Nought can deform the Human Race
Like to the Armour's iron brace.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquise, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities, an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank that a' that.
Robert Burns (1795). A Man's a Man for A' That.
For all this pride and vivacity, all these towering symbols and flamboyant colours, should have been extended to mankind. … Instead of doing this, the democrats made the appalling mistake … of decreasing the human magnificence of the past instead of increasing it.
G. K. Chesterton (1901). The Defendant: A Defence of Heraldry.
Except for their original and enduring purpose as ‘marques de reconnaissance’, heraldic arms are widely deprecated for being inherently pretentious. This is proper, but only partly, since neither true nobility nor due honour can be bestowed by any agency and ostentatious display is plainly alien to both these virtues. However, arms do not necessarily signify privileged rank or conferred honour: arms such as the Geal arms (Fig. 1) are plain commoner's arms and have no such pretensions.
Heraldry has had unexpected supporters against this common assumption of privilege, even prominent republicans such as George Washington have advanced it — perhaps in tacit recognition that one of its essential principles is individualism: “[I]t is far from my design to intimate an opinion that heraldry, coat-armour, etc. … can have any tendency unfriendly to the purest spirit of republicanism.”1,2 Even so, the taint of snobbery remains and is long-standing: for the medieval Church the pomp of chivalry was an ‘Occasion of Sin’ (that is, an extrinsic circumstance which incited or enticed one to sin, in this case to Pride). Likewise, the stain of the close association of heraldry with violence and brutality is ineradicable.
In origin heraldic arms were a development of the ancient forms of badges and seals — whose widespread and autonomous use were no more regulated and suborned to status and privilege than were personal names — adapted to meet the need for conspicuous identification in combat. An absence of hierarchic distinctions was characteristic in early heraldry and, apart from regal insignia, explicit emblems of rank were then rare in English arms. Despite this, the role of arms in the display of rank is self-evident: they were initially largely confined to members of the feudal elite, men-at-arms and prominent ecclesiastics, whereas the harsh and oppressed lives of most of humanity precluded such frivolities. The wider use of arms followed from the demise of feudalism, with the dawning of the open society and its requisite growth of trade and markets opening the way to a more extensive awareness of individuality, which had emerged in the preceding two centuries.3 A rudimentary individualism which soon found opponents in both vestigial feudal power and an emergent collectivist millenarianism4 — a conflict which, mutatis mutandis the seemingly changed nature of these adversaries of freedom, persists.
An ancient Greek hoplite (see Fig. 2) would have readily recognized the forms and primary function of medieval arms. But two crucial innovations in early heraldry distinguish these military emblems from their ancient antecedents: the emergence of systematic rules governing their design and their heritable use as familial arms.5 Though the latter lay the grounds for eventual confusion and disorder as family arms proliforated, contrary to the later casuistry supporting royal intervention, this did not entail anarchy: from the thirteenth century disputes over arms were settled by the Court of Chivalry. Yet, notably, the Court never ruled on the assumption or grant of arms nor on any of the minutiæ of heraldic rendering but confined itself to issues of ownership and usurpation. The foundation of the College of Arms by Richard III in 1484, ended the independent adjudication of the Court and spawned an insidious growth of heraldic pretension and affectation. Prior to that, as with continental burgher arms, English arms were often ‘assumed’ without recourse to any authority — although, following French custom, arms were also increasingly assigned by royal grant from the first reign of Henry VI (1422–61) onwards. Likewise, it was not uncommon during the Middle Ages for knighthoods and subordinate Lordships — and thus arms — to be independently bestowed by existent knights and Lords. (See: Fount of honour.)
Later, heraldry and the granting of honours came under exclusive royal control, except for arms held “in right of an ancestor”: a process which was not confined to England nor limited to heraldry, being an aspect of the widespread arrogation of power by royal dynasties from the mid-fifteenth century onwards, which preceded the ascendancy of nation states throughout Europe. Yet only in the Britain and the Kingdom of Portugal was the right to bear arms wholly abrogated. While the ostensible aim of these regulations was the elimination of the “disarray of arms”, in England, this was merely symptomatic of the wider curbing of baronial powers. Under the ensuing Tudor reigns, royal power now being absolute, a simple mercenary objective came to the fore:6 arms as formerly free property were now expropriated and became tokens of petty venality or servility, henceforth to be granted only for a fee or as an inducement or reward for service.
… [W]hile the sovereign is the ‘fount of honour’ in one sense, he is also the enemy of honour in another, since he claims to arbitrate in regard to it.
Julian Pitt-Rivers (1965). Honour and social status.†
The intense social hierarchy implicit in feudalism endured beyond its demise and the novelty of exclusive royal approbation inevitably enhanced the prestige of armorial bearings for the newly aspirational, while soothing the angst of the old nobility. Thereby snobbery was augmented. Even so the restrictions themselves were widely and sometimes blatantly disregarded, as is the common fate of sumptuary laws.7 But these shows of defiance or insouciance towards regulation offered absolute power another opportunity for extortion: avoiders of heraldic fees, with their impudent self-assumed arms, were thereafter summarily preyed upon by sporadic heralds' visitations.8
By the end of the sixteenth century the development of effective firearms and artillery had rendered full-body armour — and thus coats of arms — obsolete and a militant aristocracy superfluous. Now that heraldic arms had ceased to be chivalric in either creation or function, their bearers became oblivious of the companionship9 formerly implied in their display. Demands for hierarchic differentiation emerged with the advent of Royal Courts and the attendant proliferation of courtiers. Thus a panoply of emblems of rank was soon devised, bolstered with a array of petty and arcane restrictions.‡ Their primary and original purpose being superfluous, arms became increasingly elaborate and the path was clear for the decline of this once vivid and exuberant, if brutal, visual tradition to fatuous ostentation. Still, remnants remain.
Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast …
William Shakespeare (c. 1598). Sonnet 25.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves that we are underlings.
William Shakespeare (c. 1599). Julius Caesar.
Being quintessentially prone to vainglory, it seems for some heraldry is also provocative or even alarming. Yet such disparagement may be too weighty for its object: the illusory glories and proud pomp of arms are concocted of trifles — sometimes pretty but always insubstantial, and no more threatening than are the engulfing clouds to the Moon on a stormy night.
Ein jeder sieht was er im Herzen trägt.
Everyone sees [according to] what he carries in his heart.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1808). Faust – Der Tragödie erster Teil (Faust: Part One).
* The great French economist Frédéric Bastiat evidently concurred with Blake's sentiment:
In order to produce, we must direct all our faculties toward the conquest of Nature; for it is Nature that must be fought, mastered, and subjugated. That is why iron beaten into a plowshare is the emblem of production.
In order to plunder, we must direct all our faculties toward the conquest of men; for they are the ones we must fight, kill, or enslave. That is why iron beaten into a sword is the emblem of plunder.
Frédéric Bastiat (1850). Economic Harmonies.
‡ Although pervasive and entrenched among the several sins of heraldry, the rank prejudice against women is being eroded: the Canadian Heraldic Authority has removed the ancient restrictions on womens' arms, which now entirely conform to those of men. British practice remains to bar their display of those elements of arms which are of a combative origin, on the entirely specious basis that these represent an exclusively masculine attribute — as if Sir Roy Strong, say, was more militant than Baroness Thatcher, or the triumph of Achilles annulled the courage of Penthesilea.
Figure 1: the arms
Figure 2: proto-heraldry
Greek proto-heraldry in a detail of the Chigi olpe (mid-seventh century BC).
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream, …
William Shakespeare (c. 1595).
A Midsummer Night's Dream.