The Mediaeval Herald

The Mediaeval Herald

By Dom Pedro de Alcazar

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

The duties of mediaeval heralds were many and varied. From acting as the precursors to modern diplomatic envoys and experts in martial law, to acting as moral mentors, heralds are to be found all over the chivalrous landscape in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Yet the occupation's history is shrouded in obscurity.

Heralds, for all that they are a loud and boisterous bunch, are hard to find in the historical records. It appears that their predecessors were minstrels who specialized in chansons de geste-the many poems about Charlemagne, his son Louis, their vassals, and the wars that united them and drove them apart. Often, these men were hired to tag along on military campaigns, to keep up the spirits of the troops. When tournaments arose in northern France in the twelfth century, the minstrels were hired on as well, since twelfth century tournaments were very much like preplanned battles.

The minstrels made new songs and cheers, not just for the heroes long dead, but for the new heroes of the tournament and the battlefield. Eventually, their betters decided that it would help their reputation and appearance on the field if one of these minstrels would go before them on the tournament field, declaring their employer's lineage and deeds. Also, they were hired to announce and help organize new tournaments. They were partially paid for their labors with the bits of broken armor left on the field, to be sold as scrap iron or as spare parts. When coats of arms were developed, either for use on the battlefield or the tournament, the minstrels were the natural people who would be most interested in keeping track of them, and made the leap from being proto-heralds to heralds.

The first person identified as a herald in the Middle Ages is a fictional character, who didn't even rate a name, in Chretien de Troyes' Knight of the Cart. After having pawned some of his clothes to pay off a tavern debt, he comes upon a shield he doesn't recognize hanging in front of the tavern. As it turns out, it is a shield carried by Sir Lancelot, who, for the purposes of this tournament, is going incognito. The herald went into the tavern, paid his debt, and saw Sir Lancelot, who asked him to keep his attendance at the tournament a secret. The herald agreed, but went out declaring that a great knight was in town, just refusing to name him. Romances and other chivalric texts also count heralds into the ranks of the judges of the tournaments, deciding who acted in the most knightly fashion.

The herald's military role also began to grow in importance. Since they could identify coats of arms and the deeds of their bearers as a matter of course, they were able to tell their employers about the other sides' probable troop strength and the characteristics of the commanders. Also, gradually, in their travels, heralds would also start learning martial law, because of its obvious relation to tournament law.

Heralds, as the twelfth century faded into the thirteenth, began to separate themselves from the ranks of minstrels. Their role as announcers for the next tournament gradually evolved into the role of being messengers and ambassadors, and the herald's tabard bestowed a form of diplomatic immunity, since he served the general cause of chivalry, as opposed to a specific master, at this time. Even though most heralds in the early part of the thirteenth century would have been temporary employees, like their minstrel predecessors, they were developing a professional literature, the roll of arms, and a jargon, blazon. The oldest rolls of arms in England date from the reign of Edward I. Rolls of arms fell into two categories: the occasional roll, which recorded the knights present at a battle or tournament, possibly for accounting purposes, and ordinaries and armorials, for reference purposes. They are often blazoned in a way that we would find recognizable today.

Near the end of the thirteenth century, the first heraldic manual was written in French. Its contents, speaking as they do of the necessity of knowing about the properties of herbs and jewels, point to the rise of secular learning. A new kind of herald was entering the picture, no longer the quasi- minstrel of the previous century, but an educated and courtly man, who, because of his links to the tournament, still retained links to the profession's minstrel heritage.

The heralds of the fourteenth century were highly respected members of chivalrous society. At this point in time, kings and nobles were hiring heralds on a permanent basis. The differentiation of heralds into ranks based in part upon their own learning and in part upon the status of their employers began at this time, when certain heralds working for kings or great lords were referred to as kings of arms. Also, kings of arms were considered experts on the coats of arms in use in a specific region, called a march (for example, Lyon in Scotland, Ulster in Ireland, etc.). The custom of hiring a herald spread from the kings and dukes all the way down to common mercenary captains, because of the usefulness of a herald. He was given diplomatic immunity, he was learned in martial law (which, at the time, covered more than just individual soldiers' behavior) and troop identification by number and nature, and essentially was indispensable as a staff officer. Often, a herald working for a member of the lesser nobility was referred to as a pursuivant, confusing the nice system of kings of arms, heralds, and pursuivants, since one might well find a very skilled herald in the employ of a mercenary. Heralds' records of chivalrous deeds were used extensively by historians like Froissart to track the Hundred Years War and the conflicts between the various claimants to the thrones of the Christian states in the Iberian Peninsula.

Fifteenth century heralds continued the proud legacy of their predecessors. A copy of the oaths of English fifteenth century kings of arms, heralds, and pursuivants of the royal household is in the Black Book of the Admiralty, which is really a code of martial and naval law. The pursuivant's oath is the shortest of the three oaths. He is simply required to be serviceable to the entire estate of nobility, obey the heralds and kings of arms, to live a clean life, and hope for further advancement. However, one cannot imagine that the pursuivant of a military company would have had such simple duties-in sooth, he was a herald with all the duties and, one assumes, the privileges thereof.

The herald, on the other hand, had seven articles in his oath. The first was to report any treason against his employer that he discovered. The second was to remain serviceable to the nobility, and, as a "confessor of arms," guide them to a more chivalrous life. This would've required the herald to become familiar with chivalrous literature and in lay devotional works. The third was to seek out great assemblies where noble deeds would be done or spoken of (courts, military expeditions, tournaments, etc.) and report the deeds to his employer. The fourth was to aid poor knights who lost their wealth in his employer's service by giving or lending to him whatever goods he needed. The fifth was to keep silent about disputes between two knights, if he should happen to overhear them, and only to speak about them in court after the knights had given him leave. The sixth was to aid damsels and widows in distress, by going to the herald's employer and asking for redress. The last was that the herald live cleanly and avoid such vices as gambling.

A king of arms had five articles in his oath. First, he was to act as his employer's special and discreet messenger. Second, he was expected to expand his knowledge of heraldry, and execute any commands that a nobleman would command him to, saving only his loyalty to his employer. Third, he was to know all the coats of arms in use in his march, and to be able to assign marks of difference to them, along with tracking the feudal services each nobleman owed. Fourth, he was expected to teach the royal household's heralds and pursuivants, and when matters were too confusing, to take them to his superior (in England at that time, the Lord Constable, later, the Earl Marshal). Also, he was expected to hold chapters of heralds in his march to teach them. Fifth, he was to continue to keep his herald's oath, and to allow all deeds of honor to be recorded.

At the end of the fifteenth century, then, the herald had reached the apex of his medieval career. Respected as a moral guide, an expert in military matters and genealogy, tournament organization, and a force for right against might, one cannot imagine a more attractive figure. Yet the herald was to decline and all but vanish, save for a few relics in the royal households of the Renaissance.

This took place because the nature of warfare changed. Wars now were fought by infantrymen under their king's flag, rather than by barons and captains leading knights and archers under their banners. The power of the aristocracy to fight private wars was curbed, if not broken. Diplomacy was handled by resident ambassadors, rather than by occasional visits by heralds. The tournament, which required heralds as advertisers, cheerleaders, and judges, became too expensive for all but the royal courts to hold. In any case, the tournament lost its role as war practice, losing its original reason for existence and popularity. No matter what the final cause, only a few private heralds remained.

In most of Europe, the royal heralds were left with the duties of assigning coats of arms to the newly ennobled, tracking the descents of the old families, and, very rarely, to act as witnesses in courts handling heraldic or probate cases. In the British Isles, the Tudors and Stuarts established a system called heraldic visitation, which restricted the population of armigers by sending the kings of arms or their representatives to each shire, to record each armiger and his right to his coat of arms. This gave a little added luster to the British herald, who otherwise had the same duties as his Continental brother.