Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Norroy King Brings Suit"

So read a headline in the New York Times for May 5, 1901. To continue:

Proprietor of a "Heraldic Office" committed for Trial for Impugning Authority of Heralds’ College.

London, May 4.–That venerable institution the Heralds’ College is jealous of its ancient privileges, and has no intention of allowing them to lapse with the twentieth century.

William Henry Weldon, Norroy King of Arms, has brought a curious libel suit against Ellis Marks, proprietor of the British and American Heraldic Office, on the ground that Mr. Marks, in a circular to the Mayors of new municipalities, applying for order to provide them with a coat-of-arms, impugned the authority of the Heralds’ College. Mr. Marks said he could do for £5 what the college would charge £130 for doing. The circular maintained that the college’s charter had lapsed and that it was in "a bad way and bolstered up by falsehood."

For expressing these sentiments Mr. Marks has been committed for trial. Counsel for Norroy King of Arms averred that the Heralds’ College was the only body which could legally grant bearings and was "so old that it was almost lost in antiquity."

It transpired that Mr. Marks’s criticisms of the college were not very productive, for the British-American concern stopped doing business in January.

Apparently, rather like Mark Twain's, "rumors of [the College of Arms’] death are greatly exaggerated."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Whose Heraldic Tradition?

It has sometimes struck me, the Anglo-centrism of heraldry in the United States of America. I mean, in some ways I understand it, and can see to a certain extent where it comes from. After all, the primary language in this country is English (well, okay, American-English*), and many of the institutions and traditions that we share here as a nation have come down to us from England. Certainly, looking at my own family tree, the majority of the folks there have had their roots in England.

And yet we often fail to see anything except the English traditions being discussed and used when looking at American heraldry, despite of the fact that some of the oldest cities extant in what is now the US were not English, but Spanish. Santa Fe, New Mexico, for example, was formally founded and made the capital of New Spain in 1610, only three years after the first permanent English colony in America of Jamestown, Virginia, and a full ten years before the Pilgrims sailed for the New World. (The "Kingdom of New Mexico" had been claimed for the Spanish crown in 1540 some seventy years before the founding of Santa Fe as its capital, and long before Jamestown, or even the "lost colony" of Roanoke.)

Further, the city of New Amsterdam, now New York, was founded in 1625, just a few years after Jamestown and Plymouth, though there had been a sporadic Dutch presence in the area since its exploration by Henry Hudson in 1609.

And none of this even begins to touch on the French, who explored much of Great Lakes and the Mississippi River and its tributaries from their origins in the north to the Gulf of Mexico and built a number of settlements in what is now the upper Midwest of the US.

In spite of all these early settlements throughout much of what is now the United States, however, when we think of American heraldry, we think of English heraldry and English rules of heraldry. I can cite a number of reasons why this might be ("the victors write the history", & co.), but I’m not really certain that these reasons adequately explain what I consider to be the loss of a number of the heraldic traditions which truly make up our American heraldic heritage. I mean, sure, you find bits and pieces of these other traditions occasionally. The City of New York uses as the main charge on its coat of arms the four arms (or sails) of a windmill, which is often thought of here as significantly Dutch. And across the southern United States you can often find representations of the arms of Spain (Quarterly Castile and Leon), and occasionally the fleurs-de-lys of France to mark the historical fact that these nations once ruled over parts of this land.

And yet I can’t help sometimes but mourn the fact that we seem not to have taken to these other, non-English, heraldic traditions that have also influenced this young nation, and which I believe should be a larger piece of its history than we seem to appreciate.

* "England and America are two countries divided by a common language." (George Bernard Shaw)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Blazoning the Arms of the United States

It’s long been of interest to me that there is a bit of a controversy about the "correct" blazon of the arms of the United States of America. (This in addition to the confusion that sometimes arises because the arms themselves have no stars upon them. In spite of this, you often see representations of the arms that have stars on the chief. Witness the example here, which is literally "carved in stone", or to be more accurate, cast in concrete.)

The "official" blazon of the arms is Paly of thirteen argent and gules, a chief azure. There are those who have taken umbrage with this blazon, because in the English tradition of blazon for something to be "paly" (or "barry", or "bendy", etc.), there must be an even number of pieces – usually six or eight, sometimes more, occasionally less, but always of an even number. These folks would then have you know that if there are an odd number of pieces (seven, nine, thirteen, etc.), then the field in our example here should be blazoned, "Argent, six pallets gules".

I have a problem with this proposed blazon, because while a "paly" field would require the different pieces of the field to be equal in width, no such requirement exists for a field with pallets upon it. To see what I mean, take a look at the emblazons below. The one on the left is the arms of the United States as officially blazoned, Paly of thirteen argent and gules, a chief azure. The one on the right is an entirely legitimate drawing from a blazon of Argent, six pallets gules, a chief azure. In the second one, the red pallets are clearly not equal in width to the argent portions of the field. In the first one, the paly portions of the field, white and red, are equal, as the original thirteen states (and the additional 37 since then) were, and are supposed to be, equal.

Further, I would note that requiring a "paly" (or "barry", or "bendy", etc.) field to be of an even number of pieces is an English conceit and not necessarily a more general heraldic rule. "Foreigners make no matter, neither in Paly, Barry, nor Bendy, whether the pieces be even or odd, provided they be of an equal latitude; and therefore amongst them you as often meet with Paly, Barry, and Bendy of 7 and 9, as 8 and 10." (John Gibbon, Introductio ad Latinum Blasoniam, 1682, p. 5)

We as a nation threw off the yoke of English rule well over 200 years ago. Why then, flying in the face of the underlying logic of the design of the arms, do some heraldry enthusiasts among us continue to insist on using an English rule to blazon our national coat of arms? Especially when such a blazon would create an inequality between the stripes of white and red, as symbolic of the original thirteen equal states, which inequality the originators of the arms did not intend? If we, too, are "foreigners", that is to say, no longer subjects of England and by extension no longer subject to its rules for the blazoning of arms, then why shouldn’t we also "make no matter ... in Paly ... whether the pieces be even or odd, provided they be of an equal latitude"? Especially when that "equal latitude" was exactly what the designers of the arms were trying to achieve.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Six “Arms” Over Texas

There’s been a long-standing thing about the "six flags over Texas", the six different flags that have flown over the territory now encompassed by the state boundaries. (Apparently the native Americans who lived here for several thousand years before the Spanish arrived didn’t use flags.) Indeed, it is exactly that concept that gave rise to the amusement park chain "Six Flags".

Well, that’s all well and good, I supposed, but I’m an academic herald and not, except in an oblique way, a vexillologist (to save some of you from having to look it up, a vexillologist is someone whose field of study is flags). So it was of interest to me when on a recent visit to the state capitol, that there on a building abutting the capitol grounds were very nice renditions of the six coats of arms which have, well, not "flown", exactly, but – hmm, what is it that arms do? – over the territory that is now the State of Texas.

In the photograph above (I've posted a larger version so you can see the detail better on our website, at, we have (from left to right) the arms of: the Kingdom of Spain (Quarterly Castile and Leon), the Kingdom of France (d’Azur a trois fleurs-de-lis d’or), Mexico (the well-known eagle and snake atop the cactus), the independent Republic of Texas (which arms became those of the State of Texas upon its admission to the Union), the Confederate States of America, and the United States of America.

Isn’t that a great display of historical heraldry?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Heraldic Library in a Pocket

I had the opportunity recently to give a presentation about heraldry, something I get to do periodically and very much enjoy. I have some equipment that I take with me to these presentations; currently I have "downsized" to carrying my digital projector, a 9" netbook with accompanying power cord and mouse, and a WD Passport external hard drive with a 250 gigabyte capacity onto which I have loaded not only some of my presentations, but also a very healthy number of heraldry books and armorials that have been digitized. (Indeed, you can find links to many of these books down the left-hand column of this blog.)

Following the presentation, I had a lot of folks coming up to ask me specific questions, including one man who wanted to show me an ancestor’s coat of arms to see if I could tell him anything more than he already knew about it, not necessarily that day, but at some point in the future. He showed me a photograph of a grave marker erected about 1900 to the ancestor (who lived in the late 16th Century) that had the coat of arms on it.\

During the course of the afternoon, during a couple of meetings which did not require my full attention, I sat near the back of the room, pulled out my netbook, cranked it up, and hooked up my little Passport. In just a few minutes, with no connection to the internet whatsoever, I had pulled up a copy of Burke’s General Armory and looked up this man’s ancestor’s coat of arms there (it was not a common surname, and there were very few entries), which gave me not only a blazon but also the year of the grant to this ancestor. Closing Burke and going to Grantees of Arms to the End of the Seventeenth Century, I found an entry for this ancestor which listed several related manuscript documents in university libraries in England, including a copy of the grant of arms done by one of the heralds from the English College of Arms. Total time involved - about ten minutes after bootup. I wrote down all of the information that I found and gave it to him at the end of the meeting. He was thrilled, and so was I.

The amazing part of all this to me is the ability to squeeze several bookshelves worth of heraldry books into a hard drive (with plenty of room for more!) that will literally fit into a shirt pocket. Now, admittedly, my first interaction with computers was back in 19-(mumble, mumble), when the new computer at the university took up the entire third floor of the also new four-story computer building built to house it. And here I am, sitting in a meeting with a netbook and an external hard drive, all of which I can carry - with appurtenances, though not the digital projector - in what amounts to a small purse-sized bag (what I have nicknamed my "‘Puter Purse"), with who knows how many times the memory and computing capabilities of that old floor-sized mainframe. Indeed, in thinking about it, all the computer stuff, complete with electronic heraldic library, takes up less room than my book copy of Burke’s General Armory alone! And it certainly weighs a lot less, too.

Wow! As a friend of mine says occasionally, "I am gob-smacked".

Monday, April 13, 2009

Deep in the Heart of Texas

WARNING! Post contains some historical content.

It can sometimes feel a little weird, living in a state that used to be an independent nation, with a lot of the appurtenances and symbols of that independent nation hanging around and in use as the appurtenances and symbols of the state. The state flag, for example, used to be the flag of the short-lived but independent Republic of Texas (1836-1845, with the final transfer of power taking place on February 19, 1846). (One of the interesting provisions of the annexation resolution is that up to four additional states could be created from Texas' territory, with the consent of the State of Texas. This provision remains in effect, though I seriously doubt that it will ever be invoked, because if anyone were to try to divide Texas into two, three, four or five separate states, they would all end up fighting over who got to keep and use the name "Texas", as all of them would lay claim to it, to the exclusion of all the others. But I digress.)

Another holdover from the Republic of Texas days is the coat of arms of the State of Texas, a blue shield featuring the "lone star" of Texas within a wreath of live oak and laurel branches. (The rendition above is from the Life Science Library at the University of Texas.) And you’re likely to run across the arms of the State of Texas periodically as you look around you here. For example, below is a version of the arms on the St. Paul Street side exterior of the Titche-Goettinger Building at 1900 Elm Street in downtown Dallas. (If you were interested, you could actually live in this building, which is decorated with a number of coats of arms and pseudo-heraldry about its exterior, it having been converted a few years ago into a combination of retail space and 129 loft-style apartments.)

I like this particular rendition of the arms because it places them on an outline of the state in a cartouche with plenty of "scroll-y bits" (sometimes also referred to a "artistic frou-frou") surrounding it. (Yes, I know that it’s really Italianate and/or Rococo, but I like the Monty Pythonesque sound of "scroll-y bits" better.) It’s really one of the better three-dimensional displays of a coat of arms that I’ve found to date here in "the heart of Texas."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A small, but productive, meeting of heraldry enthusiasts

I had the chance last weekend to attend the first ever face-to-face meeting of some of the Texas members of the American Heraldry Society. For those of you not familiar with the AHS, it’s pretty much an on-line thing. I mean, we send in our dues every year (usually on-line, though you can pay them via U.S. Mail, too, I suppose). But the members are spread out all over this country (and a few others), and we don’t – yet – have annual general meetings in the manner of some of the longer-established heraldry societies. So this meeting was something of a novelty for the organization.

In any case, I got up at my usual time, had breakfast, and then hopped in the car for the three-hour drive to Austin (each way – six hours on the road for what turned out to be a four-hour meeting) to meet with fellow AHS members/heraldry enthusiasts. As it turns out, there were only three of us there (a fourth didn’t make it), but – and this is probably the weird thing – we all had a great time and I, for one, believe that the meeting was great! Apparently the others agreed with that assessment, because we’re going to do it again this fall, though the next one will be in Dallas rather than Austin. (We thought that moving it about the state would give more people the opportunity to participate over time.)

It was a reminder again to me how much fun, and interest, and education, can be stirred up in face-to-face meetings with other heraldry enthusiasts. It’s something I should know, I realize, but even though I’m a member I only occasionally get to attend the annual general meetings of the Royal Heraldry Society of Canada, and never yet to those of the Heraldry Society (England) or Heraldry Society of Scotland, while the International Congresses of Genealogical and Heraldic Sciences are held only every other year. But the immediacy, the give-and-take, the synergy that occurs during such meetings, in ways that can happen at best relatively slowly on-line, is truly wonderful, with the participants simultaneously gaining enthusiasm from others and sharing their own enthusiasm, as well as their knowledge and expertise in the field, discussing how far it has come and where it might be going, as well as possible future directions of the organization to which we belong. I mean, sure, it was fine that we got a bit of a "backstage" tour of the capitol dome and even got to see a bit of heraldry along the way. But it was the interaction of the three of us as we discussed heraldry, the American Heraldry Society, and everything, that gets me hoping that we can make such meetings a regular happening.

That six hours on the road was totally worth it! Now if I can just make the one in Dallas equally good for those who show up for it.

Monday, April 6, 2009


So there I was, doing the same thing I do every work day at about quarter to six, going to pick up my wife from her work. (She works closer to home than I do, so I drop her off on my way in to work, and pick her up on my way home. It works out.) And there, for the first time ever since she’s been working there, by golly, there was heraldry in the driveway!

The building where she works is at UTSouthwestern Medical School, and they occasionally have meetings of one group or another there, most frequently of donors of one kind or another (though almost always "monied"). I usually notice that they’re having one of these get-togethers because of the valet parking people standing around by the front door. But Wednesday evening, it was really obvious – there were two signs, one at the driveway from the street and another by the parking garage next to the building, both labeled "Order of St John / Reception / Parking" and with a very prominent, very clear, very nice coat of arms on each of them. These are, of course, the arms of the Most Venerable Order of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem Priory in the United States, though the full name would probably not have fit on the signs and still be readable. But with the coat of arms, how many words do you need? I mean, they probably could have left off "Order of St John" entirely and all of their members and everyone who had seen the coat of arms before would have known what organization it was.

So, anyway, while Jo got into the car, I hopped out with my cell phone camera (thank goodness for modern technology!) and took a couple of pictures. Because it’s just not every day, at least here in Dallas, that you stumble across real heraldry as you go about your daily business. And when it does happen, it ought to be celebrated a little.

Or at least photographed and shared.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Asking the Right Question

In a couple of the heraldry newsgroups I read regularly (and participate in occasionally), there have recently been questions about blazon, generally phrased this way:

"How would one blazon the line of division seen at [URL]?"

"The dexter third of a chief, appearing all by its lonesome, is a canton. What do you call the middle third when it's alone (like at the bottom of the page at [URL])?"

The presence of these two questions over a period of a couple of days, and some of the responses to them, started me thinking about whether the correct question was being asked. In these particular instances, the armory is German, and the armorials they come from are dated to the 15th and 16th centuries, but I have seen similar questions asked of arms from other countries and centuries. The bottom line here is that I think the wrong question is being asked. What is being asked is how would "one" blazon it, or what would "you" call it, with "one" and "you" being 21st century English-speaking, mostly American, heraldry enthusiasts.

Yet it seems to me that the right question to ask is "how did they blazon it?"

Admittedly, that is probably a more difficult question to answer. The armorials in these cases do not give blazons. It may be possible that by looking up the surname the arms might be found in J.-B. Rietstap’s Armorial Général, but even that would only tell you how he blazoned it in the late 19th century.

The answer to the real question involves asking a much smaller group of people and/or doing some serious book research. The smaller group of people would include those with some familiarity or expertise in the heraldry of the region from which the arms originate (admittedly, there is always the possibility that someone from this smaller group might read and be able to respond to the question, but that’s really a bit of a "hit or miss" proposition. You can’t always count on experts in a field of study seeing questions relating to that field in a more generalized newsgroup). The book research would involve looking through heraldic texts and dictionaries in the language of that region. In the two specific instances above, this would involve asking people familiar with German heraldry, specifically German heraldry of the Renaissance period, and consulting German heraldry texts and heraldic dictionaries. Not nearly as easy as posting a question to a modern, English-speaking newsgroup about how they would blazon such a coat, I realize, but one that would have a higher probability of answering the question that’s really being asked. That is to say, the right question.