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Heraldry and the medieval gentlewoman: Maurice Keen looks at the significance of female lines of descent in heraldic arms, and what this tells us about women of noble and gentle birth in medieval England.

AROUND 1450 RICHARD Strangways, lawyer of the Inner Temple, was putting together a book of notes and comments on heraldry, a subject of keen interest to the gentility of his day. A point came when he wished to include something on marks of cadency, that is to say the differences or marks on the full family arms as borne by the head of the house to distinguish his male children (a label of three points for the eldest son and heir, a crescent for the second son, a mullet for the third, and so on). But what of daughters? With regard to them Strangways makes these interesting remarks:
   In cause arms were first ordained that
   a mighty noble warrior might be
   known from others ... if arms be
   given to a man and he hath issue a
   daughter, to what intent should she
   bear his arms with a difference? To
   none; became she shall never wear
   coat armour nor come to wage war in
   the field ... Wherefore understand
   that she beareth arms only to be
   known of that noble blood and [for]
   the continuance of the right to those
   arms in them that shall come of her.

This statement of heraldic doctrine makes three assumptions. The first is that recognition in warlike situations is the key purpose and origin of heraldic coat armour (this despite that fact that in Strangways' day many who had never been to war and did not intend to go, claimed and used family coats of arms). Secondly, it assumes coat armour to be hereditary in the male lines of a family, with differences to distinguish cadet branches. Thirdly and most interestingly, it nevertheless recognises that the daughter of an armigerous gentleman has a right or interest in the family coat; and that if she is his only issue, she may pass on that right to the sons she may in due course bear. My purpose here is to explore the significance of this last assumption within the context of the social ideas and values reflected by heraldry in its early medieval days of vigorous development.

Though there were no differences in arms for daughters, by Strangways' time heraldry had found its means of recording women's armorial interests. The right of the descendants from a marriage with a gentlewoman who was an heiress in her own right to quarter her arms with those of their paternal family line preserved the memory of the dignity of her blood into future generations. The right of a man and his wife to display in their lifetime their respective family arms `impaled'--that is with the husband's arms in the dexter half of a shield (right-hand side--that is the left-hand side to the observer) and those of the wife's family in the sinister (left; observer's right) half--provided a way of marking the union of two armigerous bloods.

If one looks back to the earliest days of heraldry, in the twelfth century, it seems that Strangways' first assumption about the essentially military significance of arms was basically correct. The sensed need for a means of personal identification in the field for warriors of distinction, encased as they were from head to foot in mail armour, does appear to have been a key factor in its original development. `True heraldry', however, as defined by Sir Anthony Wagner, the greatest recent English scholar of the subject, involves more than the use of an identifying personal device (on shield, banner or surcoat); it entails `the systematic use of hereditary devices, centred on the shield'. Heraldic arms proper, that is to say, distinguish not an individual only, but a stock or lineage. In twelfth-century conditions, when the chief of a stock was likely to appear in arms at the head of his kinsmen and vassals, that did not make them any less relevant to warfare (or to the mock warfare of tournaments). But since lineage connections are forged through marriage, it did mean that female lines could not be kept out of the picture. Arms were the insignia of a family of distinction, and that was why its menfolk took such a pride in them; in that pride their womenfolk consciously shared. Rohesia de Clare, who died in 1152, was married to a great nobleman, the Earl of Lincoln; she sealed nevertheless with a seal of the same chevronny arms that her brother, Gilbert de Clare Earl of Hertford, bore on his shield--her own family arms.

Aristocratic menfolk were similarly sensitive to the significance of the arms of families to which their connection came through female lines. This was more especially so if, as was often the case, marriage had brought blood of higher dignity into their lineage. Thus it has often been noted that, in the twelfth century, a series of Anglo-Norman baronial families all used similar checky arms; the Beaumonts, Counts of Meulan and Earls of Leicester; the Earls of Warenne, and the Earls of Warwick. As David Crouch has noted, the key figure connecting all these families was a woman, Isabel de Vermandois (d.c. 1140). She was the sister of Ralph, Count of Vermandois (who also used checky arms), and the wife of Robert of Meulan, by whom she bore twin sons, Waleran of Meulan and Robert, Earl of Leicester. By her second marriage, to William de Warenne, she was mother to Gundreda, who married Roger Earl of Warwick, and was grandmother to Isabel, heiress of Warenne and the wife of Hamelin Plantagenet, who became Earl of Warenne in her right. The reason why Isabel of Vermandois was such an important connection for all these families seems clear: as Crouch points out, through her mother (note, again through a woman) she was descended from Charlemagne himself, of the highest blood that a noble family with French roots of that time could boast.

Most of our evidence concerning the heraldry of twelfth-century baronial families comes from surviving seals. From the mid-thirteenth century onward, the evidence becomes more plentiful, with the survival of `rolls of arms'. Significantly, a good many of the earliest among these rolls are lists of the arms (often painted, and very beautiful) of lords and knights who had been present in particular campaigns or tournaments, reminding us of the primary military associations of heraldry. With the exception of the arms of the two queens, Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor of Castile, which appear impaled with the English royal arms on the Heralds' Roll (c. 1279), the early rolls never blazon the arms of women. However, as Peter Coss has suggested, the rolls do in another way illustrate, vividly, the importance that arms could bear in signifying respect for the blood brought into a family on the distaff (female) side, by marriage. A number of instances can be identified from the rolls of families changing their arms in consequence of an illustrious marriage, and adopting a new coat modelled on that of the wife's family. The Percies are the most famous case: Henry Percy, (d. 1314) after his marriage to Eleanor, daughter of the Earl of Arundel, changed his old arms (azure, a fess of five fusils or) to a coat modelled on the arms of FitzAlan of Arundel, but tinctured differently (or a lion rampant azure; the FitzAlan arms were gules a lion rampant or). Comparably, Ingrain de Umfraville (d.c. 1322) adopted a variant of the Balliol arms when he married into that family; and John Charlton (d. 1353) changed his arms to those of the family of his wife, Hawise de la Pole, who brought him the Powys lordship. Coss has identified a number of other examples, and no doubt a rigorous search of the rolls would reveal yet more. That ladies themselves, in this age, were no less conscious than their husbands of the dignity of their family arms and their ancestry is nicely illustrated in the marshalling of the arms on the shield on the counterseal (1282) of Dervorguilla, Lady of Galloway and wife of John Balliol of Barnard Castle. It is an impaled shield, but her arms appear on it in the dexter half--where normally the husband's would be shown--and his in the sinister, indicating the higher dignity of the blood that she brought to their union. She was of the royal house of Scotland; and indeed it was through her that their son, another John, laid claim to the throne of Scotland in 1291, and became briefly its king.

One will reap a poor harvest by searching in the early rolls for impaled coats, like that of Dervorguilla's counterseal. But if we look forward to the fifteenth century, we can find a roll of arms where a variant of the device has been used to recall the whole genealogical and. armorial history of an aristocratic line, with a visible emphasis on the bloods brought in by women. The Salisbury Roll (c. 1464) was almost certainly prepared for Warwick the Kingmaker, who was the son of Richard Neville and of Alice, daughter and heiress of the last Montagu Earl of Salisbury. It focuses round the descent of two families, the Montagus (earls of Salisbury from 1337), and the Monthermers, descended from Edward I through the marriage of his daughter Joan of Acre to Ralph de Monthermer, and whose ultimate heiress Margaret married John Lord Montagu in 1343. The Salisbury Roll presents a series of figure drawings of the husbands and wives of the two families, linked by silken cords in sign of their union. The men are drawn in armour, in jupons of their family arms. The drawings of the wives are heraldically more interesting: each wears a mantle over her robes, embroidered on the dexter side with her husband's arms and on the sinister side with the arms of her own family (thus in effect showing their arms impaled). Interestingly, in the case of Richard Neville and Alice Montagu, who brought to his family not just high blood but a new title as well, the usual marshalling is reversed, in the same way as it is on Dervorguilla's counterseal: the Montagu arms, quartered with Monthermer, appear on the dexter side of Alice's mantle, the Neville arms on the sinister. Comparably, the figures of Warwick the Kingmaker himself and his wife Anne Beauchamp (who brought him the Warwick title and a putative link with the mythical hero Guy of Warwick) show the arms of Beauchamp and Warwick in the first quarter on his jupon, and on the dexter side on her mantle. Where it was necessary in order to bring out the significance of what a woman had brought to a lineage by marriage, there were ways to give her arms precedence.

To this point we have been talking of the arms and lineages of the very great. By the fifteenth century, when Strangways was putting together his book, many more besides the lords and knights, whose arms alone were included in the early rolls of arms, were recognised as genteel, and therefore entitled to armorial bearings. Those of sufficient standing to be called esquires came to be so accepted in the course of the fourteenth century; those a shade humbler, to whom the simple style `gentleman' came to be ascribed, followed a little later (by the mid-fifteenth century `gentleman' had become a formal `addition', to describe a degree immediately below esquire in the social hierarchy). In these conditions, men and families on the rise and aspiring to gentility were naturally eager to acquire coats of arms and establish their right thereto. The chief heralds (kings of arms) had by now been officially entrusted with authority to grant or Confirm the right to coats. They were expected to assure themselves that those who sought them met the necessary qualifications, and the social ambition of the upwardly mobile was beginning to put a good deal of business in their way. Prominent among those qualifications were kinship or habitual association with `worshipful gentlemen' and `those of noble blood'. Clearly, as good a way as any of ensuring such `habitual association' was by marriage. Gentlefolk and the socially aspirant thus became interested in the arms and pedigrees of their wives' families; and the device of impaling, of marshalling husband and wife's paternal arms together on a shield, became significant to them as a way of visually recording marriages that were socially gratifying.

Thus we find at Lytes Cary in Somerset the early sixteenth-century John Lyte commissioning for the windows of the great hall of his manor house a series of impaled shields in stained glass to commemorate marriages of his family going back to 1273. The glass on the `old canton window' of the hall at Chesterton in Warwickshire, of which Sir William Dugdale made drawings in the seventeenth century, made similar use of panels of impaled arms to record the ancestral lines of the Peyto family. At Elmdon Hall in the same county John Boteler, of a rising family, had carved in the great beam of the hall the arms of Boteler, Hore, Whitgreve and Whitacre, to show how the lordship of the manor had come to him by the marriages of Boteler to Hore, Hore to Waldeve and Waldeve to Whitacre. But perhaps the best example comes from the story of that typically upwardly mobile family, the Pastons. Somewhere about 1450 William Paston, younger son of Judge William, founder of the family fortunes, put together a little book of arms. There are seventy-three shields painted in it, commemorating the ancestry and connections of Paston: over half of them are impaled shields, recording marriages through which women brought (or were supposed to have brought) good blood into the Paston line. The Paston pedigree, which traced their origin back to a companion of William the Conqueror, was of course substantially concocted, not true genealogical history. William's book nevertheless offers a nice analogue, at a relatively humble genteel level, to the great Salisbury Roll commissioned by the Kingmaker. It replicates the same interest in the marriages that brought good blood into the line, and in the family arms of the gentlewomen who brought that good blood into it.

Ordinary gentlewomen, daughters not of lords, but of local knights and squires, showed moreover the same sort of awareness of the dignity of their blood and arms as did great ladies like Dervorguilla of Galloway. There are even examples (though rare) of women who were heiresses and childless granting away their family arms to a collateral, as Joanna Knightley did in 1436 to her cousin Richard Peshall. Heraldically, perhaps the nicest illustration of genteel, female armorial pride comes again from the Paston family. John Paston I, William's elder brother, married the heiress Margaret Mawtby (1421-84), of a family older and more established than his. When Margaret was drawing up instructions for the engraving of arms on her tombstone, she kept her husband in mind, but the main focus in her design was on the marriage connections of Mawtby and on Mawtby itself, her line. There were to be four escutcheons at the corners of the stone:
   whereof I will that the first
   escutcheon shall be of my husband's
   arms and mine departed [i.e.
   impaled]; the second of Mawtby's
   arms and Berney's of Redham
   departed; the third of Mawtby's arms
   and Lord Loveyn departed: the
   fourth of Mawtby's arms and Sir
   Roger Beauchamp departed. And in
   the midst of the said stone I will have
   an escutcheon of Mawtby's arms

Margaret knew, and she meant posterity to know, the worth of the blood that Mawtby had brought to Paston, and of the bloods that marriage had mingled with Mawtby.

It is often debated whether there was a real distinction, in later medieval England, between the culture of the expanded aristocracy of gentlefolk--the gentry--and that of the higher, traditional, chivalrous aristocracy. The story we have been tracing seems to tell, in the heraldic sphere at any rate, of a rather precise degree of acculturation. The gentry adapted to, and adopted, the heraldic ideas and modes of visual expression of the superior aristocracy, without modification. The common interest in women's family arms that we have found reduplicated in both traditions, suggests an important point toward understanding notions of social hierarchy and of its formation in this part of the past. David Crouch, looking at the early history of high lineages and their heraldry, has argued that these indicate a view of lineage structure which attaches much more significance to the cognate, female lines of descent than the emphasis on male primogeniture of inheritance law would lead one to expect. The same seems clearly true of the conception of pedigree that came to loom so large in the social thinking of the gentry of the late medieval and early modern ages.

Here it should be remembered that heraldic arms were generally held to be emblematic not only of good birth but also of ancestral virtue, with a lesson to teach the genteel about following the good example of their forebears. Thus for the upwardly mobile, marriage to a gentlewoman (by no means necessarily an heiress) fostered and cemented a sense of association with the traditions and values of a pre-existing elite, of loyal and honourable service, of the wise exercise of established local influence, and of respect for good birth. This last was a crucial element, rooted in the deep conviction (profoundly alien to modern meritocratic ways of thinking) that the qualities which fitted individuals to their respective stations in society were inborn. A clear implication of that conviction was that virtuous qualities were bred not only of the father's blood but of the mother's too. `That gentleman Jesus was born very God and man', the schoolmaster of St Albans wrote in his Boke, printed in 1486, `after his manhood King of the land of Judaea and of Jews, gentleman by his mother Mary, prince of coat armour'. It is not much wonder that by the school-master's generation the word `gentlewoman' had become, like gentleman, a significant and emotive word in English social vocabulary.


Peter Coss, The Lady in Medieval England 1000-1500 (Sutton Publishing, 1998); David Crouch, The Image of Aristocracy in Britain 1000-1300 (Routledge, 1992); N. Denholm Young, History and Heraldry(Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1965); Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England, ed. Peter Coss and Maurice Keen (Boydell Press, 2002), chapters 1 and 2 (by Peter Coss and David Crouch); M. Keen, Origins of the English Gentleman (Tempus Books, 2002); A.R. Wagner, Heralds and Heraldry in the Middle Ages (Oxford University Press, 1956); A.R. Wagner, English Genealogy (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1972).

Maurice Keen is an Emeritus Fellow and former Tutor in Medieval History, Balliol College, Oxford.
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Author:Keen, Maurice
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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