five; I azure a lion rampant within a bordure or (Talbot); II gules a lion rampant within a bordure engrailed or (also Talbot); III argent five bendlets gules; IV barry argent and azure, an orle of martlets gules (Valence); V gules on a saltire argent (Neville), a martlet sable for difference; the second party per pale of four; I argent a bend between six martlets gules (Furnivall); II or a fret gules; III argent two lions passant gules (Strange?); IV argent a lion rampant sable

Crest: On a chapeau gules turned up ermine, a lion statant or

Supporters: Two talbots proper

Mantling: Gules lined ermine

Motto: Prest d’accompli (ready to accomplish)