The Development of Heraldry

Written by Linley Wareham. Edited by Sam Ellis.

Few people today are unaware of A Game of Thrones or have escaped the glare of the profiled wolf head, which is the silver-grey emblem of House Stark, an almost wordless form of advertising displayed up and down the land. But if you compare the banners of Westeros to the great heraldic displays such as the ones at Windsor Castle, the former are conspicuous by their simplicity, rather pitiful in comparison to the Royal Coat of Arm, reminding us that reality is richer than fiction.

The Royal arms of medieval England.

The Royal arms of medieval England.

As with so many things, from clothing to computers, heraldry emerged first as a tool with a practical function but soon developed into something of a fashion statement. The role purpose of heraldry is to identify individuals clearly and distinctly, using bright colours and striking designs to produce visual signatures that anyone could recognise, essential in the predominantly illiterate world of Medieval Europe. Most people today know that banners and colours were used on the battlefield to allow soldiers to identify their allies and enemies, however the lord’s herald, from which “heraldry” derives, was at the centre of a the functional development of heraldry.

Heralds wore their master’s colours when on the road as ambassadors but they also had the unenviable task of identifying bodies after battle. Even after plate armour became widespread, the remains of soldiers and knights could be so mutilated that identification became impossible except for examining the colourful clothing worn over knights’ chainmail: their coat armour, hence the phrase Coat of Arms. Heralds insisted upon the clear display of heraldry to assist them in their grisly post-battle work.

Heraldry, then, is visual history, and comes from a world with its own private terminology, where each colour, design, adornment and pattern has its own name and acceptable use. Coats of Arms are designed around three very practical functions: firstly, philosophical statements establishing association and identity, including the use of mottos and national emblems. Secondly, factual statements in which elements denoted rank or heritage. And thirdly, the personal touch whereby individual designs and statements of fashion were incorporated to distinguish individuals from similar designs or from members within their own family.

Heraldry, therefore, is a method for advertising one’s identity and relationships. The head of a house would display the family’s primary Coat of Arms that his eldest son would eventually inherit. In the meantime, however, sons and lesser branches of the same family would display an amended version of the same design, known as Marks of Difference, to demonstrate their connection to but also their individuality within the family unit. When families with different heraldries intermarried, the couple and their heirs could combine the designs to preserve the lines of both families and preventing the heritage of the wife from being visually obscured or lost.

Throughout history, heraldry was the privilege of the elite, the personal symbol of individual lords and knights, something the masses could hope to see but never touch or own. To see a Coat of Arms was to be in the presence of wealth and power. Today, traditional heraldry finds itself largely confined to museums and the homes of established landowning families. In place of these powerful families, our lives are filled by images of businesses and brands, each with their own unique Coat of Arms. The difference is that they are now called logos and membership into the “heraldry’s” family can be purchased.

200px-Logo_NIKE.svgLogos are the heraldry of the modern world, expanding the advertising capabilities of visual designs, and indicating power and influence in our lives. Like Coats of Arms, logos incorporate mottos or taglines. They use symbols that attempt to embody the company and its products, such as the streamlined sportiness of the Nike tick, or the luxuriant purple of Cadbury’s dairy milk chocolate. Companies Coats of Arms also evolve over time, adapted by each new generation of advertising experts who enter the corporate family. Compare logos from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries to those of today and for the most part you will see a decline in detail, a simplification of design appealing towards elegance, such as the rainbow-striped logo of Apple Computers being replaced by the simple silver icon for Apple. The heraldry created for fictions such as A Game of Thrones seems to follow this minimalist approach to design, an anachronistic injection of modern approaches to advertising.

Heraldry, therefore, is not dead. It has been evolved and re-appropriated as the direct power and influence of the landed elite waned and wealth was redistributed among the population. Above all, heraldry is a symbol of identity and personal belonging within a wider organisation. We carry photo-identification now, but branded clothing and possessions make statements about our allegiances. We are all heralds for the companies we buy from, maintaining heraldry’s position as a most successful and enduring form of advertising.