Heraldic Badges

Part I

Of the many questions posted to us about the origin and use of heraldic badges, by far the majority have been about Scottish clan badges. Accordingly, in this first article we shall look only briefly at the origins of badges, and shall then discuss the design and use of the badges the Scots wear in their bonnets. In the next article we shall discuss badges more generally and shall look at their use on standards.


Although badges have been in use from very early times, and as many passed from father to son and thus, being hereditary, could be claimed as heraldic, their importance seems to have been recognised only in recent centuries. Now they are the subject of grants in both England and Scotland, but there is no evidence of this having been so in the mediaeval period (although standards were often the subject of grants and most standards bore badges), even though much early heraldry was developed from family devices. The Campadevene family in Picardy, for example, used a garb of cummin on their coinage in the 11th century and this appeared on their arms in the 12th century.
Ich dien
However, if we consider the heraldic badge as it is understood today, as a device quite separate from its owner's arms and yet heraldic in character, then we may count its British origin from the time when it came into general use as such during the reign of Edward III. This does mean that modern commentators omit such famous badges as the broom plant pictured on the left, the planta genista that gave its name to the Plantagenet dynasty ~ although we prefer to include it, just as the badge pictured above, of the British heir-apparent to the Crown, is included.
planta genista
If we try to define the heraldic badge we should notice that from the time of Edward III badges became increasingly important socially and militarily, they were used extensively to mark the ownership of movable goods, they were widely used for decoration, they were worn by servants and retainers, and they could be worn by followers of a political magnate. But they were not worn by their owner in the sense that he used his arms and his crest.
It is necessary to distinguish clearly between the badge and the crest, partly because the two terms are wrongly interchanged as commonly as are crest and arms (or crest and "coat of arms"), and partly because the distinction will be important when we look at Scottish badges. The crest is the ornament worn on top of the helmet (seldom worn, in fact, but usually pictured there in armorial achievements), and it is never used by anyone other than the person who owns it. The badge was never worn on a helmet and it is never worn by its owner.
We shall return to the origin and development of heraldic badges in the next article. For the present we shall turn to the type of badge perhaps most often seen today ~ the Scottish clan badge.
Scottish chiefs and the heads of houses who have matriculated arms may bear the crest of their official armorial achievement within a circlet as pictured on the right. Such badges usually include the torse (or wreath) of the livery colours, always a metal and a colour (here argent and azure), but sometimes a coronet may be used instead. The stag bears a crescent on its flank, and this has been copied from the crest with the matriculated arms, where the crescent has probably been employed as a difference distinguishing a second son from his brothers. The motto or warcry on the circlet is that with the record of matriculation in the Lyon Office Register. If the owner is not the clan chief, then the motto often "answers" his chief's motto.
circlet badge
The clansmen wear badges that also feature a crest, either of their immediate superior, or of their chief, but encircled by a strap-and-buckle instead of a plain circlet. This is now a well-established custom, but it was once resisted on the grounds that the use of a strap-and-buckle around an heraldic emblem should be restricted to orders of knighthood. It has also become a well-established custom to place the clan tartan behind the badge, and this is how pictures and wall-shields illustrating clan badges are now produced.
clan badge (fictional) Fraser clan badge
The badge on the left here is that of a follower of the owner of the circlet badge above. The tartan background is the same as that of the badge on the right, this being the badge of a Fraser clansman, the stag's head erased being the crest of the chief of Clan Fraser of Lovat. The chief's motto of Je suis prest (old French ~ I am ready) is "answered" by the cadet line's Ready and able.
So, who can wear the clan badge? (Who can wear the clan tartan?) The answer lies in the easy assimilation by the clans of any outsiders who belonged to a beaten clan, or who were neighbours seeking the protection of a stronger clan, or who were strangers with the same or a similar name, or who were friendless and clanless. The incomers usually took the clan name, or that of a sept (which would bear a name recognised as belonging to the clan), or might keep their own name and have it accepted as one now belonging to the clan. The huge size of Clan Campbell today is owed in part to the number of smaller clans it absorbed over the centuries, and, during a much shorter period, Clan Gordon was overwhelmed by the incomers who took the name as soon as they established themselves as the major power in Strathbogie.
This tradition continues today to the point that names whose beginnings were spread all over Scotland, the Smiths, Wrights, Millars, et al, consider themselves to belong to their own clans composed of the people who share their names even though totally unrelated in blood or even territorial origins. So the clan badge is worn by (or hangs as a picture or a wall-shield in the house of) anyone who gives loyalty to that clan and acknowledges the chief whose crest is encircled by the strap-and-buckle of the clansman's crest-badge.

Components of an Armorial Achievement
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