Heraldry, for those who like that sort of thing, is a fabulous study. It is one side of a pentagonal subject matter, along with: vexillology, ceremony, rank and pedigree. Arthur Fox-Davies, in A Complete Guide to Heraldry, described heraldry as ‘the shorthand of history’. In that sentiment, I think he is on to something. This is because heraldry goes well beyond notions of blue blood, monarchy, or bygone ages, as it also speaks to modern individuals, organisations, towns, cities, and regions.
The precursors of modern heraldry date back thousands of years. An example of which can be seen in the top row of the Narmer Palette (circa 3100 BC) which depicts four men bearing standards — above which is a serekh denoting pharaoh’s name: Narmer. Similar use of heraldic symbols is featured in art from ancient Mesopotamia; including some of the first recorded images of griffins — magical beasts that would prove a recurrent theme in later ages.
Though truly ancient in origin, heraldry, as we understand it today, dates more properly from anno Domini than before Christ. Maddeningly, for an author who is quite keen about #OnThisDay events, there is no clear date on which the ancient transitions to the modern when it comes to heraldic forms. Taking some key objects from the Middle-Ages, for example the Bayeux Tapestry, which illustrates the Norman invasion of England that occurred in 1066, there are depictions of shields, sails, and pennants, some of which are emblazoned with typical heraldic symbols — such as crosses and dragons. Yet tantalisingly, none of this imagery recurs with the same individual, leading to the conclusion they are more decorative than sigils of peoples’ houses.
This brings us to Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, who died in 1151. On his tomb, likely commissioned by his widow Matilda of England, is an enamel in which Geoffrey is shown with a blue helmet and shield; both depicting lions and clearly presented in a heraldic form. Given his marriage to Matilda and that his son became Henry II, King of England, we not only have one of the earliest examples of modern heraldry but a likely origin for the association of Lions Rampant with the kingship of England. But whatever the earliest sources, it is unquestionable that from around the eleventh or twelfth centuries onward, armorial bearings spread across Europe and our modern understanding was born.
Then as now, wide usage always provokes regulations and the rise of a bureaucracy. Known as heralds, and originally more messenger than eminence grise, these servants of the crown were commanded to conduct visitations, which involved the recording of who was using armorial bearings and if doing so was with consent of the king. This codification is an important step in the history of heraldry as it moves the practise from a do what you like process to something that was a clear denoting of title.
For most of the time since their incorporation in 1484 heralds have been members of the Royal Household, directly appointed by the Sovereign on the recommendation of the Duke of Norfolk, Earl Marshal. Since the re-incorporation in 1555 the College has consisted of thirteen officers of arms. Those officers of arms who make up the College of Arms are styled ‘heralds in ordinary’.College of Arms
The College of Arms, and the heraldry they officiate, was on grand display as the most obvious, elaborate, archaic, and yet modern, visual representation of monarchy at the recent funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Central to this pageantry was the Royal cipher. This monogram is the device that takes the general to the personal and links the institution of monarchy to an individual monarch.
All my life, aside from the occasional historical throwback, the cipher that has been emblazoned on post boxes or embroidered on uniforms was EIIR. But with the passing of the late sovereign, we enter a new age — that of King Charles III. With a new monarch comes a new cipher. In adopting something new, the King has returned to something old, the Tudor Crown, which was used by most monarchs until Elizabeth opted for St Edward’s crown instead.
The design of the CR III cipher was produced by the College of Arms and continues a tradition of heraldry that has bound individual monarchs to the institution of monarchy for over a thousand years.
Good night and good luck.
Narmer Palette serpopard side by Unknown is licensed under Public Domain.
Geoffrey of Anjou Monument by Unknown is licensed under Public Domain.
Queen Elizabeth II’s Funeral and Procession by Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is licensed under CC0 1.0.
Royal Cypher of King Charles III by the College of Arms is licensed under Public Domain.
Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles (1909). A Complete Guide to Heraldry. London: T.C. & E.C. Jack.