Early Days ~ I

In the very early days of heraldry the nobles who first bore hereditary designs on their banners (and, a little later, on their shields) were comparatively few in number, as also were the different designs. Then as the use of heraldry spread from the greater nobles to the minor nobles, and as a much larger number of designs became necessary for the system to work effectively, the basic designs acquired new variations. Subsequently, in more recent centuries and Europe-wide, the exponential growth of heraldry required further variations to be applied to the initial variations.

The two principal consequences of this growth were ~

1. The development of an extensive vocabulary of blazon to describe the variations precisely, and

2. The silent acceptance of a new heraldry which distinguished armigers from each other by differences so small that they would never be recognisable as differences on a battlefield.

A second article will discuss the development of the vocabulary of blazon. Here we shall examine the simplicity and lack of precision in early heraldry.

At the beginning the art of blazon was very simple. The red Scottish lion shown here on the right was a lion Gules. It did not need to be blazoned rampant because a single lion was always upright to make the best use of the area of the shield.
heraldry - arms of King of Scots
heraldry - Royal arms of England
However, if three lions were to be shown, as here on the English shield, they fitted best if horizontal.
By convention, horizontal lions were painted with a full face and described as leopards, so that instead of the modern blazon Gules three lions passant guardant Or, the shorter Gules three leopards Or was sufficient.
But before horizontal lions were described as leopards, the blazon Gules three lions Or was unambiguous ~ they had to be horizontal to fit the shield, and the way their heads were turned became significant only much later, after a lion passant, a lion passant guardant, and a lion passant regardant had come to be treated as different charges.
Similarly, if a lion was blue, whether or not the painter gave it a red tongue and claws (langued and armed Gules), it was still blazoned a lion Azure. Centuries later a lion Azure armed and langued Gules was a different charge from a lion Azure, even though the red tongue and claws which make the difference would be seen only with the greatest difficulty, if at all, in the mud and gore of battle.
Students of heraldry examining ancient armorial rolls should thus bear in mind that the maintenance of a mediaeval perspective is essential. The graphic here on the right is from the Gelre Armorial (mid-14th century) where it is attributed to the Earl of Atholl and was perhaps considered by Gelre Herald to be vertically striped in gold and black. That was then probably sufficient to identify its bearer unambiguously, but later more precision became necessary.
Earl of Atholl from Gelre's Armorial
heraldry - Early arms of Atholl
heraldry - Modern arms of Atholl On the left are the Atholl arms today, blazoned Paly of six Or and Sable instead of Or three pallets Sable as the Gelre version would be described. On the right are the arms as quartered by, for example, John Stewart, 3rd Earl of Atholl, showing the tinctures reversed as Paly of six Sable and Or.
(The earliest blazons of the last example would probably have been Paly Sable and Or, for it has been argued that to give the number six is and always has been unnecessary. Six is the usual number for barry, bendy and paly coats ~ so a number is required only when it is other than six.)
heraldry - Variation on arms of Atholl
The arms on the right are included here for interest only. They are ascribed to the Earl of Atholl in Jenyn's Collection at the College of Arms as Paly Gules, Sable and Or (not as Paly of six Gules, Sable and Or).
Atholl is, of course, a Scottish title. On the English side of the border we can look at the arms of Sir Brian le Fitz Alan, knight banneret and Baron of Bedale. His shield bore gold and red horizontal stripes.
At Falkirk in 1298 he bore the arms on the left, Barry Or and Gules, blazoned in the Dering and Guillim Rolls as Barry of six Or and Gules, but in the Arundel and Parliamentary Rolls he is given the arms on the right, Or three bars Gules. In the Nobility Rolls of 1297, 1298 and 1300 his arms are blazoned Barry of ten, while at Carlaverock in 1300 he is reported as bearing Barry of eight. heraldry - alternate arms of Fitzalan
heraldry - arms of Fitzalan
In summary ~ Early coats were not so rigidly defined as became necessary later when the number of coats in use was so very much larger. A man whose arms consisted, for example, of gold and black vertical stripes, might appear with them blazoned as Or three pallets Sable, or as Sable three pallets Or (not illustrated in this article), or as Paly Or and Sable, or as Paly Sable and Or. Today, in theory, these could be the arms of four different men. Similarly, four different blazons are recorded for the horizontally striped arms of Sir Brian le Fitz Alan.

(We shall return in a second article to examine the development of the extensive vocabulary of blazon that the minor differences of the later centuries required.)

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