Evaluating armorials (I) – Identifying coats of arms

Brussels, KBR, MS IV 1249, f.8r

Brussels, KBR, MS IV 1249, f.8r

Having edited a number of armorials and shown several of them to be dependent on the same sources, the editors of Heraldica Nova asked me: How does one evaluate an armorial and its contents? The short answer is by having common sense, lots of reference materials and treating armorials as non-verbal prose. In this first part of this series on how to evaluate armorial, I will deal with the challenging task of identifying individual coats of arms and the problems that one may encounter in this process.


Reference materials

Ordinaries with sources identified are the best form of reference materials one can get, since they are already sorted by charges and other heraldic details, and can be consulted depending on the features of the coat of arms in question. Unfortunately, they are almost absent outside England and Scandinavia. Most modern editions of armorials have ordinaries listing the arms covered.


Another important reference are collections of medieval seals, since they present the use of coats of arms at a given date and usually provide a clear and sound identification by the inscriptions or the document. A few collections of seals dispose an ordinary at the end as well , e.g. Demay: Inventaire des sceaux de la Collection Clairambault. Other collections of seals only have alphabetical registers, so the researcher has to browse the entries to check out the arms. These are very useful, especially as seals have a high value as evidence – except when the examiner got the description or date wrong!


Special studies of seals, tombstones, families, regions as well as good editions of armorials are most helpful, if one can get them. Genealogies are generally useful, even those of the 17th century with men fathering at the age of 70+. The Europäische Stammtafeln by Detlev Schwennicke is the modern standard work, but not always exhaustive nor always reliable in details. For inspiration or examples of special studies or genealogies, pick the bibliography of any modern edition of armorials or a search machine.


The Neue Siebmacher combines most of the above for the German speaking area. Beware of the Rietstap and its pictorial version, the Rolland.[1] They are eminent for suggesting a name-arms combination, but as they are without references, they tend to provide circular conclusions on the factuality of the combinations – and they do at times promulgate mistakes from some of the armorials Rietstap used as sources.


It is not always possible to find seals or other documentary material that can identify an item as an individual or belonging to a family. In such cases one may try guesstimating, altough one should keep in mind that this produces surmises, not results one can completely rely on. Gérard Brault did this eminently in his publication of the armorials from the reign of Edward III.[2] The process would usually involve extrapolating from information on possessions, time, affinity, and life. The most audacious example is probably the sole use of the Historiens de la France by Paul Adam-Even and Léon Jéquier for getting the names for many of the items in the Wijnberghen.[3]


Be aware of mistakes

The reference materials mentioned above are only useful if the coat of arms in question has been rightly depicted in the armorial. That is not always the case.


The reader ought to be aware that like other authors, compilers of armorials tend to use their imagination where their knowledge runs short, and that the artisans responsible for the actual work were at times sloppy in using the colour at hand rather than the right one, or simply left part of the work unfinished.


It is probably hard for anybody to admit making mistakes, but now as in medieval times, copying long lists of names or pictures will provoke mistaking details. The typical ones are:

  • omitting parts of a blazon,
  • exchanging colours, typically those of field and figure and red into blue,
  • or forgetting to paint the right colour on a base coat of yellow or uncoloured field or figure.


Misleading legends

Legends (i.e., the names written above the shield) make up the lesser and most unreliable part of an item. If not missing, most legends would be written as spoken, or rather heard, often by an individual not fluent in the language or dialect. Many, if not most, of the armorials have survived as copies only and were made a long time after the original. In my experience, it is often hard to read old handwriting, especially if there are only a handful of names and one is not too well acquainted with neither the language nor the titles and possessions of the nobility in question. Copyists encountered the same problems. When copied, many of the original legends might be hardly legible, especially when the source was already old and/or in bad shape. Spellings were often abominable and only recognizable when the arms were already known. Legends were therefore often erroneously copied and do not indicate the owner of the coats of arms correctly.


The coats of arms of the Three Magi. Attributed to different Magi in different armorials

The coats of arms of the Three Magi. Attributed to different Magi in different armorials

Different legends may be written above essentially identical arms even in mere copies of the same segment or armorial. The copyist may have updated the legend of a coat of arms if the contemporary owner was raised or lowered in rank or changed his name, e.g. a member of the de la Pole family (who became the earls of Suffolk) could be noted by their family name (with or without Christian name), or as earl of Suffolk or Buckingham, but with the entry showing the same arms.


Entirely new and phony families can be created during copying if the legend is transposed from the actual coat of arms to the next, especially if either or both legends and arms are misread.[4] Changing perceptions of the owners’ ranks or places in society might also induce the copyist to shuffle items around. It will often be difficult to distinguish between such shuffling and simply overlooking an item, discovering the mistake and adding the overlooked item later. In a few cases transpositions may persevere and create not only subgroups within a group, but traditions followed by artists in other media. The best known example is the Three Magi or kings, who worshipped at the crib in Bethlehem on the Twelfth Night.[5] The representations were probably widely spread among artists for altar pieces a.o. by 1400, but usually anonymous. In armorials they began with Gelre (c.1400) and Richental (KCR, 1420/1460).


The second part of this series will discuss the various versions of the supposed same coats of arms in different armorials and how to deal with them.

[1] Johannes Baptist Rietstap: Armorial général précédé d’un dictionnaire des termes de blason. 1884-87, 2nd Ed.; reprint 1965, Barnes & Noble, NY. V. & H.V. Rolland: Illustrations to the Armorial Général. I-VI. 1903-26; reprint 1991, Heraldry Today, Ramsbury, Wilts.

[2] G.J. Brault: The Rolls of Arms of Edward I.  I-II. Woodbridge 1997.

[3] Paul Adam-Even, Léon Jéquier: Un armorial francais du XIIIe siècle. L’armorial Wijnberghen, Archives Héraldiques Suisses, 1951, 1952, 1954, vols. 65, 66, 68. Recueil des historiens des Gaules et de la France. Vol. 23, ed. Dom Martin Boquet, Paris  . www.gallica.bnf.fr .

[4] E.g. several items in copying from Navarre into Berry, e.g. BER:40r7-8 crescent between 3 martlets (image at top of blogpost) from NAV:1015+1017 3 mullets (stars) on field crusily. See Steen Clemmensen: Armorials as evidence of medieval coats of arms, 2007, http://www.armorial.dk/concordances/evidence.html .

[5] The various attributions to the Magi are listed in Steen Clemmensen: The Nine Worthies and other Ternionen – a survey, 2009, www.armorial.dk .

Cite this blog post
Steen Clemmensen (2014, November 12). Evaluating armorials (I) – Identifying coats of arms. Heraldica Nova. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/phvj

Steen Clemmensen

born 1948; Danish; retired; biochemist, worked for government, industry and organisation in toxicological research, regulation of chemicals, food safety, occupational health and environmental protection; current interests are medieval and renaissance heraldry, especially armorials from all over Europe, of which I have edited and indexed several, published on my website.

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