Pick from the Past
Natural History, March 1940

The Story of Heraldry

Heroic symbols have everywhere marked Man's
more adventurous activities since the dawn of time,
and though coats of arms declined with Knighthood,
the modern airplane may possibly bring about a new
Heraldry to symbolize achievement in a new age.

Of all the symbols which confront us in the daily press, none are so
potent and certainly few so ancient as

, , and .

Should peace come in 1940, it will likely result from an understanding among the head men of immense organizations operating under these three simple art designs whose origin traces close to, if not beyond, the threshold of history.

Nazis did not invent the swastika, nor Christians the cross, nor Americans the dollar sign. (The latter device seems to have been taken from the famous ribbon-entwined “Pillars of Hercules” depicted on the Spanish dollar widely used in the early days of colonial America. The Pillars themselves are the rocks flanking the Straights of Gibraltar, according to legend, placed there by Hercules.) And each emblem has in its time served masters and purposes which contrast strangely with their modern import. Yet they remain mighty cabalistic signs, still rousing our deepest emotions, still working old magic in a new setting.

Today Europe’s allied battalions are marching against this reorientated swastika under Gallic rooster and British lion, animal fetishes which were no doubt in prominence oil the field of Crécy where knightly warfare met its death blow 6oo years ago. The lion, one of the most widespread subjects of animistic primitive belief, has nearly always connoted bravery, and the cock, said one writer of the time, “croweth when he is victor and giveth testimony of his conquest; if he be vanquished, he shunneth the light and society of men”—reason enough for accepting the barnyard ruler as emblematic of a chivalric national ideal. Man has always had emblems derived from the world of animals and probably always will, since he has so far given no indication of being able to get along without them. Moreover, there is scarcely an important culture in all history that does not evince animistic tokens of valor and leadership. They were borne by Persian kings and in the armies of Alexander and Caesar. The present Mexican eagle dates back to the halls of Montezuma, and the Aztec chiefs sported individual shields and banners when Cortez rode inland from the Coast.

Of course symbols of one sort or another are as old as human intelligence, and their remarkable distribution and endurance is largely due to their twofold utility as tools and charms. For example, a symbol may be as simple a designation as a common word in a language, or it may serve to embody a supernatural principle. Both these uses figure prominently in the story of that mythology, art, and science called Heraldry.

One of plastic art’s chief functions is to stay the obliterating hand of time. And nowhere does it fulfill this task to better effect than in our Anglo-American insignia of ancestor worship—our true household gods—the family coat of arms (a term derived from the ornamented cloth surcoat which knights wore over their armor). Perhaps these stylized gatherings of “langued” and “rampant” creatures do not always speak with genealogical accuracy, but they comprise what may well be the truly native religious art of British civilization.

While the art of making heraldic devices and the custom of bearing them probably entered England at a much earlier date, organized heraldry did not reach its apex until the time of Henry III. During his reign in mid-thirteenth century, the art gained its ultimate validity, serving, as it did, a preŽminently useful purpose in the British social structure of that day. Considerable impetus was lent to the expansion of heraldry by the Wars of the Roses. For, after this civil strife had spent itself, an upstart nobility arose to replace the ranks of those slaughtered in battle. In order to settle the riotous confusion of real estate claims, these novi hoinines swamped the College of Heralds with orders for coats of arms which would trace their ancestry, however spuriously, to as impressively early a date as possible.

This marked the blooming of the noble-ancestry scramble and the end of heraldry as a natural art, since these doughty knights were fully as anxious to place an apocryphal ancestor on a fat estate as is the modern genealogy hound to run his namesake into the Mayflower’s passenger list.

Of course, there are many authentic coats of arms, for during its Golden Age the College of Heralds had not yet become corrupt, and the creation of synthetic precedents was, therefore, considerably more difficult to achieve. But later, in Elizabeth’s time, the badges and banners of medieval warfare had been outlawed and the style of heraldry degenerated into baroque pomposity, its coinage debased by many a counterfeit and semi-counterfeit escutcheon. Heraldry entered its decadent phase in seeming vindication of the theory that all arts decline when they are no longer a functional part of their social milieu. Feudalism had broken down. The people of England were no longer rigidly segregated on the lands of the chief families, whose armoral bearings served as a model for all their retainers. Formerly, when a noble’s vassals were arrayed in the field, they could often be identified by “key symbols” in their insignia. Thus coats of arms were the glorified license plates of their day, designating not merely a man’s native county, but his family origins, his obligations, and his station in life.

However, in Tudor England the age of jousts and tournaments was dead. Surviving ceremony apart, no more heralds emerged from pavilions to announce a passage at arms. (Herald literally means “servant of the army.” But his function exceeded the mere announcement of tournaments. During the Middle Ages many of the official secular records were in his keeping.) Full suits of armor had been replaced by hose and doublet, and the English nobility had taken up the arts of reading and writing. No longer was a man’s coat of arms his only mark of identification. He could now affix his signature to some grant or charter where formerly he imposed a seal derived from his armorial bearings—a custom still followed in the royal signet ring. So it is perhaps not too much to say that the heraldic devices, rooted in an older animism, were the quasi-official “language” of the British people during the earlier middle ages. It was then that family history and achievements, and most particularly claims of inheritance, were recorded in blazonry.

British totem poles

In fact, the British family coat of arms is similar in many respects to the enormous totem poles of the Northwest Indians. Just as these animal carvings recorded the clan system and indicated the lineage of individual Indians, so the more varied animal kingdom of the medieval blazoner depicted the feudal clans as well as reliable “legal” data. Consequently, there is a touch of irony in the patronizing curiosity for the Indian later shown by Englishmen themselves only a few generations removed from an age of virtual totemism.

When the era of exploration set in, heraldry had generally reached the status which it now occupies. It was and is the chief symbol of noble birth, and was and is valuable to scholars in dating historical phenomena through an exhaustive study of the various motifs. In short, it is to the British antiquary what Peruvian pottery is to the South American archaeologist—the durable record of a culture.

The ancestry scramble

A number of the stylized animal figures of the armorial devices were probably developed from the totem animals of shaggy-bearded tribesmen who were pursuing the wild horse through the dark forests of primitive Europe long before Rome expanded into a world power.

It has been said that nearly every people must pass through an essentially totemic stage before they attain civilized culture. Europeans are no exception, although their totems were doomed with the establishment of the early monasteries. These repositories of Greek and Roman learning finally spread their treasures during the Renaissance, and from this time onward the pictographic “literature” of heraldry became obsolete. The fact that an uncleanly, brutal, spirit-fearing savage must be the ultimate termination, does not today, and apparently never has, deterred explorations of one’s family tree. Heraldry seems to be almost from its inception a tremendous stimulus to looking backward. Aroused by prideful as well as economic aspirations to be numbered among the feudal nobility, the Englishman has nearly always been prone to ransack the past. But the frantic quest could not be fruitful for everyone, and in the fourteenth century the peasants revolted, shouting the shrewd query “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the Gentleman?” This problem was perhaps no less nettlesome to medieval sages than determining the number of angels that could be accommodated on a needle’s point. One theorist set all fears at rest by deciding that “Adam bore a red shield upon which the arms of Eve, a shield of argent, were quartered as an escutcheon of pretense, she being an heiress.” A later commentator dryly remarks that the emblazonry was probably carried on their fig leaves.

Heraldic zoology

As a rule, the escutcheon animal shows a rigid stylization of the primitive’s usual indifference to naturalistic detail. He may be portrayed as rearing, standing, springing, walking, or merely lying down (couchant)—the technical designation being given in French participles. Sometimes the beast is “armed,” that is, with teeth and claws showing, or “langued” (tongue showing), or any of a number of other prescribed postures, all bearing very little relation to the natural history of the animal as we know it today. For example, cranes appear standing on one foot, while, most unscientifically, holding a stone in the other. They became symbols of vigilance on the theory that whenever they dozed the stone splashed into the water and woke them. Pelicans were emblematic of sacrifice because of the myth that in time of scarcity their young were fed on the mother’s own blood. When shown plucking at her breast, the pelican symbol is designated by the decorous phrase, “in her piety.”

A tremendous range of stylized creatures has been devised upon the coats of arms of the new world, where porcupines, wildcats, squirrels, bees, grasshoppers and many American birds were suggested by the new environment and have taken their places beside the “nobler” exotic animals. As for the latter, leopards are frequently lions with the mane removed, and tigers often have the bodies of lions and the heads of wolves.

The fish which seems to appear most frequently is the dolphin. This typifies the large number of symbols that do not stem from the primitive forests but are for the most part taken over from the cultures of antiquity, including that of the Israelites. Despite this people’s taboo against graven imagery, Jacob gave “totem animals” to his sorts when he blessed them, and in the Book of Numbers, the Children of Israel were commanded to arrange their camp, each man “by his own standard, with the ensign of his father’s house.”

In the Hellenic world, the dolphin was long looked on by sailors as an omen of good fortune. It symbolized the maritime power of the Greeks and appears in the epics of Homer. Early Christian iconography reveals the creature as a symbol of the resurrection due to the fact that at death its body rapidly passes through all the colors of God’s promise, the rainbow. But for most people the symbol is associated with the Dauphins, heirs to the throne of France. The fleur de lis is also an ancient symbol probably derived from the Egyptian lotus, and its popularity among French royalty is thought to be due in part to its tri-flowered emblem of the Holy Trinity. Nazi Germany may not have gone directly to the Orient for the swastika, since the figure appeared quite early in European heraldry. But in its original ancient Asiatic setting, this symbol represented the four points of the compass and the journey of the sun.

When knighthood was in flower

Many exotic animals found their way to medieval shields during the crusades. The ostrich was one of these and is a clear case of a wholly primitive attitude. The bird was regarded as swift and belligerent and so hardy that it was often depicted chewing keys, nails and horseshoes—possibly the origin of the colloquial hyperbole of some years back “so tough he chews horseshoes and spits nails” and doubtless an attribute sought by all knights who adopted the ostrich as their “fetish.” Others who chose the elephant did so in the belief that this creature could not bend its knees and was, therefore, a token of royal supremacy. But the most sensationally primitive symbolism produced by the crusades were the pictured heads of Turks and Saracens. Women’s heads also appear, and even skeletons, all of which point to a bloody trophy—art little different from that of Melanesian head hunters. However, not every grim device can be attributed to the holy wars. The Lichfield family, whose Saxon name literally means “field of corpses,” had a rendition of the same emblazoned on their shield apparently for no reason beyond indulging a rather ghastly sense of humor. The “pun device,”—that is, the use of a fox to signify the Fox family—reveals a curious cycle often found in the arms of the leading families. Originally the names were, of course, taken directly from the animal. Then as heraldry came into vogue, the animal was in turn derived from the name, more or less in a spirit of fun.


National heroes have been awarded special insignia in nearly all cultures, and the custom extends into such heraldic symbols as stylized fortresses bestowed by monarchs for distinguished bravery during a defensive siege. Militarism and heraldry are everywhere closely allied. Medals and kindred tokens of achievement have ramified from early to modern soldiery and thence into civil life. The chevron, indicative of army rank, is most likely taken from primitive picture writing wherein water is frequently indicated by broken lines. Support is lent this theory by the fact that many towns situated on the banks of rivers still carry the chevron in their coats of arms.

Like warriors in other primitive cultures, the early Europeans had their war-whoops which have been dignified in literature by the French transcription cris de guerre. Many of these survived as family mottoes, although the term “motto” was unknown in heraldry’s heyday. A noble referred to a slogan as his “Word” or “Reason.” Anyone familiar with the cabalistic utterances of primitive people will at once recognize the telltale ring of magic in this terminology. The “Word” commonly gives its possessor a supernatural power over his enemy. It may also be of service as a verbal charm to banish evil. “Reason” is probably used here in the sense of “cause” or raison d’être.

The earliest war or rallying cries are supposed to be merely the name of the leader. Others seem to have originated as boasts of some sort of achievement. For instance, the grisly, “I Mak’ Sicker” apparently brags of further mayhem on an already wounded enemy—or kicking a man when he’s down. On the other hand, the cries frequently had no significance whatever except as a raucous hoot to scare the enemy. The Irish mottoes “A Boo” and “Alala,” which are placed in all sobriety on various escutcheons, doubtless belong to this latter classification. Some similar interpretation seems likely if we are to make anything of the startling injunction inscribed on the arms of the Dakynses of Derbyshire, “Strike, Dakyns, the devil’s in the hemp!” The same applies to the rather haunting admonition of the Martins of Dorsetshire, “He who looks at Martin’s Ape, Martin’s Ape shall look at him.”

A case of importation from the ancient world was found in the motto of one family, Non bos in lingua. This literally means “No bull on the tongue.” However, in the light of classical history, it does not appear to be a stout denial by one accused of exaggeration in speech. The Greek coin, the drachma, bore the insignia of a bull, from which the term came to symbolize money generally; hence, non bos in lingua is judged to mean a tongue that cannot be bought.

The celebrated Dieu et mon Droit does not, as some people have thought, mean God and my Right Arm, but was the statement of Edward III’s pretension to the throne of France, a claim which, incidentally, remained associated with English royalty for several hundred years and was not formally withdrawn until 1801.

The “bar” sinister

Since early heraldry was often consulted as a means of proving claims of inheritance, some device was required to designate illegitimacy. Of these, the baton sinister* is certainly the most famous but by no means the only one, nor even the one most frequently encountered. (Technical heraldry frowns on the use of “bar,” which it regards as a misnomer popularized by “novelists.” Baton or haston seem to be preferred for reasons too complex to be dealt with in this article.) In order to keep the record straight, it was simply necessary for an illegitimate son to alter or “difference” the family coat of arms in some way to indicate the improper circumstances of his birth. Illegitimacy was not, however, absolute. Much depended on the degree of recognition which a father was willing to bestow on a son, and the Church was frequently called on to rectify matters long after the fact.

Many people are unperturbed by the presence of such symbols on their arms, preferring a tainted escutcheon to none at all. But others have caused no little confusion to the science of heraldry by all manner of attempts to expunge the stigma from their shield. A great deal of this went on during Elizabeth’s reign, when a certain amount of misinterpretation of the past and a garbling of the old devices occurred through the ministrations of slipshod or venal copyists. And, in recent times, one young widow of title combined her arms with those of her lamented husband, only to learn that his family was descended from Charles II, all of whose children were born out of wedlock and were, therefore, obliged to bear testimony of the misfortune on their coats of arms. Rallying from the shock, the widow ordered this evidence struck out—whereupon the meaning of the entire symbolism collapsed and she was miraculously shown to have married the merry monarch several generations after his death.

Some authorities regard the present symbol of the British barristers of Temple Bar as a spurious offshoot of the ancient ensign of the Knights Templars. The latter organization was bound by an oath of poverty and accordingly, used the figure of two knights riding one horse, apparently to designate an economy measure. The barristers, on the other hand, had less humble aspirations and chose to transform the indigent noblemen into a pair of wings.

The frequent instances where old symbols have been “whitewashed” to conform with the aims of their later adaptors is almost always attributable to human vanity. This same vice would seem to be responsible for the pomposity which marked the debasement of heraldry after Elizabeth and also for some of the arrant pretension in the furniture of our own grandmother’s day. Kingly thrones have from earliest times been graven with the images of warlike beasts. This motif dates at least from the early Mesopotamian civilizations and was still present in the drawing rooms of the past century where animal heads and claws were brandished from the arms and legs of chairs and sofas.

Modern instances

It is recalled that the Spanish nobility were at one time accustomed to adopt the lowly pig for heraldic purposes. Here was surely no primitive attempt to gain the characteristics of the creature portrayed, rather it was a mark of defiance, since both Jews and Moors, then plentiful in Spain, placed a taboo on this animal. One may venture that a subsidiary purpose was to lay incontestable claim to a purely Gentile ancestry and, in this light, it is noteworthy that heraldry as been of considerable assistance to the English and American wives of Germans who were called upon by the Nazi government to demonstrate their “Aryanism.”

Today the study of armorial bearings has grown so complex that only a highly trained expert can read their meaning with any degree of accuracy. One of these declares that perhaps no more than six English families now extant can trace a clear descent from the time of William the Conqueror and that anyone who purports to have discovered a Saxon ancestor may be discounted as an impostor.

Yet the custom goes on and is seemingly developing new aspects and fresh innovations almost daily. There is perhaps no activity more emblematic of modern life than the innocent hobby of private flying which, though still in its early stages, seems already on the road to its own heraldry. Many private flying machines bear a coat of arms intended to individualize their owner; and one may hazard that a new College of Heraldry will eventually come into existence for the purpose of guaranteeing the various aviation crests against the inroads of “low born” upstarts. In cases where these new “flying families” already possess a genealogical coat of arms, this will probably be incorporated into the latest symbol of aristocracy. Knights may no longer go forth to battle sheathed in gaudily emblazoned coats, but the day seems not far off when the heavens will resound with the motors of private airplanes, the more pretentious of them bearing the official symbol of its owner. For man has always contrived some such art-symbol of his more adventurous activities since the days of cave dwelling.

Indeed, the heraldry of the air has already established its precedent. During the first World War, it was found necessary to distinguish the battle planes of different armies and divisions of armies. The American ace Eddie Rickenbacker, had painted on his plane a disc showing a glossy silk ringmaster’s hat, symbolic of his leadership of the famous Flying Circus. Thus a cycle of Europe is completed wherein the modern knights of the air rally their followers to ensigns as did the helmet crests of Crécy and for that matter the ensigns of the Roman Legions.

It seems fairly certain, however, that the religious and totemic aspects of blazonry are gone forever. To sum up the modern view, we need perhaps look no further than Jane MacNeal’s dictum “With the Indian, blazonry is a religion. With the [casual observer] it is at least history. To some it is a most difficult art or science. To many, it is a joke, and to the English College of Arms, it is doubtless all of these and also a source of revenues.”

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