[Project:] In the service of the Crown: The use of heraldry in royal political communication in late medieval Portugal

The Sala dos Brasões in the royal palace in Sintra, ca. 1515-1518 (photo: HenGomes via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Sala dos Brasões in the royal palace in Sintra, ca. 1515-1518. (Photo: HenGomes via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Portuguese heraldry seems to have taken a rather peculiar development. Compared to other regions like France, England and Germany, in Portugal heraldry evolved quite late and astonishingly different. Despite the wealth of the sources and the surprising insights it could provide, heraldic communication in late medieval Portugal remains understudied, particularly in the rest of Europe. Thanks to generous funding by the VolkswagenStiftung, Miguel Metelo de Seixas and I set out to change this within the next three years. One day before Christmas last year, the foundation let us know that our proposal for a German-Portuguese collaborative research project was accepted. Thus, we are now able to install a new sub-project within the “Performance of Coat of Arms” project, which will focus on the particularities of Portuguese heraldry in the later middle ages, and especially its use in royal political communication.

What is so special about Portugal?

Portugal makes for such an interesting case study because of its early centralisation of royal authority. This is reflected by the creation of a confirmative discourse on this authority, in political theory as well as in visual communication. Several members of the Avis royal family (the kings João I and Duarte, the princes Pedro and Henrique) have themselves written or translated texts on political doctrine (specula principis). Their ideas stress the role of the king as the possessor of a power which, while certainly of holy origin, also rested on a Neoplatonic concept. This concept integrated the members of the political community within a hierarchical framework in which everyone had their function: The king’s task, as supreme judge, is to preserve the balance of this system according to the principles of justice.

Contrary to the situation in most other kingdoms in Europe, the Portuguese kings claimed exclusive authority on heraldry and the means of its monumental and visual expression. The Crown claimed and enforced for itself a heraldic authority which, theoretically, all the king’s subjects had to obey. The staging of a monumental heraldic programme made this submission visible.

Portuguese heraldic legislation ensured this royal control by granting the crown the right to decide who was allowed to bear arms (law of Alphonso V in 1476). Furthermore, it established a central authority (Portugal king of arms) who decided which arms were borne by whom, while keeping a tight control over the display of the royal arms themselves (law of 1521). It was officially forbidden to represent them without the king’s explicit permission.

Heraldry as a means of political communication

So far, heraldic representations have been examined as a mere mirror of social and political order. In this project, however, we aim to go further and consider heraldic décors as an instrument of the materialisation of power, rather than its expression. By means of heraldic décors, located at places associated with the exercise of power as well as the sacred sphere, we argue, the royal authority visually objectifies and confirms a political order that yet needs to be established. Thus, our research focuses less on the question what has been represented by those armorial décors, but more on how they have been perceived by their audience. By doing so, our joint project will draw on a new approach to the study of heraldry as proposed by the “Performance of Coats of Arms” project, which centres on the pragmatic side of heraldic communication.

An heraldic image of Portuguese royalty in three steps

It is by choosing this particular focus that we want to study the particularities of the Portuguese heraldry in our Portuguese sub-project. In order to examine how the Portuguese kings appropriated heraldry and how they used it in order to convey and impose a new idea and a new image of royal authority, we will focus on three case studies we consider especially telling:

  1. The ensemble of the funerary chapels of the Kings João I and Duarte in the monastery of Our Lady of the Victory in Batalha (c. 1426-1434), whose foundation was an allusion to the royal victory at this very place in 1385, became the necropolis of the new dynasty. This lieu de mémoire of the dynasty is the first example for the new kings’ monumental emblematic display. Its analysis will help to trace how the monarchy developed an initial strategy of visual propaganda, and how the new dynasty’s founder and his heir established a political doctrine of the nature of royal power.
  2. The chapel of the cardinal of Portugal in the church of San Miniatio al Monte in Florence (c. 1473) is an example of a painted heraldic décor that visually represented and confirmed the Portuguese royal dynasty outside the boundaries of its kingdom. The heraldic frieze of the Portuguese cardinal (of the House of Avis) draws on the visual discourse developed by the first two monarchs of this dynasty, but adds a broader impact since it is located in a city that was one of the most important cultural centres of its era. The heraldic décor of the Portuguese cardinal also displays the relation between the Portuguese royal house and its European counterparts.
  3. The great hall (sala dos brasões) of the Sintra royal palace (c. 1515-1518) embodies the climax of the monumental heraldic programme employed by King Manuel I. It expressed the ideal of a centralised monarchy in a symbolic and visual manner, and was the culmination of the visual construction of the royal propaganda since the beginning of the Avis dynasty. Its heraldic décor conveyed the idea of the king in the centre of the universe, surrounded by the members of his dynasty and by the members of the nobility of his court, all arranged in hierarchical order. This hall, which was scheduled to host the ceremony of acclamation of the Portuguese kings, played an important political part. Its heraldic programme expressed the ideal of power based on harmony between the Crown and the nobility.

Conference in Sintra (2017): How to communicate by heraldic décor?

The funerary chapels of the Kings João I and Duarte in Batalha, c. 1426-1434 (photo: Miguel Metelo de Seixas)

The funerary chapels in Batalha, c. 1426-1434. (Photo: Miguel Metelo de Seixas)

To bring this project to life, besides on-site studies, we will organise two workshops and a conference to discuss its results within a larger academic and public audience. A first workshop to be held in the monastery of Batalha will bring together historians and art historians who have worked on the iconographic and heraldic programme of this site. Until now, the heraldic décor of this monastery has only been studied as an artistic expression, without any direct connection to the simultaneous and complementary development of a political doctrine by the members of the royal house. The dialogue between art historians and historians will open up new approaches that place the heraldic décor in the context of the monastery’s iconographic programme as well as in the context of the political theorisation developed at the same period by the first two kings of the House of Avis. Miguel Metelo de Seixas, supported by João Portugal, will direct this study and workshop.

The heraldic décor in the great hall of the royal palace of Sintra has already been studied as part of  the project “Na privança d’el-rei: Relações interpessoais e jogos de facções en torno de D. Manuel I” (In the privacy of the king: Interpersonal relations and factional games at the court of Manuel I), funded by the Foundation for Science and Technology of the Ministry of Higher Education and Science of the Portuguese Government. For this project, Miguel Metelo de Seixas has already analysed the relation between this hall and the hierarchy at the court of King Manuel. Within our new project, we aim to expand this study and put it in a European context. Supported by Maria Alice Santos, we will organise two international meetings in this effort. A first workshop in Münster will bring together scholars interested in the heraldic communication of great halls and ceremonial rooms of late medieval and early modern Europe. The aim of this preparatory workshop is to discuss different models of heraldic representation in great halls and state rooms, and to outline a first framework for their analysis. This will provide the basis for the organisation of an international conference on this topic, which will eventually be held in Sintra itself intending to place the sala dos brasões in a broader European perspective.

This project thus not only seeks to deepen our knowledge on the particular development of late medieval Portugal (historically as well as heraldically) and to introduce this development to the rest of Europe, but also to shed light on the development of heraldry as a tool for political communication as such. By these means, we aim to contribute to a better understanding of the role of heraldic and – more generally – visual communication in the Late Medieval and Early modern political discourse.

The call for papers for the different workshops and conferences will be published on Heraldica Nova in due time.

Project managers:

Duration: 2 years 9 months

Funded by:


Please feel free to comment either in English, French or German.

Cite the article as: Torsten Hiltmann, "[Project:] In the service of the Crown: The use of heraldry in royal political communication in late medieval Portugal", in: Heraldica nova. Medieval Heraldry in social and cultural-historical perspectives (blog on Hypotheses.org), published: 28/01/2015, Internet: http://heraldica.hypotheses.org/2606.

Torsten Hiltmann

Torsten Hiltmann is Juniorprofessor for the High and Late Middle Ages and Auxiliary Sciences at the University of Münster. He is interested in new approaches to late medieval and early modern heraldry, the medieval notion of kingship and the methods and technologies of Digital Humanities. On hypotheses.org, he is maintaining, among others, the blog “Heraldica Nova”.

12 Responses


    As an interested in european nobilties, i must you congratulate for this project. Dear Torsten and my old friend Miguel. As Miguel knows, i´m very interested in the discourse of nobility in europe, and the heraldry and the Reyes de armas, are a agents in this process.

  2. Nuno Miguel Gaspar says:

    This is a very interesting project! I get to know it almost by chance but, from now on, I will follow its developements in any way I can. I’m very interested in heraldry, not just as an artistic deed but, mostly, as a simbolic language. I’ve already started to follow your facebook page and I don’t want to miss a thing!
    My most sincere congratulations for the idea, both to Torsten Hiltmann and to Miguel Metelo Seixas.

    • Miguel Metelo de Seixas says:

      Thank you for your kind words; I’m particularly happy with this project, because it can bring a new light both on portuguese and on european heraldry. For such purposes, I think that a comparative method seems rather essencial.

      • Nuno Miguel Gaspar says:

        My pleasure. I belive that the approach of the analysis you have chosen for this project – “heraldic décors as an instrument of the materialisation of [royal] power” – is, in fact, one determining issue for the understanding of the phenomena.
        I’m looking foward for adicional news.
        Best wishes.


    Estou muito interesado, como a gente sabe, na Heraldica portuguesa. terei muito gosto em partilhar contactos e palavrinhas.

    • Miguel Metelo de Seixas says:

      É sempre com muito gosto e proveito que troco impressões com quem estuda há tanto tempo o ofício de armas entre Portugal e Castela…

  4. John Rafael says:

    As an interested in portuguese heraldry, I must congratulate you for this project. I’m also interested in publish an entry in my heraldry blog about this project, with some citations of your article. Only if you and your project partner allow me, of course.

    • Dear John, thank you very much for your kind comment. We are glad that this project meets with your interest and of course we would be delighted if you spread the word. So please feel free to write about the project and to cite from the blogpost. Please don’t hesitate to comment or to contact us if you have any questions or remarks about the project.

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