.......Classical Heraldry .......

The Shape of the Shield (2)

We mentioned the variety of shield shape in the first of these articles, acknowledging the classical elegance of the "heater" and alluding to the grotesque ornament of later centuries. Early representations were most influenced by the design of the shields used in battle, this changing with the evolution of weapons and tactics. Later illustrations, from the sixteenth century onwards, as the battlefield use of heraldry declined and shields lost most of their protective value, were more fanciful in their geometry.

Here is a representative range of what students of heraldry may find as they browse through the centuries.

Arms of de Vere, Earls of Oxford, on classical "heater" shield

The classical "heater"

Earliest arms of Kings of France The arms of the King of France, known heraldically as France ancient and blazoned Azure semé of fleurs de lys Or (semé means the lilies are scattered, so there may be more than six), drawn by Mathew Paris in the mid-13th century.

The fleurs de lys (still to be found every year in abundance on the banks of the River Leie in Flanders) were claimed to have a heavenly origin, having been variously presented by an angel to King Clovis, by St Denis to the Royal Family, by Pope Leo III to Charlemagne.

Charles V in 1376 limited the number of lilies to three (France modern ).

Arms of Richard, Earl of Cornwall
Another from the Historia Anglorum of Mathew Paris, this time of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III, blazoned Argent a lion rampant Gules crowned Or, a bordure Sable bezantée.

The modern arms of the Duchy of Cornwall, which appear in the armorial achievement of the Prince of Wales ensigned with his coronet, are blazoned Sable 15 bezants ~ the bezants being the (eleven) gold coins seen here in the border of Richard's arms.

Arms of Count von Habsburg
The oldest German roll of arms is the Zûricher Wappenrolle, compiled a century after that of Mathew Paris. The example featured here is the earliest representation of the arms of the Habsburgs, later the Emperors of Austria, as borne by Albrecht IV, Count of Habsburg at the beginning of the 13th century.

The shield is now close to the "heater" shape, and the lion rampant fills it neatly without crowding it.

Arms from the Armorial de Gelre
This is a collection from the Armorial de Gelre in the Royal Library in Brussels, dating from the mid-14th century. The widths of the shields have increased relative to their height, and this has helped the painter in his portrayal of the third and fourth quarters of the centre shield.

This centre shield is that of the King of Cyprus and bears Jerusalem in the 1st and 4th quarters, Luxembourg in the 2nd and 3rd. The small shields in the top row are of Lord Bourchier and Lord Seton. In the second row they are of the Lord of Annandale (then George Dunbar, Earl of March); Sir John Abernethy; Sir Alexander Stewart of Buchan, and Thomas de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

This example from the 15th century Oesterreichisches Wappenbuch shows the continuation of rounding the base of the shield now to have wholly abolished the point. Compare it with the de Vere shield above.

But in England at the beginning of the 16th century,
in Prince Arthur's Book (below right), the point is still well marked.

Arms from the Oesterreichisches Wappenbuch (The Austrian Book of Arms)
These arms, left to right, are those of the Emperor, the Coche family, and the Dantzey family. The latter, which bear a crescent cadency brisure to signify a second son, and a label of five points to signify a grandson, are canting arms (punning arms) using the five fusils conjoined in fess to suggest dancetty.
Arms of the Emperor, of Coche and of Dantzey
The Austrian arms shown above left, although artistically attractive in appearance, may mislead the viewer. They seem to fit the blazon Or a bend sinister Gules ~ but the stripe on each side of the bend could represent fimbriation. Does it? Or is it the artist's attempt to produce bas-relief against what may be diapering in the background? In close-up the bend itself can be seen to be diapered (although this is difficult to recognise in a low-resolution reproduction).
The blazons of the arms above right are:

Emperor ~ Or a two-headed eagle displayed Sable Coche ~ Gules an eagle displayed barry of Or and Vert Dantzey ~ Azure five fusils conjoined in fess, at the fess point a crescent Sable for difference, and in chief overall a label of 5 points Gules. (The upper edges of the fusils form a zigzag line blazoned as dancetty.)

Rococo shield shapes
The impractical (for battle purposes) shape of the shield on the far left became exaggerated with the introduction of the bouche, a rounded notch in which the lance was supposed to rest (allegedly improving stability and aim during the charge).

The bouche in the shield on the right provides no support at all, suggesting that if it did exist, the artist knew not why.
Baroque shield shapes
The bouche opened the gates to Wonderland, and the Gothic transmuted to the Baroque. The influence of the bouche is readily apparent here in the shield bearing the stork, and its further exaggeration in the next two shields prompted the additional curves along their tops.

Examples such as these are more often found sculpted in wood and stone than in illustrations on paper.
Sculpted shield shape
However, the 3D portrayals did become common on flat surfaces.

The example on the left, created for a porcelain dish, may represent for some the ultimate decadence, the furthest retreat from classical heraldry. It is not only the shape of the shield that offends. The lady whose voluptious body rides triumphantly on the helmet could have been fashioned in wood and leather as genuine tournament crests were, and the mullet and roses she holds, and her loose ribbons, could have belonged to a much earlier century (although mediaeval herald painters did not have such artistic skills). But the mantling is almost seaweed in its depiction, a long way from classical representation. (We shall look at mantling in a later article.)

The shield really is solid. Note the width of the scroll in sinister chief. After carrying that into battle, what strength would be left to wield a weapon? But, of course, we have reached a period now in which the extravagance of what became known as "parchment heraldry" had become obsessive, particularly among those families that needed the visual evidence of their nobility to overwhelm suspicions of its recent acquisition.

This picture is not of a warrior's shield. It is of an emblazoned carving.

Footnotes ~

1. France ancient, the arms of the King of France at the time Mathew Paris painted them were Azure semé of fleur de lys Or (blazoned today Azure semé-de-lis Or), but his illustration is of Azure 6 fleur de lys Or. To be semé (which is to say powdered) the charges must be scattered more or less evenly across the shield, and at the edge they must be clearly seen to be cut.

France ancient on heater shield
2. France modern, after the fleurs de lys had been reduced to three by Charles VI, the Foolish, who lost at Agincourt and died insane.
France modern on heater shield
Duchy of Cornwall on heater shield
3. The arms of the Duchy of Cornwall, based on the border of the arms of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, may be derived from his county of Poitou, the bezants representing a pun on golden peas (pois)
4. Diapering refers to the application of a decorative pattern, usually of fine lines and curls, to parts of the shield that would otherwise have only a plain colour. Its use is at the discretion of the artist and it is never blazoned. If it is executed unskilfully, as it has perhaps in this example, it can change the identity of the arms. (The fimbriation is the thin stripe alongside and on each side of the bend.)

Example from the St Petersburg Collection
The earlier article on shield shapes
A later article on shield shapes
The April-June Baronage Contents page
© 1999 The Baronage Press and Pegasus Associates Ltd
From the St Petersburg Collection