Research project: Heraldic Display and Discourse in the Early Modern Monarchy, 16th-17th Centuries


The present project investigates the role of heraldry in the political culture and political representation of the early modern monarchy. It studies monarchical armorial symbolism as a dynamic visual code that was constantly reinterpreted to serve specific needs and circumstances. The royal monopolization of that visual code interfaced with the abstract notions of ‘authority’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘dynasty’. In the process, it contributed significantly to the establishment of the authority of the state. A revived transformation of old feudal imagery from the later Middle Ages onwards was characterised by an increasing institutionalisation (e.g. the incorporation of heralds in organs under princely supervision) and by the attempt of ruling dynasties to gain an exclusive control over heraldic expressions, placing their signs at the top of the symbolic pyramid. Coat of arms should therefore not be considered as an meaningless and insignificant pastime of the elites. Their semiotic language contributed, to a great extent, to the formation of a hierarchized political community. At the same time, their royal exponents – alongside other (para)heraldic signs such as devices – were the most expanded types of the visualization of power. Without exaggeration, one could characterize them as a crucial symbolic system that could render a degree of reality to the invisible and intangible body politic and its complex theories and discourses.


Methodology and sources

One of the project’s aims is to study these phenomena in a comparative way, freed from the existing anachronistic or teleological interpretations of the symbolic identity of particular nations. The point of departure is to pursue a broad comparative approach to consider the contribution of heraldry to the process of state formation in the so-called ‘new monarchies’ and to bring to light the similarities and differences in the way that ensigns armorial were instrumentalized in the different states under investigation (England, France and Spain). This approach does, however, come with certain pitfalls. As a comprehensive study of the heraldic patrimonies of three monarchies during almost two centuries is out of the question, there is a potential threat that the investigation might instead settle for a superficial and generalizing enumeration of some conspicuous heraldic attributes. In order to avoid this and above all ensure that the processes of appropriation and adaptation to specific contexts get due attention, the research has therefore focused on a series of micro studies that are sufficiently representative for the three monarchies in the years 1480–1650. As the mechanisms and strategies underlying political representation are preeminently visible when they are questioned openly, the selection has largely been built around moments of crisis (polemics and heraldic iconoclasm) or around controversies regarding the usurpation of armorial symbols (both internally – between princes and their subjects – and externally – between fellow princes). Treatises on heraldry –that provide the core sources for this investigation – can in such cases be supplemented with information from other theoretical texts, prophecies, diplomatic correspondence, judicial documents, iconographic and numismatic sources, etc.

The themes I hope to cover include:

  • the connections between regal coat of arms and notions on sovereignty;
  • secular iconoclasm, usurpation and defamation as the symbolic counterparts of wartime provocation;
  • The phenomenon of grants and honorary augmentations of arms as a means to forge political bonds and reward loyalty.

Comparing the king’s arms

If we compare the heraldic practices of the studied polities, it becomes clear that signs incarnated opposing political alternatives. Whereas the multiple quarterings and the use of ‘regional’ armorial compositions in the Spanish monarchy kept reflecting the composite nature of their empire and its history of complex dynastic aggregation, the firm French practice of using the plain arms with the three fleurs de lis as the sole image of the king’s sovereignty revealed a different vision, with less space for regional identity. However, frequent disputes about which precise iconographic arrangement exactly embodied the prince’s authority equally reveal a diversion of view and loyalties within the monarchies themselves.

Appropriation and heraldic agency

From its inception, this project has sought to break with the prevailing top-down narrative that interprets princely representation solely in terms of propaganda. The perspective of this research not only questions the agency of the prince and his entourage in these strategies, but also looks at the input of local players, competitors and heraldic authors. In this manner, I will try to expose how the symbolic shape of a state or political order was founded on a precarious compromise between various ways of signification. Evidence suggests that the specific visual code of heraldry was more widely understood by early modern people than is presently believed. On the one hand, princely heraldry needs to be studied within the tradition of ideological construction of meaning. But on the other hand, (popular) appropriation was also pursued through the armorial symbol as a material given. Setting up an image in the public space exposed it to appropriation or even destruction by individuals or groups with a very different political agenda. Thus a coat of arms could – quite against the intentions of the owner or designer – in fact acquire an agency of its own.

Taking such dual approach on board, the project draws on concepts from the current international historiography that treat state symbolism as a construction that helped to form and shape the political order. Inspired by anthropology and the social sciences, some analysts have (re)problematized ‘sovereignty’ as a notion that – alongside abstract theoretical doctrines – comprised a performative dimension in which claims on superiority or autonomy were either construed or overturned. Violence against royal coats of arms was regarded by contemporaries as a serious political felony that simultaneously damaged the bearer of the arms and the whole of the political community. At the same time, those wielding power – but also other actors – could employ a repertoire of bodily gestures and symbols that included heraldry to further their interests. Aware of its place in the broader picture, the project is committed to bringing the study of early modern heraldry into the orbit of this innovative research on representations and ritual.

Papers and publications resulting from the project

Up to now, preliminary research results have been made public through contributions at international conferences and in scientific publications:

  • Steven Thiry, ‘”Touched in her honour”. Mary Stuart, the Elizabethan throne and Heraldic Usurpation’ (paper), Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America at Washington DC (March 22-24, 2012). Session titled “Rampant: Heraldry and Early Modern State Formation”.
  • Steven Thiry, ‘From Royal Representation to Scientific Aspiration: Charles V’s Columnar Device and the Dynamics of Appropriation (16th-18th Centuries)’, IKON. Journal of Iconographic Studies, 5(2012), 217-234. (Resulting from a paper presented at the Fifth International Conference of Iconographic Studies: Sovereign and Iconography of Political Power at Rijeka.)
  • Steven Thiry, ‘The Emblazoned Kingdom Ablaze. Heraldic Iconoclasm and Armorial Recovery during the French Wars of Religion, 1588-95’, French History, 2013 (doi: 10.1093/fh/crt050).

Principal investigator:
Steven Thiry

Funded by Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO)
2010 – 2014

Research Team: University of Antwerp. Power in History: Centre for Political History (

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Steven Thiry (July 21, 2013). Research project: Heraldic Display and Discourse in the Early Modern Monarchy, 16th-17th Centuries. Heraldica Nova. Retrieved July 13, 2024 from

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