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Journalists' &
Authors' Guide to Heraldry and Titles

 

Introduction

Coat of Arms

Heraldic Achievement

Peerage

Metals, Furs and Colours

Clans, Badges and Tartans

Differencing a.k.a. Cadency

Chapter One

Arms used to be, and in principle still are ~

borne, used, shewn, set forth and advanced in shield or banner or otherwise, observing their due and proper differences according to the Laws of Arms .......

~ which differences (the indications of cadency) are applied to ensure that no two men of the same family and in the same heraldic jurisdiction bear the same arms.

Arms as a system of identification have to be unique to the user. Ideally, this would mean that no two men in the world bore identical arms, but the geographical limitations mediaeval communications suffered did not allow such perfection. Within a single kingdom, however, the principle could be enforced.

A Brief Look at the Early Days

Flags are known to have been borne in battle since the beginning of recorded history, their principal distinguishing feature being their colours, and their secondary feature a graphical element (which could be merely the division of the flag into two or more parts). The relative importance of the colours was owed to them being more easily recognisable on a flapping flag than could be, for example, a picture of a dragon or a lion.

In Western Europe during the eleventh century the use and design of flags appear to have adopted a code, perhaps prompted by the recent development of individual banners for officers of ranks lower than those of the great commanders. It took perhaps a hundred years to become what we understand today as "heraldry" (more correctly "armory"), and in that time the simple designs of gold and blue for the Count of Vermandois, of gold and red for the Count of Boulogne, of gold and black for the Count of Flanders, of silver and black for the Count of Aalst, for example, began to be used by their followers as fields on which what we now describe as charges could be placed.
Beryl Platts, whose extensive research in the heraldry of mediaeval Flanders has traced the path of these developments, has suggested that the choice of charges followed a sequence of seniority which she believed possibly could have originated at the court of Charlemagne. This placed the sun, moon and stars as first, second and third, the martlet (a legless and sometimes beakless bird) fourth, the annulet fifth, the fleur-de-lis sixth . . . . . . Accordingly, the Count of Boulogne, who had previously borne quarterly Or and Gules, changed to Or three torteaux (three red orbs); his next brother, Count Lambert of Lens (ancestor of the Setons) took Or three crescents Gules, and in the next generation Count Baldwin, third son of the next Count of Boulogne took a mullet (a star with five straight rays).
Later Developments

In these early days the laws were still experimental, but they are of interest because when, much later, a new system was sought to distinguish formally between the members, first, of French families and then, after it had been abandoned by the French, of English families, a similar order of precedence was imposed. Under this scheme the eldest son bore his father's arms with a label, and the next five sons each took the appropriate device from the list given above, adding it, in a much smaller size than if it were a charge, to their father's arms in a suitable colour and in a suitable place. Towards the end of the 16th century three more symbols (correctly "minor brisures") were introduced for the seventh, eighth and ninth sons. These were a rose, a cross moline (a cross with curved and divided ends), and a double quatrefoil (an octofoil).

Between these two periods, the beginnings of heraldry in the 11th century and the time of "the Decadence" starting in the 16th century, differencing, although of huge importance, was achieved in a large variety of ways that ensured recognition but did not immediately define where the bearer fitted exactly into the structure of the family. The early importance of specific colours had declined, and thus the retention of principal charges with a change of colours was often sufficient. The number of charges could vary. Lines of partition of the field could be made more complex, as could also the outlines of charges. Charges could be altered with a significant extra detail (a lion, for example, might acquire an additional tail). Very small charges could be scattered (geratted) across the field.
Interpretation of Minor Brisures Today

The various systems in use during the intermediate centuries will be examined in later chapters. The decision to treat the minor brisures here first was based on the acceptance that these are the best known differences, that they are widely believed to be the only ones ever used, and that the flexibility of their use is widely misinterpreted.

The major points to be understood are ~

1... The use of minor brisures was common only during a part of the history of heraldry.

2... Correctly used as minor brisures they are much smaller than when used as charges.

3... They quickly become ineffective as a system if applied to second and third generations ~ a small crescent bearing a tiny mullet bearing a miniscule martlet (the fourth son of a third son of a second son) would be impossible to see or to interpret.

4... Today the presence of a minor brisure is more likely to indicate descent from a cadet rather than from a specific son of the immediately previous generation (by which is meant that if, for example, a modern coat bears a crescent for difference it is more usually as a sign that this branch descends from a second son of perhaps centuries ago, not that the bearer of the coat today is his father's second son.

5... Minor brisures work best when combined with a system of major brisure cadency (which will be examined in the final chapter).

The arms of the heir to the Earl of Angus. He bears his father's arms (Quarterly 1 and 4 Gules a lion rampant Argent, 2 and 3 Argent a heart Gules and on a chief Azure three mullets of the field) and overall a label of three points for difference.

Labels borne in this way (as a difference, not as a charge) do not necessarily have their tincture specified. The original theory of the label is said to be based on it being made of cloth and tied in such a way that in battle it could be ripped away quickly if the father was killed.

Arms of the Master of Angus

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