.......Classical Heraldry .......

The Shape of the Shield (1)

They come in all shapes and sizes, elegant and ugly, monstrously huge and grotesquely ornate, historically authentic and absurdly impractical. And the shapes of the shields used to display arms in pictures and in sculpture commonly prompt questions and, sometimes, foster the invention and perpetuation of legend. In consequence the shape of the shield seems a useful starting point to this examination of classical heraldry.

English men-at-arms from the Bayeux Tapestry
The Normans and their Contemporaries

Three factors provided the principal influences on the design of early mediaeval shields ~ their intended purpose, the material available to construct them, and the mode of fighting.

The picture above and to the right, from the Bayeux Tapestry, shows Englishmen in 1066 preparing to receive the Norman charge. Their shields have the same shape as those of their opponents and are obviously designed to cover a substantial amount of the body. At this time and for most of the next hundred years or so, many knights still fought on foot, so these bodylength shields appeared to give the best protection. As is illustrated, they provided a practical defence against contemporary archers.

The experience of the crusaders increased the use of cavalry in European wars, and shields evolved into protection for glancing blows aside rather than meeting them full face. (And the development of the longbow, with arrows that could pierce a knight's shield and his body armour, and then skewer him to his saddle, reduced the importance of the shield as a protection against archers.) Accordingly, the height of the shield for mounted use gradually diminished, until it attained a shape similar to those shown below.

Arms of the Earl of Suffolk, the Earl of Westmorland, the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Pembroke, and the Earl of Atholl

Shields of knights from a 15th century armorial are,
left to right, the Earl of Suffolk,
the Earl of Westmorland, the Earl of Oxford,
the Earl of Pembroke, and the Earl of Atholl
A mounted knight held his shield canted out of the vertical, so it became the custom of some heraldic artists to portray shields couché ~ tilted over at an angle between 25 and 45 degrees. The Scottish shields below were copied from the Armorial de Gelre, a 14th century manuscript in the Royal Library in Brussels. From left to right they are ~ Sir Alexander Ramsay, Sir John Edmondston, Sir Robert Colville, Sir Walter Halyburton, and Sir Harry Preston.
The Heater

This shape of shield is known as the "heater" and is generally recognised as "the classic" design. It is usually the most appropriate for arms consisting of a single coat (normally the "pronominal coat" of the armiger's surname or principal surname), but it can give problems when a shield bears quartered arms, as will be shown in the next article in this series.

The heater has precise proportions and is correctly drawn in the following manner ~

Drawing the heater shield (2)
Drawing the heater shield (1)

Later Shapes
One of the fundamental principles of heraldic art is that the charges should fill the space of the shield without overcrowding it, and this may have been one of the reasons why shields used for decoration (not for war) in later centuries became fatter towards the base. It certainly helped the display of quartered arms, as will be seen in the next article. Arms of Roger de Mortimer, Earl of March, and of Sir Thomas de Rokeby
Arms of of Sir Thomas Gray of Heton and of Sir Herbert Maxwell, Bt The four shields here are from Sir Herbert Maxwell's translation of the Scalacronica. The two above, of Roger de Mortimer, Earl of March, and of Sir Thomas de Rokeby, show the increased width, while the two on the left, of Sir Thomas Gray of Heton and of Sir Herbert, illustrate another stage away from the natural shield shape towards the gothic horrors we shall examine later.

Classical Simplicity

The Baronage Press supports the classical simplicity espoused by the artists of Pegasus Armorie and illustrated below by their painting of the arms of James Elphinstone of Glack.

The armorial achievement of the 1st Marquess of Salisbury
The arms of Elphinstone of Glack
The armorial achievement to the right is that of James Cecil, 1st Marquess of Salisbury. The shape of the shield is hidden by the Garter encircling it (he was invested K.G. in 1793), but may be assumed to follow the shape of the six inescutcheons it bears. We shall examine this more closely in a later article.


Footnotes ~

1. The 15th century armorial from which these shields are taken is the MS 4790 in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal in Paris. Its author was Jean le Fèvre, Lord of St Remy, the senior Herald to the Order of the Golden Fleece. Close examination of the shields will show that they are hatched as well as colours, which is to say that the yellow areas have some small dots in the corner (signifying Or - gold) and the red areas have a corner of vertical stripes (signifying Gules - red).

2. The silver star in the de Vere, Earl of Oxford, arms is depicted with six points. In the early days of heraldry a star was a star was a star, the number of its points appears to have been discretionary, and even the choice of wavy or straight rays seems to have been sometimes arbitrary. In later years the de Vere star became a mullet of five points.

3.The arms of Sir John Edmondston will be recognised immediately by some readers as those of the Setons of that Ilk before their double tressure flory-counterflory was added. The Editor holds the view that the Edmonston family is a very early branch of the Setons, connected as far back as the eleventh century. (Later Edmonstons also bore the double tressure.)

4.Roger de Mortimer, Earl of March, was the paramour of Isabel, "the she-wolf of France", queen of Edward II. He was hanged at Tyburn, 1330. His body is reported by several commentators to have been left hanging for two days and two nights, so the oft-claimed quartering and beheading may not be true.

5.Sir Thomas de Rokeby was a warrior of some distinction in the wars of Edward III and was later appointed Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.

6.Sir Thomas Gray of Heton was the author of the Scalacronica. He wrote it while a prisoner in Edinburgh Castle, having been captured by an ambush outside Norham Castle, and having insufficient funds to pay his ransom.

The de Vere Star
The Shape of the Shield (continuation)
The Baronage April-June Contents page
© 1999 The Baronage Press and Pegasus Associates Ltd
From the St Petersburg Collection