.......Two Coats of Arms? .......
The dividing line between what we call battle heraldry and paper heraldry, between the original heraldry which was functional and the later heraldry which was decorative and commemorative, is blurred by the overlap, but certain factors belong clearly to one or other of the two divisions. The majority of crests, for example, could never have been borne on a helmet in battle. And the charges chosen for easy identification in battle have a simplicity and purity that is very different from modern artistic heraldry.
Mediaeval warfare was a messy business in which blood and mud spattered across shield and surcoat could quickly hide the identity of knights with complex arms. Simplicity was the key to easy recognition, and the most ancient arms were the simplest of all. Families whose marriages to heiresses had brought in famous arms did not quarter them on shields to be borne in battle, even though they would appear quartered on tapestries and carvings in their castles. In battle the pronominal arms were sufficient, and the simpler the better.
Sometimes, however, old pictures will show a man with two different armorial bearings, which seemingly could cause confusion. The picture above, although not itself ancient (it is of a plaque made for the British Pavilion at the New York World Fair but it is based on the design of a window in Chartres Cathedral), is typical.
It portrays Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, (father of the Simon who contributed so much to the birth of the British parliamentary system), the man who led the crusade against the Albigensians. He was born circa 1208 and died in 1265. Glovers Roll (circa 1245) blazons his arms ..... de gules ove un leon blank la cowe furchee et la banner party endente dor et de gules (Gules a lion Argent tail forked and the banner party per pale indented Or and Gules). Readers will note that the banner in the picture appears to be Gules and Or, as drawn above far right, not Or and Gules, above right.
Both were almost certainly the arms of the de Montfort family before they left France, for the lion appeared on the seal of this Simons father in 1195, before he was created Earl of Leicester, and a Montfort, Amaury, Earl of Gloucester, who died 1216, had a shield party dancetty on his seal. (The difference between dancetty and indented was not known then.)
Another example, a little later, can be seen in the Caerlaverock Roll (July 1300) where Sir Rafe de Monthermer is recorded as bearing the arms of Clare (Or three chevronels Gules) on his banner but his own arms (Or an eagle displayed Vert) on his surcoat. He was Earl of Gloucester in right of his wife, the Lady Joan, daughter of Edward I and widow of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, but he was not of the de Clare family!
In this second example it is possible to believe that as Monthermers following would have been used to seeing, for the past three generations, the Clare banner leading them, the new Earl displayed it for that reason ~ and perhaps some similar motivation had persuaded the Montfort family to bear two distinct coats. But there may be another reason.
The earliest of what today we would recognise as arms were borne on flags, and as flags are seen clearly only when the wind or the speed of the horse lifts and spreads their cloth, their colour is more important than the designs sewn onto them. In what is now Belgium and north-eastern France, where mediaeval heraldry arguably was born, the identity of flags was first distinguished by colour-pairs ~ blue and gold for Vermandois, red and gold for Boulogne, red and silver for Louvain, etc ~ but as these combinations eventually became insufficient, it was necessary to introduce variations in partition lines.
Accordingly, the next step created the early arms which invariably were geometric in their design ~ being either party or featuring what were later termed ordinaries (such ordinaries being formed by additional lines of partition, a shield parted horizontally into thirds being described as charged with a fess). At this time some families that had been using badges for several generations adapted them for use on flags and shields, and the components of early heraldry began to merge into a system. This happened slowly, the strictly hereditary nature of succession, for example, being implemented over a long period, and for many years the easily identified geometric flags were separate from the badge-carrying flags.
The arms of the Counts of Flanders are an example. The earliest are geometric, consisting of a number of gyrons (gyronny Sable and Or). The number seemingly varied, but at a time when arms were still comparatively few this variety would not have mattered. The lion as a badge was also in use, and eventually this appeared on banners in the black and gold colours associated with Flanders (and these are the arms of Flanders today). The gyronny pattern continued with the Flemish use eventually of the third shield shown above (gyronny of twelve Azure and Or, an escutcheon Gules), but this became, after the importance of the colour-pairs had become obsolete, blue and gold. (In early heraldry, owing to the difficulty of making true black permanent and avoiding it turning into dark blue, it is not easy on ancient rolls to distinguish between the two colours when examining their representation.)
Louvain, as Beryl Platts has described, kept the red-silver-red combination (Gules a fess Argent) for the principal arms and let the blue lion go to cadet branches as discussed elsewhere in these pages. Hoverdrie (see below left) replaced the original black-silver-black combination (Argent a fess Sable) with a silver lion (Gules a lion rampant Argent armed and langued Or).
The original arms of de Praet (Or a saltire Gules) were complemented by three eagles (Gules three eagles displayed Or), and the famous double tressure flory counter-flory of the Gavere family was laid aside in favour of their three lions. Although the double tressure is not strictly geometric as we have used the term in this article, its original employment and eventual replacement are worth mentioning if only because of its continued life in Scotland (which is another story to be told later).
In conclusion, reverting to the battlefield perspective, the simpler arms of the early years were manifestly easier to recognise in difficult conditions, while the more decorative arms of later years were more readily confused. Families whose early arms featured uncluttered ordinaries would have found it natural to use those on their banners and pennons, even if their surcoats and shields bore their perhaps more impressive lions, eagles and dragons.