Breaking Idols: English Religious Conflict over Images

Much of the True Use of Arms is made up of Wyrley’s complaints about various issues. Some of them are pretty expected: systems of cadency, the nouveau riche who think they’re entitled to bear arms just because they want to, and a few other concerns we’ll get into next week. However, there’s a very odd section where Wyrley switches to the defensive, insisting on the legitimacy of the practice of heraldry, as well as that of funerals, memorials, and genealogies, backing himself up with quotes from the Bible. It’s pretty common for heraldic writers to quote the Bible, especially when they’re recounting the supposed origins of heraldry, but it is weird to see it done in defense of what we think of as fairly common practices.

Wyrley is really not shy about objecting when he dislikes something, so I think it’s a safe assumption that his impassioned, citation-heavy defense of memorials, heraldic ensigns, and genealogy has its roots in actual practices of the time. He complains that he personally found “many moniments both of burials and in glasse were so broken and defaced” as to be unidentifiable, and useless for research. (25) (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t deeply sympathize with this problem.)

This passage, and the larger dispute it hints at, is a fascinating glimpse into Wyrley’s political and religious context. As a reminder, the original publication of this work was in 1592, right in the middle of a heated, centuries-long debate over idolatry and iconoclasm. This really got started with the English Reformation and Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church in 1534. The Reformers (which is also explicitly the name that Wyrley calls them, asking that they “might be reformed themselves”) undertook a number of efforts to distance themselves from the Catholic Church, including the removal of images from churches. The level of governmental support for these policies varied – Edward VI continued his father’s anti-Catholic legacy, after which Mary I restored Catholicism. Elizabeth I went back to Protestantism, but with a much more moderate/pragmatic bent. Wyrley addresses her and her Privy Council in this passage, asking them to protect the English traditions and punish the Puritans.

The tomb of Katharine of Aragon in Peterborough Cathedral was apparently a popular target for vandalism; it was thoroughly vandalized by the Roundheads in 1643, but Wyrley also praises William Fleetwood, Serjeant-at-law, for restoring her monument after it was defaced, and punishing those responsible. (I suspect the queen’s Spanish, i.e. Catholic, heritage had a lot to do with the repeated desecrations.)

I’m not nearly as clear on the substance of the critics of heraldic insignia and genealogy to whom Wyrley is responding, but I suspect the arguments are roughly the same: that anything that could be interpreted as veneration of earthly ideals (such as one’s ancestors) was tantamount to idolatry. Disappointingly, Wyrley doesn’t quote his interlocutors, but includes several long passages, mostly from the book of Numbers, that mention things like banners, funerals, and records of ancestry as proof that these practices had Biblical sanction. To be clear, I’m a little skeptical of Wyrley’s claims to religious legitimacy; though there are plenty of genealogies in the Bible, I don’t think the funeral customs of the Hebrew people referred to in Numbers are remotely comparable to those of sixteenth-century England, and heraldry qua heraldry wouldn’t come into being for more than a millennium after Biblical times. That being said, I can’t help but feel a spark of regret for all the historical artifacts and works of art destroyed by Reformist zeal. I have to believe there’s a middle ground between destroying memorial sculptures and worshiping them.

Jour de Bastille

Today is Quatorze Juillet, or Bastille Day, the national holiday of France. This year marks the 230th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution. The Bastille was an armory and prison in the center of Paris, and a symbol of monarchical authority, it was a natural target for the burgeoning French Revolution. Roughly one thousand civilians attacked the fortress, which contained a significant amount of ammunition (and seven prisoners). Obviously, the attackers succeeded in taking the Bastille, and the first major outbreak of violence in the French Revolution eventually convinced Louis XVI to (temporarily) capitulate.

It’s a bit tricky to talk about the “heraldry of the French Revolution,” since it resulted in a mass repudiation of pretty much everything associated with the nobility. However, at the risk of talking about flags again, I do think it’s worth pointing out that the Revolution holds the roots of the current French tricolore – and yes, it does ultimately go back to heraldry.

The arms of Paris are gules a single masted-ship, sails unfurled on a sea in base argent, a chief azure semé de lis or. The chief is derived from the arms of France ancien, and the ship is from the marchands de l’eau¸ a powerful merchant guild operating on the Seine since 1170. The Parisian coat of arms has been pretty much the same since 1358, with some changes (the addition of the sea waves, a brief change to France moderne in the 15th century). The arms are the source for the city colors of Paris – red and blue. I think you probably see where this is going.

Cockades were a popular way of displaying political allegiance in the eighteenth century – sort of like campaign buttons today. It was, therefore, perfectly natural for the Paris militia to wear a cockade of blue and red when they formed on July 13th, 1789. The blue and red design had a run of about two weeks before Lafayette proposed the addition of a white stripe to make it clear that this was a national movement, and not something confined to Paris. His suggestion was implemented on July 27th as part of the uniform of the National Guard.

The rest is, as they say, history. October 24th, 1790 saw the National Assembly adopt a red, white, and blue standard as the national flag, which was changed to blue, white, and red on February 15th, 1794. I’m not sure why this change was made, but it clearly stuck; with the exception of about 15 years during the Bourbon Restoration, when they went with a plain white flag, the tricolore has been the iconic symbol of the French nation ever since.

The first sovereign that ever gave coat of Arms to his soldiers, was King Alexander the Great.

– From The Blazon of Gentrie by Sir John Ferne (1586), p149

Another historically dubious claim. While many Greek and Roman soldiers bore shields with pictorial devices, there is no evidence that these symbols were part of a larger hereditary system.

Arms of the Duke of Aquitaine

From The Blazon of Gentrie by Sir John Ferne (1586) p218

Blazon: Gules a lion passant guardant or

Ferne repeats the common trope that the arms of England originated from combining the arms of Normandy with those of Aquitaine after Richard I, heir of Eleanor of Aquitaine, took the throne. While this is difficult to prove, Richard I certainly used the three lions passant guardant during his lifetime, as evidenced by his Great Seal.

Arms of the Duke of Normandy

From The Blazon of Gentrie by Sir John Ferne (1586) p218

Blazon: Gules two lions passant guardant or

According to Ferne, this was the coat of arms of England during the reigns of William the Conqueror, William II, Henry I, and Henry II, about 1066-1189. It is unclear if he recognizes Stephen or Matilda as rulers of England. It should also be noted that Henry II probably did not use this coat; it seems more possible that he bore gules, a lion rampant or, or a variation thereof, though sources are rare.

To this cause may be attributed the eventual decline of heraldry in England; because the ensigns were no longer simple, or the property unalienable, but were extended to a degree by which all the ancient and primary devices were exhausted, and the deficiency supplied by domestic and vulgar representations.

– From Inquiries into the Origin and Progress of the Science of Heraldry in England by James Dallaway, p460 (1793)

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.

Shields were comprised of metal, the surface of which was painted or enamelled with the armorial device.

-From Inquiry into the Origin and Progress of the Science of Heraldry in England by James Dallaway, p452

Females being heirs, or conveying feodal lordships to their husbands, had, as early as the thirteenth century, the privilege of armorial seals.

-From Inquiries into the Origin and Progress of the Science of Heraldry in England by James Dallaway, p443

Rude, and consisting of few figures, were the ensigns of the first Norman inhabitants; as feodal influence increased, armorial distinctions were more in request, because a greater number of the military dependents were honoured by the concession of them. By the conquest of France and the intercourse between the two nations, during the reign of Edward the third and his successors, the love of armouries was extended to a great degree, and the bearers of them proportionally increased.

-From Inquiries into the Origin and Process of the Science of Heraldry in England by James Dallaway, p386