Thursday, June 30, 2016

Armes Parlantes: An Opinion and Some Examples

Arms parlantes ("speaking arms"), more generally termed "canting arms" in which the arms are a pun, or cant, on the surname of the bearer, have sometimes been considered a "low" form of heraldry, a type of "cheap shot" unworthy of true heralds.

[Sir Thomas] Wriothesley [Garter King of Arms 1505-1534] and [Sir Christopher] Barker [garter King of Arms 1536-1550] abstained in a great measure from this practice [of granting canting arms] in the concessions of arms which were made by them; but so congenial was it with the taste of king James and the fashions which he patronised, that many bearings of this description were assumed during his frivolous reign, some of which have been subsequently confirmed to their families by the college of heralds. Some respect may be due to the few instances of high antiquity, but they should be generally considered as of easy and vulgar application, and very widely deviating from the chast[e]ness and simplicity of pure heraldry.
James Dallaway, Inquiries into the Origin and Progress of the Science of Heraldry in England, 1793, p. 275

"Easy and vulgar"? Wow, now that's a put down.  I'm not certain why Mr. Dallaway held this low opinion of armes parlantes, because they seem to me to have been pretty popular in all nations with heraldry for a very, very long time, and they are not always as easy to identify as he apparently seems to think. I'm remembering the arms of Arundel, which contain martlets, a type of swallow. You might not think that these are canting arms, until it is pointed out that the French term for swallow is hirondelle, a clear pun on the surname.

And, of course, one of my own personal favorites from here in the United States is the arms of the family of John Hancock, who wrote his name so large upon the Declaration of Independence in 1776. (The story is that he signed it so largely and clearly so that King George III could read it without his spectacles.) Mr. Hancock is buried in the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts, and his monument there clearly displays his canting arms of a hand and three cocks.

Anyway, all that is leading up to a couple of great canting arms that I found in an old Italian armorial (one of the ones I've been going through recently looking for arms which contain camels; such arms are rare, but I've found more of them than I had expected to) that I felt like I just had to share.

The first is pretty easy to figure out (a Turk for Turcha). The other falls into place when you learn that the Italian volpe means "fox."

Cool, huh? Or do you, too, feel that such armes parlantes are "of easy and vulgar application, and very widely deviating from the chast[e]ness and simplicity of pure heraldry"? (Personally, I don't know much about chasteness in heraldry, especially considering some of those maiden's heads and melusines, but I can think of few things of greater simplicity than a single fox on a plain field. But what do I know?)

By the way, if you are interested in looking at some of these armorials for yourself, they can be found on the website of the Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum Digitale Bibliothek. There is a link to this site in the "Some Good On-Line Armorials and Ordinaries" in the left-hand column of this blog.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Well, This Was New

Or at least, new to me.

I am familiar with many of the chiefs of affiliation to be found in Italian heraldry: the capo dell'Impero (the chief of the Holy Roman Empire, demonstrating affiliation with the Guelphs),

and the capo d'Angio (the chief of Anjou, showing affiliation with the Ghibellines) (the example of Aldonbrandi below has the chief of Anjou placed on arms which already contained a chief, on a chief or two grape leaves vert).

And another, more complex version of the capo d'Angio:

And, of course, some of the others, not quite so well known or common, such as the capo di Savoia (the chief of Savoy, a red chief with a white cross throughout), the capo di San Stefano (the chief of St. Stephen, below), and others.

But in going through some old Italian armorials looking for something else (as I noted before, camels), I came across a few examples of a chief of affiliation I had not run across before:

This chief of affiliation doesn't even show up in my copy of di Valfrei's Dizionario di Araldica, which lists a few other chiefs of affiliation I hadn't seen before. I can only think of this particular chief of affiliation (which is different from the capo di Firenze (the chief of Florence, a white chief charged with a fleur-de-lis florency gules) as a capo de'Medici, a chief of the Medici (the second example on the arms of Karafantoni, may be more specifically related to one of the Medici popes).

So how cool is all that?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Okay, Now This Is Just Weird

In working on another one of my projects (an update to my book Camels In Heraldry), I've been looking through a whole lot of armorials looking for coats of arms with camels on the shield, as a crest, or as a supporter. And in the process, I occasionally come across something that can still surprise me.

Now, don't get me wrong; I've seen a lot of weird stuff in heraldry over the years. But it's a pleasure to run across something new, or at least, something new to me. As J.P. Brooke-Little put it so well in the introduction to his An Heraldic Alphabet:

You can study heraldry until you are azure in the face but inevitably discover, from time to time, that you are really quite vert. I have found this over and over again and I have been a herald for forty years, but never despair, herein lies the fun and if heraldry ceases to be fun - chuck it.

So in my greenness, and in the interest of continuing to have fun with heraldry, here is what I found the other day in an old Italian armorial and thought I should share with you:

I've been studying heraldry for over thirty years now, and this is the first instance of a dog-headed lion that I can recall seeing.

And it's canting, or punning, arms, too. Cane is Italian for "dog."

So is this fun or what?

Monday, June 20, 2016

She's Asking for What?

On January 30, 2016, Mary Jones made a Freedom of Information request to the College of Arms. In her request, she asked:

I would therefore request information if any part of these fees [paid by petitioners for grants of arms] are paid to Mr Woodcock either for the work he undertakes on the grant or for his signature on documents and grants? If so can I ask how much this is, does Mr Woodcock pay tax of these amounts ...?

Well, heck, I can answer those questions, and I don't even work at the College of Arms: Yes (although a large proportion of those fees also go to the artists and calligraphers who create the grant documents, as well as to the costs of maintaining the physical building of the College); that information is not published by the College; and yes (even though by ancient statute heralds are exempted from paying taxes on their income).

She also wanted to know how many grants Garter Woodcock has processed since his appointment on April 1, 2010.

On February 8, 2016, she received a reply from Garter:

The College of Arms is not a public authority under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and is therefore under no duty to consider your request.

She has since requested the College review of the handling of her FOI request, stating that "the Royal Household [of which the College of Arms is a part] whilst not under any du[t]y does answer FOI requests."

Well, I'm guessing here, but isn't it likely that only sometimes does the Royal Household answers FOI requests?

Ms. Jones doesn't say why she wants this information, or what she intends to do with it if she ever receives it. Not that it really matters; most of the information that she wants can be found with a little searching on the internet. For example, there's a blog post from 2007 by someone who worked at the College of Arms for a summer which discusses, among other things, some of the fee distribution among the heralds at that time, at

Anyway, you can find the full text of Ms. Jones' FOI request, the College's response, and Ms. Jones' request for review on-line at the website of What Do They Know at

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Want a Kulindadromeuszabaikalcus on Your Arms?

I ran across a great illustrated article earlier this week about some aspects of heraldry in Russia. Written by Oleg Skripnik and posted on June 13, 2016, it was entitled "A bear splitting an atom? A camel? The weird world of Russian coats of arms." I'd been attracted to it initially because of the aforementioned camel, as I'm currently on the lookout for arms, crests, and supporters with camels for the second edition of my book, Camels in Heraldry. (You can still find copies of the first edition for sale at The article illustrated the arms of Chelyabinsk, which I'd already included in the first edition.

But no matter. It went on to discuss the arms of Zheleznogorsk, which have a bear ripping an atom apart (the city, unofficially called Atomgrad, was in Soviet times a production center for weapons grade plutonium):

And it also discussed the misunderstandings which led to the creation of a new heraldic monster, the babr, a creature combining the features of a tiger (babr in an old Siberian dialect) and beaver (bobr is Russian), a black beast with webbed feet and a bushy tail, in the arms of Irkutsk:

But my favorite illustration was the arms of the Chernyshevsky District, which contain a Kulindadromeuszabaikalcus, a dinosaur whose remains were discovered in the District a couple of years ago:

Like I say, it's a cool article. You can find it on the website of Russia Beyond the Headlines at

Go check it out! There's no telling what you find there that you'd not known about before.

Monday, June 13, 2016

What Is It About Using Complex and/or Archaic Blazon?

I've been trying to make good use of my "extra" "free" time now that I have retired, and have been working away at several projects I've wanted to do for some time.

One of those projects is a database, if you will, of heraldry used by Americans from colonial times until well into the 20th Century. I'm doing it mostly for my own heraldic research purposes; I thought it would be handy to have a listing that could be sorted alphabetically by surname or searched by the colors and charges on the shield, something that would be faster than looking through most of the books of American arms that I have, many of which are not arranged alphabetically (yes, I'm looking at you, John Matthews, and your Complete American Armoury and Blue Book).

But one of the things that's starting to annoy me a bit is the inconsistent usages in the blazons of all of these coats of arms. I'm not just talking about the sometimes confusing use of "of the first," "of the second," "of the field" that we often find in blazons. (This is, of course, an annoyance, requiring one to go back and re-parse the blazon to that point to try to determine what color is being referred to, and many times that color cannot be the correct one. I'll probably never understand why someone thought that repeating a tincture was such an awful thing to do, to the point that they were willing to surrender clarity to avoid it, but fortunately in these modern times that usage has been falling by the wayside until now, even the venerable College of Arms in London, of whom one of their own (Sir Conrad Swan) once said, "The Kings of Arms tend to be rather like oil tankers sailing in a determined and serene manner through the ocean of life, and as a result they take a long time to change course," will go ahead and repeat a tincture in a blazon.)

No, I'm talking about the overuse of the comma by some of these authors, and the inclusion of archaic spellings for various terms of blazon.

As just one example of both of these, I offer the arms of Sullivan, cited in The Prominent Families of the United States of America, edited by Meredith Burke (1975):

Per pale sable, and argent, a fesse between, in chief a boar passant and in base another counterpassant, all counterchanged, armed, hoofed, and bristled or.

Really? "Fesse?"  Sure, Guillim's A Display of Heraldrie, 4th ed., 1660, calls a horizontal stripe across the shield a fesse, but by 1795 in Porney's The Elements of Heraldry that charge has become a fess with but one "e."

And what is with all of those commas? I could argue that all, or if not all then nearly all, of them are entirely unnecessary to understanding the blazon. I could and would, also argue that a fess between two charges don't need them specified as "in chief" and "in base" since that is where you would expect two charges, one of either side of a fess, to be located. That's the joy of heraldic defaults.

So blazon ought to be clear and concise, but also complete. "The fewer Words you make use of in Blazoning a Coat, the better it is Blazon’d.  Be cautious however, that whilst you endeavour to be short, you are not mysterious, and that you omit nothing which ought to be mentioned." (Samuel Kent, The Banner Display’d: or, An Abridgment of Guillim, 1726, Vol. 1, p. 7)

Let's try reblazoning the arms of Sullivan, above, and see if we can't make the blazon more concise while being just as clear:

Per pale sable and argent a fess between two boars counter-passant counterchanged armed unguled and bristled or.

We might, if further clarity is felt to be necessary, blazon the boars as passant counter-passant, but one would think that counter-passant should suffice, just as "combattant" is a shorter way of saying "rampant respectant" and indicates as surely, and with fewer words, that the two animals are facing different directions.

And yes, I know that I'm using the slightly lesser known - at least to the layman - term "unguled" for "hoofed," but unguled is the more usual heraldic term when an animals hooves are a different color than its torso. Modern blazon continues to use "langued" instead of "tongued," too, and both terms appear in every English-language heraldic dictionary I've found, so I don't see any reason to change "unguled" to "hoofed."

But does anyone who understands blazon think that my reblazon of the Sullivan arms is less understandable than the version in Prominent Families? Seventeen words versus twenty-five words, and no archaic spellings or unneeded commas. Shorter, but "not mysterious, ... omit[ting] nothing which ought to be mentioned."

Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now. But after having typed in literally hundreds of such blazons, and in a few cases, not being able to figure out what the tincture "of the third" was really supposed to be (since the "third" tincture in the blazon would have been color on color), I'm really tired of all of these extraneous, unnecessary commas and archaic spellings (e.g., "saltier," "chequy"). And no, I didn't keep them in the blazons in my database. Repeated tinctures when necessary, no commas when unnecessary, and standard spellings of all of the charges ("saltire," "checky") wherever possible is what's being typed in. But it's been a long tough row to hoe, and I'm getting tired of it.

Friday, June 10, 2016

It's International Heraldry Day!

On 10th June 1128, Geoffrey V d'Anjou is said to have been knighted and given arms by his father-in-law, Henry I of England, and in 2013 June 10 was declared International Heraldry Day.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Doing a Herald's Job in the Middle Ages

Serendipity can sometimes be a fascinating thing.

In this instance, a friend had emailed me a link to a discussion of a poem written after the battle of Crécy in 1346. The timing was very good, as I had just earlier that week read an account of the battle in a biography of King Edward III which is my current "book to read at bedtime." (I have another book that is breakfast and sometimes lunch fare, in addition to the books in my office which I am going through while researching for a couple of heraldry projects.)

While the poem, by Colins de Beaumont, who may have taken part in the battle, is framed as a dream vision in which allegorical figures lament the fallen soldiers, during which Nature, Largess, Loyalty, and Prowess recount great deeds and heroic deaths, he also covers some of the challenges of one of the duties of medieval heralds: to count and identify the noble dead.

The above is a painting of Edward III counting the dead at Crécy, something he probably did not personally do. (Though here you can almost see him as counting: "One thousand three hundred twenty-four, one thousand three hundred twenty-five, one thousand three hundred twenty-six, ....")

But the poet describes some of the challenges that the heralds would have faced in performing this duty:

Ah, Lord! I was so anguished
That I was seeing so many insignia there
And none that I could recognize,
Whether it were a little pennant or a standard,
A shield, a surcoat, or a pommel ornament:
All were dismantled and all were broken.


You have to know that they really had their work cut out for them when it comes down to identifying the slain by the ornament on a sword pommel.

It's a great article that gives some insight into "The Poetry of Trauma: On the Crécy Dead" by Danièle Cybulskie. (There is also a link to a book which includes the first English translation of the entire poem, Michael Livingstone and Kelly DeVries' The Battle of Crécy: A Casebook, for those who might wish to learn more of this pivotal battle.)

You can find this article on the website at

Monday, June 6, 2016

Some Historical Heraldry Lives Again

It is always a pleasure to see people bringing heraldry back to life as a decorative art, and even more so when it can also be used to educate and to keep the history of a place and a family alive.

A May 31, 2016 article in the Exeter Express & Echo discusses one such instance. The article is entitled "Family history brought to life at Killerton House thanks to hand-stitched tapestries," and that title pretty much gives you a synopsis of the article.

A group of National Trust volunteers are creating new embroidered cushions for sixteen chairs at Killerton House, the former home of the Acland family. The cushions, when finished, will have the Acland arms used by the baronets, knights, and gentlemen of the family between the 16th and 20th Centuries. According to Burke's General Armory, those arms are Checky argent and sable a fess gules, borne quarterly with Palmer and Fuller (without specifying which of the 46(!) Palmers or 9 Fullers is being referenced. My 1938 copy of Burke's Peerage and Baronetage has the arms of the 13th Baronet as Acland quartered with Wrothe and Dyke).

The article gives a fair bit more of the background of this project as well as some of the people involved, not to mention the amount of work that is going into each one of these seat pads: each coat of arms has taken about 90 hours to complete. That is in addition to the background, which they estimate will take another 100 or so hours.

It's a nice article, and an interesting look into how some folks are making historical heraldry live again. You can find it on the website of the Exeter Express & Echo at

Thursday, June 2, 2016

More Local "Heraldry"

Driving home from our annual Memorial Day ceremony (honoring those who have died during military service to the nation) over at Oak Wood Cemetery in Fort Worth, Texas, we ran across the following piece of "heraldry":

Clearly, the logo is based (very loosely) on the national arms (Paly of thirteen argent and gules a chief azure), and yeah, okay, I can kind of see the symbolism with the ladder and the arrow pointing upwards, but it still seems to me that if you have to add your name to the shield, then it's not doing a very good job of identifying you -- which is, after all, the primary use of heraldry: identification!

I suppose that I have to give them something positive for the effort, but I really wish that if an organization didn't want to use heraldry, they wouldn't put it on a shield shape. I have nothing against a good logo, and I especially have nothing against good heraldry, but this emblem is neither.