Abatements and Augmentations of Honor
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Abatements and Augmentations of Honor

By Dom Pedro de Alcazar

© 2004, Craig Levin.
Reprinted here with gracious permission of the author.

This page is about abatements and augmentations of honor. Abatements and augmentations of honor are certain special charges that were placed on someone's coat of arms to either reward or punish that person for that person's good or bad deeds. I'm interested in abatements and augmentations of honor because this part of the art of heraldry, more than any other, shows how heraldry was connected to other parts of mediaeval life, especially law, ethics, and the code of chivalry. I hope to share my interest and the things I've learned with you.

I'm going to begin with the abatements, because, frankly, there's less to be said about them. Abatements appear in both the theory and the practice of heraldry in the fourteenth century. The first mention of abatements in a manual of heraldry was made by Iohannes de Bado Aureo, who wrote his Tractatus de Armis at the request of Anne, Richard II's queen. Iohannes wrote that if a person was to break his promise, showed cowardice, or acted in a grossly unworthy manner, he was to be brought on trial, and, if he was found guilty, his coat of arms were to be displayed upside down, or reversed. This is the first, and direst, abatement.

There were many reported instances of the use of the first abatement. Nearly every account of the execution of a traitor describes his being led to the headsman's block in a tabard of his reversed coat of arms. Also, the first abatement was used when a prisoner, released on parole, refused to pay his ransom. You see, in mediaeval wars, a prisoner was not taken to a POW camp, and held until the end of the war. Instead, he was the prisoner of his captor, and his captor could hold him until his ransom-usually about a year's income from his estates-was paid.

However, one normally doesn't carry such sums around in one's purse, and so it was the custom for captors to send their prisoners back home on parole to fetch their ransom money. For the most part, parolees were true to their words and came back with the money, but, as one might expect, as soon as a few arrived home, they conveniently forgot any promises they made on the battlefield or in the enemy camp. The captors would go to their own country's court of chivalry, to sue out a case against their faithless prisoners.

To our ears, the idea of a man suing a soldier of another country in a court of his own country, while the foreigner wasn't there, sounds highly unjust. However, soldiering was not the profession that it is today. Chivalry was meta-national, in much the same way as being in holy orders is, so that a court of chivalry, like a canon law court, was run not by the laws of each country, but by a separate code: the laws of arms, a subset of the civil law derived from the Romans that all the Christian countries considered part of their cultural heritage. Wherever anyone connected with the pursuit of war went, be he a herald or a warrior, the laws that governed him in his profession were the same in every place. So, as you might expect, there are French trials of Englishmen, English trials of Frenchmen, and, in fact, it didn't always go to the person who sued.

If the case went the captor's way, he would hang his faithless prisoner's coat of arms in as many public places as he could, even hanging them on a horse's hindquarters. It may sound surprising now, but people took this seriously. Just the threat of it would sometimes be enough to squeeze the money from an otherwise obstinate parolee.

The other abatements were for lesser offenses, and there's not as much documentation for them: in fact, the first evidence we have for them comes from heraldic manuals written during the reign of Elizabeth the Great. By the time she came to the English throne, the advance of military technology and the birth of national armies had reduced the appearance of heraldry to tourneys, stained glass, tombs, seals, and coach panels. Abatements wouldn't have had the same effect then as they would have had in her grandfather's day, because heraldry wasn't seen as much.

They also are more specific, as each abatement is matched up with an offense at arms, and less drastic to the treatment of the coat of arms: instead of turning the entire coat of arms upside down, specific charges were placed on the coat of arms. Also, the abatements, which, were they in metals or colors, were rare but otherwise not unusual charges, were tinctured in the two stains: sanguine, better known as wine-color or murrey, and tenne or orange.

Sanguine and tenne, supposedly, were never used in anything else other than abatements. Like the metals and colors, the stains also can be referred to in gemstone and planetary blazon. Sanguine's gemstone is sardonyx, and tenne's is jacinth. Their planets are, in fact, not really planets. Instead, they are the two nodes of the Moon's orbit- the dragon's head (tenne) and the dragon's tail (sanguine)- which supposedly were the parts of the dragon that ate the Sun or Moon during an eclipse, thus implying that the person's honor, the visible representation of which was his coat of arms, was eclipsed by his misdeed.

There were eight of these "new" abatements. The first was a point dexter tenne, for one who boasted of a deed he never did. The second was a point champaine tenne, for killing one's prisoner out of hand. The third was a plain point (a base) sanguine for a liar before his commander. The fourth was a point pointed for coawardice. The fifth is a dexter gusset sanguine for drunkeness, and the sinister gusset sanguine was for lechery. A gore sinister tenne was also for cowardice. A delf tenne was for one who revoked a challenge, and the eighth was an inescutcheon reversed sanguine was for one who discourteously treated women, or fled from the king's banner in battle. Also, the heralds said that a charge could be removed from a coat of arms by the Court of Chivalry as a form of abatement, but, naturally, this might lead to confusion with arms that were otherwise identical, but for a different number of identical charges.

Since coats of arms are visible displays of hereditary honor, as later scholars have noted, it seems highly unlikely that many examples of abated arms would exist, and, indeed, aside from the various examples of reversed arms that are out there, no other abated arms from the Middle Ages can be shown to have been displayed.

Given the present state of Courts of Chivalry, I find it unlikely that we will revive this practice.

The flip side of abating, augmenting, has a longer and more detailed history. Naturally, anyone would prefer to display "new and improved" arms, and since augmentations are hereditary, mediaeval augmented arms are still to be seen today.

The oldest augmentation is a twelfth-century augmentation from the Holy Roman Empire, consisting of adding an imperial eagle to the arms of the recipient, one Julio Maroni. Later imperial augmentations of honor, especially in Italy, usually were so-called "imperial chiefs," being the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire on a chief.

This practice was a way for the emperors to reward their faithful followers in Italy, the Ghibelline party. The Papacy and the French house of Anjou, both supporters of the Guelfs, would grant augmentations of arms as well. The Angevins would grant chiefs of Anjou (France differenced with a label gules) and the Popes would grant chiefs of the Papal arms (gules, a tiara and in base two keys crossed in saltire or). Sometimes, the Papal ombrellino-basically a parasol-would be added in overall.

In the rest of Europe, augmentation practices differed. In Castile, the augmentation would often be a bordure of gules, semy of castles or, or a bordure gobony argent a lion rampant purpure and gules a castle or. In Scotland, the usual practice was to grant the royal tressure, that is, the double tressure flory counterflory. The king of Portugal added an inescutcheon of Portugal to Da Gama's coat of arms as a reward for his successful voyage to the Orient.

English augmentations are another story. For one thing, bordures or chiefs of England, although present, were not the only forms of augmentation. Instead, English augmentations could be cantons, piles, inescutcheons, or flaunches, usually charged with the royal arms, or, in one case when an inescutcheon was used, a coat of arms derived from the royal arms: quarterly 1 and 4 azure a fleur de lys or, 2 and 3, gules a lion passant regardant or.

English augmentations could also be single charges added to the coat of arms, alluding to something which the armiger had done. One of the earliest of these augmentations, supposedly, is one made by Edward I to one Dodge-the addition of a woman's breast distilling gouttes argent, for his efficient tax collecting and nourishing of the king's coffers. However, the facts surrounding this augmentation are iffy. A breast, or dug, would not be an unusual cant on Dodge. The record of the augmentation comes from a Tudor-era herald's visitation of the family, generations after Edward Longshanks was dead. The majority of heralds and scholars are inclined to doubt that the Dodge's coat of arms really was augmented.

Sometimes the augmentation was an entire coat of arms alluding to the deeds of the armiger. This was a use for the canton (or quarter) or the inescutcheon, because this new coat of arms had to be integrated in a fitting manner with the original coat. One example of quartering an augmentation is the Pelham augmentation, granted after a member of the family cut Jean I's saddle girths at Poitiers, enabling the English to capture him: One and four, Gules two pieces of belts palewise in fess argent buckles in chief Or, two and three, Azure three pelicans in their piety argent. An example of an inescutcheon is the so-called "Flodden augmentation" granted to Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey: Gules on a bend between six crosses crosslet argent an inescutcheon Or charged with a demi-lion vulned with an arrow within a double tressure flory-counterflory gules, which is also an example of metal on metal armory.

Some augmentations seem to have been a form of arms of office. When the Earl of Oxford was made Lord of Ireland-at the time, one of the royal titles-Richard II gave him an augmentation of the arms of dominion of Ireland. At the time, the Irish arms of dominion were neither the azure a harp or of the royal arms, nor the vert, a harp or of the Irish flag, nor even a grand quartering of the four Irish provinces, but yet another coat-azure, three crowns or within a bordure argent.

Yet other augmentations, especially some made by Richard II and Henry VIII, were made simply because the recipients were near to the king in blood. Richard II granted the attributed arms of Edward the Confessor to the dukes of Surrey, Norfolk, and Exeter. Henry VIII granted the inescutcheon mentioned above that was composed from elements of the then-royal coat to the Earl of Rutland. He also granted augmentations to his in-laws after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

Augmentations were, like abatements, also given to armigers by princes other than their native lords. Crusaders who went to Castilla y Leon were sometimes awarded cantons or points pointed charged with the attributed arms of Grenada- argent, a pomegranate proper. Other crusaders who went east to the aid of Byzantium would occasionally come back with an imperial eagle on their coats of arms.

Augmentation seems to have been an inexpensive practice for rewarding knightly deeds-far cheaper than, for example, enfeoffing the stout warrior, or giving him a gift of goods or cash. Also, because an augmentation directly represented what the recipient had done, they served as advertisements for others to emulate their deeds. Since most augmentations were inherited, it also acted as a sort of permanent memorial to the doer-and enduring fame has always been an incitement for people to do their best.