Heraldic Titles from the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Overview

by Julia Smith

© 2008-2011 by Julia Smith. All rights reserved.
Version 2.6, updated 12 March 2011


Acknowledgements

Thanks to David Hunter of Montlaw, who helped me out immensely at the start; I wish he had lived to see it done. He graciously provided some of the information from Godfrey and Wagner and London. Thanks to Brian Scott, who helped me with translations and obscure titles. Thanks especially to Kathleen O'Brien for helping me to figure out how to make this format work (and for being my partner in crime), and to Susan Wensel for everything. Any errors of fact or interpretation are my own.

Heraldic titles are one of the important, but often misunderstood, signs of heraldic rank and position. This article will explore the patterns of formation of heraldic titles using over 600 period heraldic titles from across Europe.


A Brief History of Heraldic Titles

While heralds seem to have appeared in the twelfth century, the first heraldic titles are somewhat later. The earliest indication of a titled herald is in England in 1276, when an English Petrus rex hyraudorum citra aquam de Trente ex parte boriali 'king of the heralds beyond the River Trent in the North' is mentioned (Godfrey). By after 1300, there are the first mentions of titles such as the ones we find today in England (Claroncell regi heraldo armorium, Walter le Rey Marchis). By shortly after 1400, many titles have been created in England, Scotland, France, what is today Spain, Germany, and the Low Countries, and the kingdoms of Scandanavia. While many of these heralds directly served kings, heralds also served private individuals, usually limited either to nobles or to nobles and knights. Indeed, some titles that today are used by the College of Arms of England and Scotland originated as private titles. While freelance heralds certainly existed during this time, they seem not to have had or used titles.

The creation of heraldic titles continued across the fifteenth century, but slowed to a crawl in the sixteenth century, in part reflecting the shift from private heralds to a monopoly of heralds by the state. Many of the titles discussed here were in use only briefly, sometimes only being mentioned once. Yet, whether in use for hundreds of years or for a brief time only, the patterns for creating heraldic titles remained the same.

Heraldic titles are associated with three ranks (and a handful of minor designations that have passed out of use). The ranks are pursuivant, herald, and king of arms. While herald is used as a general term for specialists in heraldry, it also is the middle rank in this system. While some titles were used for all three ranks, certain patterns of naming were found in only one of these three ranks. In general terms, a pursuivant is an "apprentice" herald, or one in a subordinate position to a herald. Therefore, the lowest rank among the groups of heralds in service to the ruler of a kingdom consists of pursuivants, greater nobles generally had only one herald with subordinate pursuivants, and some lesser nobles had only pursuivants. A herald is the middle rank in the heralds in service to a crowned head, while the main specialist in heraldry working for greater nobles was known as a herald. Kings of arms were the chief heralds of kingdoms and their immediate subordinates; by the later part of period, each was generally responsible for heraldic services (for which read "collecting fees") in a part of the kingdom.

The link between title and rank is not entirely fixed. The majority of positions were of fixed rank, with individuals changing title as they change rank, so that Gilbert Dethick was appointed Hampnes Pursuivant Extraordinary in 1535, then Rouge Croix Pursuivant in 1540, then Richmond Herald in the same year; in 1547, he was appointed Norroy King of Arms, and Garter in 1550 (from Wagner HoE). However, in other cases, the rank of titles was changed: Gloucester and Richmond both started as heralds, were promoted to King of Arms, and then later demoted (Wagner HoE). This promotion happened for private heralds as well; when Thomas Grey was created Marquess of Dorset in 1475, his herald was promoted from Groby Pursuivant to Groby Herald (Wagner H&H). However, most heraldic titles do not change in rank over time.

In the English College of Arms at least, pursuivants, heralds, and kings of arms are divided into two sorts of positions. Fixed positions, which are always filled, are called "ordinary" positions, while positions that are created for specific people or for a certain period of time are called "extraordinary" positions. This term is used after the term pursuivant or herald. However, these terms were not used until the College of Arms and its membership was formalized. As far as I know, this distinction was not used anywhere other than England and Scotland. In other kingdoms, a fixed group of positions in ordinary were never created, and thus no extraordinary positions.

Some Medieval Forms of the Heraldic Ranks in Various Languages

Language

King of Arms

Herald

Pursuivant

Middle English king(e) of armes, kyng(e) of armes heraud, herault, herald, harold pursevaunt, porcevaunt, pursuivant, pursefaunt
Scots king of armis herrod, heratt, harrald, heralde pursevant(e), persewant, persephant, persefand
French roy d'armes herault, hiraut, heraut po(u)rsivant, poursivans, poursievant
Catalan rey d'armes araut porsevant
Spanish rey de armas faraute, heraute persevant, persavanta
German Wappenkonig, konig der wappen herold, heraut persevant
Dutch coninc van den wapen heraut, hieraut, heralt Unknown
Latin rex armorum heraldus, heraldius, haraldus, herodius prosecutor (armorum) (English)
signifer (Scots)
also use vernacular form

Sources: OED, MED, DSL, and the citations given in the dictionary section.

The Heraldic Titles and their Sources

Of the 630 titles discussed here, three quarters are French and English. English titles, which make up over a quarter of the titles identified here, have been relatively easy to identify; there are several reasons for this. The first is simply that English language sources are more readily available to an American researcher. The second is the history of heraldry and heralds in the United Kingdom. The English College of Arms is, together with the Lyon Court, the only heraldic system that has continued from the Middle Ages to the present day without a break. Therefore, more materials were preserved; in addition, the scholarship by members of the College of Arms (especially Anthony Wagner in the mid-twentieth century) has made many rare sources readily available. Nonetheless, a new generation of scholars have made considerable progress on French titles, which make up 46% of the data, as well as German and Dutch titles. The large number of French titles seems to be due to the substantial number of independent entities (Burgundy, Brittany, Anjou, and the like) that existed in the fifteenth century, each with a substantial heraldic establishment. The overall size and population of France is probably relevant as well. Substantial numbers of titles have been identified from the majority of the countries of northwestern Europe, including Scottish titles, Iberian titles (including Portugal, Castilla, Aragon, and Navarra), German titles (from a variety of entities within the Holy Roman Empire), and Scandinavian titles. A variety of titles from Dutch locations are found, though many of them are integrated into Burgundian or German entities, and are classified with them. The five Scandinavian titles (all locative in origin) are also grouped with German titles for tabulations by type.

One interesting finding is that I have found no native Italian titles. Heraldic titles are found in the northeastern region of Savoy (which included parts of France and Italy) and in the southern area of Naples and Sicily (which was dominated by French and Spanish overlords through the Middle Ages). None are found, however, in places like Florence, Venice, and the Papal States. This is presumably because at the time of the main creation of heraldic titles, in the forteenth and fifteenth centuries, these areas were controlled by oligarchies or relatively weak rulers. As stronger monarchies arose in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, heralds became important, but they mostly seem not to have been given titles. Instead, they are described "the herald" of some person or entity.

While many imagine heraldic titles to be mostly based on charges, that's not the most usual pattern for heraldic titles. Instead, the majority of heraldic titles are created from locations: some derived from noble titles, while others are derived from possessions (regions or cities) of the lord that the herald serves. However, this pattern is mostly found for heralds and kings of arms, while pursuivants are more likely to have titles based on charges and mottos. This pattern is even described in period (Spain; translation mine):

"To the pursuivants one should give the name of an insignia [a badge with a motto],.... and when the pursuivant is made a herald, he ought to be given the name of a city or province,... and when a herald is made a King of Arms, he should be given the name of the province or kingdom." (Garci Alonso de Torres, Blasón y recogimiento de armas cited in Riquer Castellana, translation by author).

The Heraldic Titles by Location and Type
  English Scots French Iberian Other   Total Percent

Placenames

95

28 187 54 36 400 63.4%

Charge Name

27 2 12 3 2 46 7.3%

Motto

24 2 41 13 4 84 13.3%

Order Name

1 0 7 3 0 11 1.7%

Family Names

8

0 5 0 0 13 2.1%

Other

3 0 1 1 4 9 1.4%

Unclear

13 3 40 9 3 68 10.8%
 

All Titles

171 35 293 83 47 631 100.0%

These titles fall into three major and a few minor categories. The major categories match the descriptions that Alonso de Torres gives: placenames account for over 63% of titles, with mottos and charge names (what Torres describes as devisas, which I translate above as insignia), accounting for over 20% of titles (just over 13% and 7% respectively). Of the remaining 14%, over half were of unclear origin (some completely obscure, others with contradictory interpretations). Ten (1.6%) were derived from order names (which are often in turn derived from devisas), thirteen (2.1%) from surnames that are not simply also the names of locations, two (both English) from terms for regalia and three (one French, two German) from terms of address. The remaining 11% were unable to be clearly identified; some were completely opaque, while others have multiple possible origins without sufficient information to determine which is likely.

The Titles


HTML editing by Kathleen M. O'Brien.

Medieval Scotland | Medieval Names Archive | Heraldic Titles from the Middle Ages and Renaissance


Google
  Web MedievalScotland.org   
Shop
Amazon.com
Shop
Amazon.co.uk
[an error occurred while processing this directive]