An Tir College of Heralds: Heralds in History in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

by Leslie A. Schweitzer (writing as Dame Zenobia Naphtali, O.L., O.P.), (las (AT) lschweitz (dot) com)

Class Outline and Handout for class presented in July 2002

Apology for Anglocentrism: Much of the information about the history of heralds which is available in English is about English Heralds. I have tried as much as possible to discuss heralds from all over Europe.

It is also important to realize that the heralds in England, particularly in the later portion of this period, did have some peculiar institutions that did not exist, or only existed in limited form, elsewhere in Europe. These are identified whenever possible.

Outline/Class Notes

How do we know about Heralds?

Origins of Heralds

Heraldic Organization Chart

The Changing Job Description (overview)

Early (12th - 13th c.)

The formation of titles is different from place to place. In Scotland many of the titles derive from the name of Royal castles [BP p.94 et seq]. In England, most Heralds take the titles from the names of the original Lords. Most pursuivants take their title from Royal badges or badges of Royal orders (such as Bluemantle referring to the mantle of the Order of the Garter) [WR p.140] In 14th c. France, the early Kings of Arms take their titles from sovereign territories or Orders of Chivalry, with the Heralds' titles from provinces. The Pursuivant's titles were "epithets of gallantry or good encountering on joyful terms" such as  Loyauté (Loyalty), Joli-Coeur (Merry Heart) and Dis-le-Vrai (Tell the Truth) [George p.19].  These last might be considered instances of motto titles (since such phrases could be mottoes) but the phrases were not, apparently, mottoes of the Lords for the heralds.

In general, we find these patterns of sources for heralds titles as well as heraldic charges or war cries/mottos.  As an interesting note, a late 15th c. Burgundian herald states that the Duke gives to a new herald the name of the country from which came the wine with which he was baptized at his creation ceremony [HE p.87].

As a side point, but an important one: Lord Lyon King of Arms of Scotland is referred to as „Lordš because he is by modern job definition a Judge in the Court of Scotland and addressed as Lord.  Heralds would not generally be addressed with „Lordš prefacing their titles.

Middle (14th-15th c.)

Early expectations and duties continue but are expanded.

Quartered in their Prince's tents, for easy access. [Neubecker p.14]

French heralds who were carrying ultimatums or declarations of war delivered these with their faces covered with a veil of wool. This symbolized the fact that they really were unhappy to have to make such an announcement, and helped identify them as special (thus inviolate) people [George p.24].

Meanwhile, on the continent, arms were extended to all social classes (not just fighting) c. 1230-1330 based on seals, even including peasant and Jews [Traité p.47].  Burgher (middle-class townspersons) arms in Germany and the Low Countries became a very consistent system although with some distinctions (such as helm types) from noble arms [WR p.21].

Arms = Nobility? This issue starts to arise in mid 14th c., soon after "arms = property"  The whole issue of the right to grant arms brings up the question of arms and nobility.  If Arms = Nobility and Heralds can grant Arms then that implies a herald may be "creating" (rather than "recognizing") nobility. This becomes a particular issue in England, where most grants of arms are from heralds rather than from the English crown.  On the Continent however grants directly from Kings of Arms are unknown so this issue is much less of a problem, although questions arise occasionally. 

All over Europe however arms become strongly associated with nobility. People in tourneys are required to be noble or gentlemen 'on 4 sides' in 15th c. France for the main level of tournaments (a lesser level exists in which this is not a requirement) [HH p.71]. You could be noble without arms, but arms became expected of such individuals.  "I can't tourney with him, he has no arms, therefore he is not noble" was one late 14th c. French Knight's assumption about an English man at arms. On hearing this complaint, Richard II (on the spot) acknowleged the English man at arms as a gentleman and said that he would be henceforth known by Arms (and he was then allowed to participate in the tournament) [Dennys p.152]. So one could certainly be a noble without arms (as was this man at arms)-- but the two are strongly associated.

Henry V in 1417 spoke against the assumption of arms and "tunics of arms called Cotearmures" by those whose ancestors had not so borne in times past: no one was to do this without having ancestral right, or a grant by someone with authority, except all those who fought in Agincourt [HE p.36].

In France, the heralds incorporate Le College des Hérauts de France, and acquire the Chapel of Petit Saint Antoine for housing their library and their meetings in 1406/1407.  The articles of incorporation of their College confirm the traditional privileges of the heralds [HH p.96, George p.20].

Late (16th c.)

The trend of heraldry continues towards a slightly more 'bourgeois' scale

Š         heralds now are no longer expected to be much like minstrels,

Š         heralds on embassy are generally ambassadors not message carriers

Š         The recognition of arms/armorial recordkeeping parts are expanded. 

Š         All previous categories of work continue.

NOT Genealogists: The Visitations are the introduction of genealogy into the herald's job description.  Even so, a herald's involvement was to assess whether a provided genealogy was likely to be correct.  It was not to perform the genealogical work.  There is some small evidence that some heralds may have done some genealogical research, but it was not part of their job description [Dennys p.160, HE p.132]

Other areas‚ Visitation-like Activities: Ulster Herald in Ireland has some attempts at visitations at this time as well [HH p.6]. In Scotland a 'visitation' involved only survey and registration of arms (no genealogy), but the earliest actual legislation which gives Lyon a requirement to inspect arms of noblemen in a visitation like fashion is in 1592 [WR p.154].

The Heralds in Ordinary are set forth in the 1555 charter [Dennys p.144].  The previous őchapter‚ meetings continued, and after the 1555 charter the Officers of Arms in the chapter meetings also handled corporate business.  The College building becomes an office of record due to the storage of important records, although the library is at times neglected. The Earl Marshal rules in 1568 that the heralds‚ records should be kept in the library and none should enter the library without being accompanied by a herald [WR p.145]. Replacement of English officers of arms becomes chapter business in this century: the Officers of Arms agree to decide on replacements for deceased officers and then present their choice as a body [Dennys p.148].

The Elizabethan period is particularly difficult, at least in part due to the awful, violent and incompatible personalities of William Dethick (in College from 1540 on, Garter from 1550-1584) and Ralph Brooke (in College from 1580-1625, ending as York Herald) [HE, chapter on the Elizabethan period].

However, at the same time their status lessens over this century, with accusations of living immoral lives and selling arms for money (the standard accusation to levy at a herald one does not like), or otherwise mis-granting arms to individuals who should be ineligible.   In France, the prestige of the heralds had been declining for some time, and got sharply worse after the death of Henri II in 1559, with accusations of these sorts of misconduct. [George p.26]

Large amounts of internal squabbling in the English College in this century, described in gory detail in Heralds of England. The bad blood spills over to heralds testifying against other heralds in criminal actions, more accusations of sale of arms for money, heralds tricking other heralds into granting arms to persons of vile status and then complaining about the grants, and other lovely shows of cooperative spirit.

Perquisites and Fees:

Sometimes the party paying was the Lord of the heralds (for having the heralds come along) but sometimes it was the host: for example the host of a Marriage might pay the heralds of the visiting Lords as well as their own heralds [HH p.27].

Customary fees and largesse at Coronation and at the baptism of a prince and princess, "Giving the King a New Year", and other occasions too numerous to enumerate here [HE is a great source for this, many many pps.].

Funerals, as mentioned above, were a big source of fees for heralds once heraldic funerals became popular.

Division of fees of heralds attending the Crown: "The sums were paid to the office and shared out in the usual proportion to the heralds in attendance: a King of arms‚  share is is double a Herald‚s,  and a Herald double a Pursuivant, but something was set aside for ordinary officers who did not attend and for extraordinary officers who did." The division of fees, unsurprisingly, is subject to change and discussion/squabbling over time, but the average practices, when they were set forth clearly, follow this guideline [HE p.94-95].

Some of the Knights of lesser estate being dubbed were also expected to give their pre-dubbing garments to the heralds, although there was a set price by which the garment could be redeemed. [Neubecker p.15]

More about Herald Ranks, Uniforms, Ceremonies associated with Ranks∑

Š         Heraldic Ranks:

In France, the Pursuivants were almost always given the riskiest announcements: summoning towns to surrender to the King's Writ or summoning rebellious nobles to court.  "Louis XI was rather fond of promoting Pursuivants to the rank of Herald for particular services, on the basis that it gave them much pleasure without costing him a penny" [George p.24].  (It also, presumably, gave them rights to a bigger slice of the fee division amongst their heraldic bretheren.)

Š         Heralds‚ Uniform/Regalia: Note that the best single readily available source for information about Herald‚s regalia is Neubecker (see Bibliography).

Š         Heralds „createdš: As early as 1180 (reference to ősinger newly made herald‚ of William the Marshal) there is an implication that some form of admission or creation applies to heralds [HE p.4].  Creation ceremonies soon came to be associated with this, although Creations could be done on an impromptu basis, such as a Royal response to a particular service or welcome piece of news [Neubecker p.18 etc.].

Once a Pursuivant starts having an oath in the ceremony, it goes more or less as follows: "He must swear to be lowly and humble and serviceable to all estates universal that were Christian, not lying in wait to hurt nor blame any of them in anything that might touch their honor, to dispose himself to be secret and sober, not too busy in speech, ready to commend and loath to blame, and diligent in his service, eschewing vices and drawing towards virtues." [HE pps.43-44]

Pursuivants wore coats of arms, and in those times and places where a Pursuivant wore his tabard athwart, the investiture ceremony would put the tabard on in this fashion, as with the investiture of Portcullis Pursuivant in 1588 „with the Manches before and behindeš. [HE p.79]

In England, once the Collar of SS is found as officer regalia, the Herald may be invested with this collar during the ceremony (it is not clear whether this was appropriate for heralds or just for Kings of Arms early, but by the 16th c. it is a standard part of a herald‚s investiture). This collar may be considered part of Royal Livery rather than part of the herald‚s uniform: it is not clear. [HE pps. 89-90]

A herald swears the same oath as a Pursuivant (during the period when Pursuivants did not swear, the contents of the Pursuivant‚s oath were presumably part of the herald‚s oath.)  The herald‚s oath has the following additions over the Pursuivant‚s: "to be true to his Lord and to report any treason he might hear spoken against him: to be serviceable and obedient to all lords and ladies, gentlemen and gentlewomen, and to keep their secrets except for treason, while seeking and reporting worshipful deeds: if he chanced to meet any gentleman of name and arms, who had lost his goods in the Kings service, to give or lend to him, if he heard any strife between gentlemen, not to report it: to be serviceable and true to all widows and maidens and, if any man would wrong them, to bear witness on their behalf to his Lord: and to forsake all vices and take to him all virtues, avoiding taverns, dice and playing at hazard, places of debate and the company of unhonest women." [HE p.43-44]

Note that the Continental heralds‚ oaths include clauses having to do with the professional interest of the heraldic body. The English heralds‚ oaths omit these clauses. These clauses require the herald to "preserve and increase to the best of his ability the rights, privileges and franchises of the office of arms; to make known to his fellows any deeds of arms, feasts, tournaments, jousts and other assemblies of arms and honour, at which they may be able to acquire thanks, honour, and profit; and not to keep such things to himself for his private advantage or from malevolence." [HE p.44]

Lyon King of Arms was crowned with a crown that was much like the Royal Crown (without jewels). It is unclear how early this custom was, David Lindsay of the Mount II (created Lyon 1592) stated that the King Himself put the ancient open crown of the sovereigns of Scotland on his head, and he wore that crown at dinner with the King∑ the copies of the crown without gems are definitely in place after the Renaissance.  [BP p.85, 91] English Kings of Arms developed their special crowns [Dennys p.150].

A King of Arms swears a Herald‚s oath with the following addition of a clause where he must "promise to render a fair accounting and division of all largesse received on behalf of his bretheren." [HH p.43]

Some interesting heraldic personality trivia

Sir David Lindsay of the Mount:  Lyon King of Arms (the first of two Lyons of that name).  He was the effective Scottish National poet until Burns‚ time, and a political and religious thinker and reformer. He was a courtier to James V for his whole life (including his childhood). A thorough history of his life and his place in Scottish history is Court and Culture in Renaissance Scotland, Carol Edington, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst 1994.  His poetry is available in collections of Scottish poetry of the 16th c. I have just recently found out he is also the co-hero of a Nigel Tranter őfictionalized history‚ about the life of James V (but seen from the viewpoint of David Beaton and David Lindsay of the Mount): The Riven Realm/James, by the Grace of God/ Rough Wooing. I know one graduate student in Scots history who is afraid to read Tranter because Tranter's history is good enough that it might make her confuse fact and fiction. Having read through these novels once, they‚re not a bad read (although the plot might have been a bit tighter were it completely fictional), the heraldry is good, but there isn‚t much of an insight into the day to day herald‚s life provided therein.

Thomas Bariye: Unicorn Pursuivant (in Scotland) in 1570, he was caught forging the Regent‚s signature, for which he had his right hand cut off and was banished from the Kingdom. [BP p.95]

Sir William Stewart: Lyon King of Arms in 1567, only held office for 6 months after which he was arrested under charges of conspiring to kill the Regent via sorcery and necromancy, and for which he was put to death in August 1569.  It is generally believed that the real problem was opposition to the Regent and loyalty to the Queen. [BP p.84]

Ralph Brooke (various offices held in English College 1580-1625):  Possibly most disagreeable herald who ever lived.  See Wagner's Heralds of England for a blow-by-blow description. In many cases, "blow by blow" is quite literal.

Bibliography for this class (Annotated)

Some of this material is footnoted/referenced in the outline above: those abbreviations are given below in [Square Brackets]

[BP] Sir James Balfour Paul, Heraldry in relation to Scottish History and Art, Edinburgh, David Douglas, 1900. Chapter 3 is on the Heraldic Executive in Scotland and is a very thorough overview of the topic, including the origins of the Scottish herald‚s titles.

Charles Burnett, Contacts between Scottish and English Officers, Tribute to an Armorist, John Campbell-Kease (editor), The Heraldry Society, 2000 ed. John Campbell-Kease.  Gives a good history of the title subject. The author was at the time of the writing Ross Herald in Scotland.

[Dennys] Rodney Dennys, Heraldry and the Heralds, Jonathan Cape, London, 1982. A well-written book covering aspects of armory and of heralds from its origins to the present day, with an English focus.  Dennys was a member of the English College of Arms.

[George] John George, The French Heralds, The Double Tressure No. 8 1986 pps. 19-39.  A good discussion of this topic, in English, including much information not in the other sources. The author was, at the time of the writing, Kintyre Pursuivant in Scotland.

[Neubecker] Ottfried Neubecker, Heraldry, Sources Symbols and Meanings, Black Cat, 1976.  One of the single most useful overviews of all things heraldic, containing many color pictures of period artifacts.  The author is not English, and provides a useful foreign perspective.  Many good pictures of regalia, either actual extant regalia or pictures of manuscripts showing heralds.

Michel Pastoureau, Heraldry (an introduction to a noble tradition), English translation copyright 1997, Thames and Hudson. Another nice overview of all things heraldic, unfortunately without much that immediately pertains to the topic of this class. Some information about the classes of people who bore arms is provided in this book.

[Traité] Michel Pastoureau, Traité d'Héraldique, 2nd ed. Grands Manuels Picard, 1993.  An excellent book on Medieval armory and related topics, although unfortunately for most readers, in French.  It has occasional information bearing on the topic of this class, particularly concerning the classes of people who bore arms. Most of the book is on the history of armory.

G.D. Squibb, Munimenta Heraldica, Publications of the Harleian Society New Series Vol 4, 1985. This book is an anthology of 500 years (1484-1984) of documents pertaining to the English College of Arms, the Earl Marshal, and the Officers of Arms, with translations and originals of Latin texts.

[HE] Anthony Richard Wagner, Heralds of England, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1967. All about the Heralds of England up until the 20th c.  Full of entertaining trivia, and an enjoyable "read" (even though the book itself is large and unwieldy, don't let that scare you. It has large type and large margins.)  Much of the material for this period is also covered in Wagner's book Heralds and Heraldry in the Middle Ages (q.v.)  However, this book contains an additional wealth of detailed information about English herald's fees, herald‚s titles, personalities of individuals, College of Arms politics, and so forth.  Wagner was a member of the English College for years.

[HH] Anthony Richard Wagner, Heralds and Heraldry in the Middle Ages, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1956.  An excellent book with much information on this topic, and a strong focus on the history of Visitations and historical evidence showing that the Visitations were merely an outgrowth of earlier heraldic activities along these lines. Much of this information is also available in Heralds in England, which is written more entertainingly.  Advantages to this book: compact size and complete focus on the Middle Ages, focus on heralds all through Europe (although with a main interest in England), as opposed to Heralds in England which is almost exclusively about English practices.

[WR] Thomas Woodcock and John Martin Robinson, The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, Oxford University Press, 1990.  A good modern guide to heraldry in England from its origins to the present day, well written and with good illustrations. While this does not have much material on the topic of this class, it does have some information, and is more up to date in its scholarship than the Wagner works in some cases. While Wagner's scholarship is impeccable some new documents etc. have come to light since the books mentioned above were written, and some of that information is in this book.  Thomas Woodcock is a member of the English College.


Coat of Arms (Heraldry Society [of England]), TheDouble Tressure (Heraldry Society [of Scotland]), various proceedings of societies of antiquaries occasionally turn up articles on this topic. None of these were used as specific sources of the information in this class except as noted above. David Hunter of Montlaw has provided the following list of articles which apply to topics in this class:

Frere, J, "The Herald's Duties on the Death of the King" Coat of Arms, Old Series vol. 2, p. 43
Maclagan, M., "Activities and Rewards of the Officers of Arms in the Mid-Nineteenth Century" Coat of Arms, Old Series, vol. 6, p. 146
Rangel, M, "The Heraldic Executive in Spain" Coat of Arms, Old Series, vol. 7, p. 145
Davies, T. R., "Heraldry in Medieval Warfare," Coat of Arms, Old Series, vol. 9, p. 68
Davies, T. R., "Heralds in Medieval Warfare," Coat of Arms, Old Series, vol. 9, p. 245
Squibb, G.D. "Heralds and Pursuivants Extraordinary" Coat of Arms, Old Series, vol. 9, pp. 238, 274
Whitney, J.R.S. "Two 15th Century Chester Heralds" Coat of Arms, Old Series, vol. 12, pp. 52, 124, 160.
Agnew of Lochnaw, yr, "The Mount- Lord Lyon" Coat of Arms, New Series, vol. 2, p. 87
Enright, M., "A Note on the Inauguration of the Lyon King of Arms" Coat of Arms, New Series, vol. 2, p. 7
Lester, G. A., "The Fifteenth Century English Heralds and their Fees: A Case for Forgery" Coat of Arms, new Series, vol. 7, p. 32
"Lancaster & Annesley: A Record of Arms used in a 14th C. Single Combat in Soc. Of Antiquaries MS 305," Coat of Arms, no. 174, p. 261
"Creation of the Office of Garter King of Arms" Coat of Arms, no. 172, p. 134
"Sir James Balfour of Denmylne and Kinnaird and his Coronation as Lyon King of Arms of Scotland, 1630" Coat of Arms, no. 179, p. 117.
George, J. "The French Heralds," Double Tressure, no. 8, pp. 19-39

Heralds in History: Illustrations

(due to copyright restrictions the actual photographs cannot be uploaded, but here are the descriptions)

1.  From King René's book of the Tournament (15th c.) The herald for the Duke of Brittany presents, to the Duke of Bourbon, a roll of arms for possible umpires for the tournament, of which the Duke of Bourbon may choose four (Neubecker p.14).

2. From the same book, a pursuivant of the Duke of Brittany (bottom left), wearing his tabard athwart, proclaims the start of the tournament. The umpires are wearing armorial 'badges' fastened to their headgear. (Neubecker p.14)

3. (Left) "Sicily" Herald, Jean Courteois c. 1420, "responsible for the most authoritative written record of the rights and duties of a herald" (used frequently as a source in this class.)  Next to him, the pursuivant of the elector Frederick II of Brandenburg, named Hans, titled "Burggraf".  The arms to the right are his personal arms. Note that German pursuivants did not wear their tabards athwart.  These two tabards show that the garment may be of varying length. Note the spiffy fringe on Hans' tabard. (Neubecker p.19).

4. Herald of Nassau-Vianden (note the lack of sleeves), the herald Jörg Rugenn (from Bavaria) (wearing a tabard with more drape than is customary), and the herald Anton Tirol, 1510.  Anton is wearing a freelance herald's "tabard" (from Neubecker's description) although it appears to be cut like a round cape. (Neubecker p.18)

5. Freelance heralds conducting a review of helmets as part of the tournament.  The arms of the participants are on small shields on the helmets. Note the short capelets with two rows of shields worn by the heralds. (Neubecker p.160, Konrad Grünenberg's Armorial 1483).

6. "Early 17th c. painting of officer about to be created Garter King of Arms, surrounded by heralds holding the objects to be used in the ceremony (his Patent, the book on which he is to swear his oath, his robe as an officer of te Order of the Garter, his crown, a cup of wine for baptizing him, etc.) (Coll. Arms, Vincent 151, fo. 30v)" Also present appear to be Garter's white rod with the flag at the end, and what possibly might be a seal. Woodcock and Robinson plate 26.

copyright Leslie A. Schweitzer, July 2002.

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Updated: July 27, 2003