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.......Curiosity Corner .......

The Questions

Many of the queries e-mailed into us ask for meanings. What does a wyvern signify? Why was a man given a gryphon? (A wyvern signifies nothing in particular, nor, in the sense of it being awarded, does a gryphon.) Others, of course, ask what these bizarre beasts are, and how and why they were invented. So it was eventually suggested that there should be a regular column to describe some of the stranger charges.

a martlet

This is the first, the MARTLET ~ a bird with no feet and sometimes no beak either. It is perhaps most readily recognised by those readers familar with the arms (awarded to him a couple of centuries after his death) of Edward the Confessor, arms that appear in religious buildings such as Westminster Abbey and in the ancient church of Felbrigg in Norfolk (and in many other places that pretend to some association with the Saint).

What the martlet was originally is a matter for dispute. Some claim it was the martin, for in some mediaeval documents it is written as "martenette". Others that it was a dove, for some early arms show it as a fatter bird than that depicted above, and with much shorter tail feathers. And yet others insist that it was a swift or swallow, birds never seen on the ground and thus assumed to have no feet. The Pegasus Armorie artists seem to favour the swallow.

In England the martlet tends to keep its beak, and the Scottish author of A System of Heraldry (published in 1722), Alexander Nisbet, stated that in England they kept their legs also, although these were very short.. The heralds of continental Europe claimed that the beaks and legs were lost in the Holy Land, fighting the Saracens, and presumably they may have been adopted by ancient warriors to signify their surviving a crusade. Where the crusades are not used to explain the loss of beak and feet, French heralds have said they represent disarmed enemies.

The Confessor's arms in the church at Felbrigg appear on the banner of Richard II as portrayed on the brass of Sir Simon de Felbrigge, Knight of the Garter, his standard bearer, together with the following explanation ~

Of old tyme there was a kinge in Englande named Edwarde, who is a saynte and canonised and honoured through all this realme. In his tyme he subdued the Danes, and discomforted them by batayle on the sea thre times. And this Saint Edwarde, Kinge of Englande Lorde of Ireland and of Acquitaine, the Irish men loved and dredded him much more, than any other Kynge of Englande that had been before. And therefore our soverayne Lorde Kyng Richard this yere past, when he was in Irelande, in all his armories and devices, he left the bering of the armes of England, as the lybardes and four delyces quarterly, and bare the armes of this Saint Edwarde, that is a Crosse potence golde and goules with four white martenettes in the felde; whereof it was sayd, the Irishmen were well pleased, and the soner they enclyned to him.

The "lybardes and four delyces" refer to the leopards and fleurs de lys in the royal arms of that time. The fleurs de lys represent the English claim to France. The leopards are what today are blazoned as lions passant guardant..

Brass of Sir Simon de Felbrigge

The description refers to "four white martenettes", whereas five are featured, and they were generally reported to be gold.

The Confessor's arms acquired notoriety when Sir Henry Howard, eldest son of the Duke of Norfolk, was decapitated in the week before Henry VIII died. His crime, for which his father also was sentenced to death (but escaped when the king died first), was that he bore the cross potonce and five martlets as a quarter on his arms. It seems bizarre today that a man should die for bearing the arms alleged to be of a king who had no arms.

Sir Simon de Felbrigge
Arms of Lords of St Amand

Martlets as charges are seldom seen alone, and might be said usually to appear in flocks, as here on the arms of the Beauchamp Lords of St Amand. The red shield and the gold fess belong to the basic Beauchamp blason, and the martlets may have been taken from the family from whom the lordship came through an heiress. The original St Amand family bore or fretty and a chief sable, with various charges on the chief of which martlets appear on the arms of at least two members. It is interesting to note that the first known of the line, Amaury de St Amand, died on crusade.

Where a martlet appears alone, it is usually very small and is borne as a difference signifying a fourth son.

Footnotes ~

1. "Les merlettes sont des Oyseaux denuez de bec et pieds, representent les ennemis desarmez et mis hors de combat."

2. Mediaeval attitudes to such strange tales as these, of birds being wounded while fighting on crusade, may be difficult to understand today. Perhaps the following quotation from St Augustine will help ~

The important aim for us, in respect of the eagle that is said to have broken the end of his beak against a stone because it was too long, is to consider the significance of the fact, and not to discuss its truth.

The Gryphon
The Baronage Contents page January-March 1999
© 1999 The Baronage Press and Pegasus Associates Ltd