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.