The development and elaboration of heraldry and the development and elaboration of medieval effigy tombs proceeded together throughout the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. This is probably not coincidental. Both were significata of social status in a period of great social change when feudalism was turning into something else, new social classes of wealth and influence were emerging, and the flower of the aristocracy were periodically murdering each other and their followers in one cause or another. Social status was a competitive business, also reflected in increasing elaboration of upmarket eating practices and fashionable clothing, the latter itself being reflected in depictions on effigy tombs.
Would it be fanciful also to suggest that as more and more of the population could read and the written word became more significant in legal process, requiring the use of seals and the ability to decode little black marks on a white surface, so people may have become more attuned to decoding complex, abstract visual symbolism? That's just a thought to ponder on.
The function of heraldry was the identification of individuals and their lineage, either in battle on their armour, or in a legal context as depicted on their personal seals. Elaborations to heraldic design proceeded together in these two media. Seals on private charters of the 12th century did not display heraldic devices. Those of aristocratic males usually showed them in armour mounted on a horse. Their individual identities were established in writing in the legend around the seal.
The above shows the seal of Ralph de Cuningburgh on a late 12th century charter to Byland Abbey (British Library, add. charter 70691). Later equestrian seals, for example of the 13th century, included the owner's coat of arms on their attire or horse trappings as an additional identifier.
The first known example of a personal coat of arms was that of Geoffrey Plantagenet, son-in-law of Henry I of England and father of Henry II, thereby becoming the founder of the Plantagenet line of kings. They were bestowed by Henry I in 1127.
Geoffrey's coat of arms is preserved on his enamelled funeral slab in the Musee Tesse in Le Mans. The grandson of Henry II, William Longspee (d.1220) displays this same coat of arms, six gold lions on a blue ground, on his shield on his tomb in Salisbury Cathedral. There is no doubt that in its medieval heyday the tomb would have displayed this in its glowing colours. It is a depiction of the identity of an individual, but also of his direct lineage.
Effigies of knights of the late 13th and early 14th centuries, whether depicted in stone or brass or even wood, usually bore a shield. The earlier examples have long shields, the later ones, of the mid 14th century, carry smaller shields. If the heraldic designs have been actually carved into the shield, as in the William Longspee example above, they may survive to this day. In other cases the designs were painted on and have usually been effaced by time and the cleaning substances of church restorers. This may, of course, leave open the possibility of re-attribution of tombs at a later date by replacement of the heraldic designs.
The above shows the white limestone effigy of John de Bordeston (d.1329) in Amotherby church, North Yorkshire, carrying his long shield carved with his coat of arms which includes the heads of three boars. These are a rebus, or pun, on his name; boars/Bordeston. These represent his personal, or at least patrilineal, identity.
The effigy of Robert Fitz-Ralph (d.1317) in Butterwick church, North Yorkshire, carries a short shield with no sign of heraldic design. However, he is just a core, having lost all sign of his external detailing. His heraldic device would undoubtedly have been painted on his shield, and possibly even moulded in gesso, but it has been scrubbed away, leaving no clue on the effigy itself as to his identity.
Heraldic devices could also be displayed on the long surcoats or short jupons that covered the armour on 14th century and later knightly effigies. Basically, this mode of representation reflects how the knights would have appeared in real life on the battlefield.
This detail is of a very splendid memorial brass to William de Aldeborough (c.1360), now located on the wall of the church in Aldborough, North Yorkshire. His arms are displayed on his short shield as well as on his heraldic jupon. This is quite a practical arrangement for battle as hopefully it prevents you from being killed by someone on your own side.
The alabaster effigy above is one of a number found in the church at Swine, East Yorkshire. He is depicted as a knight of c.1400. The design of roses in a circle is found on the jupons of all the knightly effigies in the church, all members of the Hilton family, and represents a family badge. It seems that nobody is quite sure any more which Hilton is which.
In this era, coats of arms were not generally issued by the king or by a College of Arms, because they didn't have one. That didn't come properly into effect until the Tudor period. The earliest rolls of arms were lists of the participants in combat on assorted battlefields with their armorial bearings, compiled presumably by the heralds so that they would know which side everyone was on when they had to account for the corpses. The lists show that the specialised Frenchified vocabulary of heraldry was already in place. Aristocrats could ascribe coats of arms to their relatives by private charter.
Above is an example of this process, by Ralph, Baron Stafford, assigning arms to his nephew, Master Edmund de Mortayn (Eton College Library, from The New Palaeographical Society, 1910). If you really want to decode this awful cursive catscratch to read what it says, you can find the key here on the Medieval Writing website. During the course of the 14th century, coats of arms became more elaborate, as depicted on seals, on tombs, in paintings or on carved representations. The actual shields themselves became more complex with various quarterings and suchlike, so that they no longer simply represented an individual, but defined various relationships of that person as a social entity.
The brass rubbing shown above displays just one of several different shields of arms on the tomb of Nicholas and Joanna Kniveton (1475) in Mugginton church, Derbyshire. The designs are a bit blurry as the brass matrix has lost the coloured inlays that would have added to both the aesthetics and the information, and what has been rubbed is the roughened backs of the hollow cells.
Funerary monuments displayed rows of shields, sometimes carried by angels, along the sides of table tombs. Brasses could display a set of shields, which in many cases would have been set with fancy coloured inlays to display them in their full glory. For those who know how to read the code, these sets of images tell the tale of a person's position in society in considerable detail.
The above shows a tomb chest in Howden church, East Yorkshire, with a series of repainted heraldic shields. There is no effigy on the chest. The standing figure of a priest is just a misplaced sculpture from elsewhere in the church.
Armorials, as depicted on seals, acquired added elements: helms adorned with crests and mantling, supporters, sometimes mottoes, all produced in very fine and fiddly metalwork in the production of the seal matrix.
The seal above is the 15th century seal of Edmund de Mortimer, Earl of March, complete with shield of arms,supporters, helm and crest. A fascinating aspect of seals is how they reproduce in intricate miniature elements which appear in grand monumental form in other media.
On tombs, these elements were displayed in a grander but more dispersed manner around the effigy. The head of a knight was depicted resting on his helm with the crest and mantling displayed below his head. His feet often rested on an animal, frequently a generic animal such as a lion or hunting dog, but occasionally an animal that had some symbolic relationship to his coat of arms or his name.
The very fancy alabaster tomb of Walter Griffith (d.1481) and wife in Burton Agnes, East Yorkshire displays complex (repainted) shields of arms carried by angels. The knight's foot supporter is a griffon, presumably a rebus on his name.
The head of the alabaster effigy of of John de la Pole (d.1491) in Wingfield church, Suffolk rests on his helm with mantling and the crest of a Saracen's head. There are other examples of elaborate crests on the helms on alabaster tombs in a previous blog posting on the tombs of Harewood. The Hilton effigy from Swine, shown earlier, rests his head on a helm with a crest that appears to be a bird's head, perhaps an eagle.
There are surviving examples of the actual military objects which depicted these heraldic devices being displayed above the tomb: shield, helm and crest, sword. The most famous example is that of the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral, and similar achievements of Henry V survive in Westminster Abbey.
The tomb of John de la Pole, of which the detail is shown above, has his helm and crest, as well as two supporters, displayed above his tomb canopy. Shields in quatrefoils surround the tomb chest. The whole tomb arrangement has virtually turned into a heraldic display.
Ladies also displayed shields of arms around their tombs, indicating their biological and marital relationships within the community, but they did not, on the whole, display the arms on military accoutrements. The animal at their feet was more likely to be a small domestic dog rather than a heraldic beast. Yup. Sorry. They were who they were related to.
The tomb of Margaret, wife of Thomas of Egmonton (c.1370), in Adlingfleet, East Yorkshire, has a row of assorted carved heraldic shields in quatrefoils along the tomb chest.
In the later 15th and 16th centuries a style of tomb depiction appeared that took heraldry into an extreme space. Knights could be depicted wearing heraldic tabards over their armour, looking rather like heralds actually, while women were shown wearing enveloping cloaks composed entirely of complex coats of arms. Tomb effigies were rarely portraits, but this style of depiction is not even symbolic of individuality. It is entirely a construction of relationships.
This is a rubbing of a memorial brass to Sir Humphrey Style, his two wives and eleven children of 1548. That makes it a little late in the day for us here, and the style is definitely becoming post-Reformation, with the figures all quite alive and kneeling; no significata of liminality of purgatory. Part of the inscription has been erased, probably because it referred to praying for the salvation of souls. That is yet another thing for another day. The point for now is that the man wears a heraldic tabard and both his wives wear heraldic mantles. With the shields above, it's all becoming a complex code.
(I actually have a gorgeous rubbing of a heraldic brass from Chesterfield, Derbyshire which I will provide for your delectation and delight once I can extract it from a tightly furled roll with a bunch of others and photograph it without disappearing under uncurling piles of paper.)
And here it is, rubbing of a brass to Sir Godfrey and Dame Katherine Foljambe (1541) with their four sons and five daughters, four elaborate shields of arms and a marginal inscription. He wears a heraldic tabard as well as resting his head on the most amazing crest and mantling while she wears a heraldic robe. The shields in the corners formerly contained coloured inlay. The heraldic representations are so fine and fiddly that this magnification doesn't do them justice, but you get the idea. It's all about detail
Such depictions are also found in images of donors to the fabric of the church in stained glass windows, which links in another thread to be followed one day. I have got almost this far through a blog post on tombs without mentioning liminality or purgatory, but you can't escape it. The images on donor panels in windows served the same purpose as the effigies on tombs; to remind the congregation to pray for the souls of these people, whose virtues are evident from their deeds. Just look around. The difference with the windows was that those being prayed for were not necessarily dead at the time, but the purpose was similar. Yes, some tombs were erected within the lifetime of the person commemorated, and the windows lasted long after the donors had died. There is an intersection here.
These donor figures in heraldic attire are a few of many in the stained glass windows of Long Melford church, Suffolk. Shields of arms also appear in stained glass windows with the same purpose; a combination of affirmation of worldly status and a reminder to pray for certain souls. Sometimes their contribution to the church fabric was the family chapel that the tombs resided in, so not only status but ownership creeps in. That is something else for another day.
At this point I can hear little voices saying, there you go, it is all about feudalism. By the time that these elaborate monuments with their complex heraldry were being constructed, feudalism as an economic system or process of government was running out of fuel. Social mobility was high. People rose from yeoman status to the gentry and beyond to the aristocracy. Ancient lineages died out, or slaughtered each other. New wealth appeared in the towns rather than all being generated from rural land ownership and privileges. The symbolism of status remained historically based. It happens all the time. Why are all ceremonial uniforms for anything usually based on something from previous centuries?
People who owed no military service to the king bought themselves a suit of armour to prop up in some conspicuous place and were depicted in that manner on their tombs. They also desired heraldic achievements. Town merchants had distinctive marks which were used to identify their goods. These became used in the same manner as coats of arms on tombs as well as on their seals.
The brass to Richard and Margaret Byll (1451) in Holy Trinity church, Hull shows half effigies of a man in civilian dress with his wife above an inscription. There are roundels in the corner, and in the middle is his merchant mark, displayed in the manner of a heraldic shield. A new kind of status marker was in town.
These sometimes morphed into actual coats of arms, or simple graphic devices that lesser folks had used on their seals evolved similarly into coats of arms. By the 16th century, heralds were trotting around Britain recording all the coats of arms in use and actually assessing their legitimacy. The process had become complex and rigid.
The tombs of significant ecclesiastics were peppered with heraldic representations, either their own personal ones or those of the institutions which they represented. They represented, not feudal privilege and obligation, but status and stability. Institutions with coats of arms must surely last forever. But they didn't.
The tomb of Rahere, founder of St Bartholomew's Augustinian priory and hospital in Smithfield, London, stands in what's left of the church, complete with heraldic imagery as well as the usual reminders for prayer.
The significance of the usage of heraldry on funerary monuments is intriguing. It seems that the representation becomes both more rigid and more complex as society becomes more labile, complex and dependent on a more diverse range of parameters in the definition of individual identity.