The regulation of English heraldry between 1530 and 1688 has led many writers to project back into the Middle Ages concepts and beliefs of later times. In particular, one often sees the claim made that, in Medieval England, arms were restricted to the knightly class, or at least to the gentry. Furthermore, by equating gentry with nobility, some reach the conclusion that arms were restricted to the nobility. One aim of this essay is to debunk these notions.
Prior to the 16th century, heraldry was unregulated in England, just as it was unregulated in all European countries. No laws or institutions prevented anyone from adopting arms as they pleased. Heraldry spread from the noble and knightly class to the merchant, craftsmen and farming classes from the 14th century on.
Starting in the early 16th c., Henry VIII decided to place heraldry under the authority of his heralds, who were instructed to draw up authoritative lists of acceptable arms then in existence (arms which had been in use long enough, were used by members of the gentry, and conformed to heraldic rules). They did so in the course of visitations throughout the shires of England, visitations which were repeated at intervals of 20-40 years. The later visitations often confirmed arms which had been used for a few generations. In parallel, the granting of new arms by the heralds became a common practice. By the 17th c., the Law of Arms had evolved to the point where only arms granted or confirmed in a visitation were considered lawful, and the bearing of all other arms was unlawful and subject to fines. This was undoubtedly the high point of heraldic regulation in England. About that time (in 1672), a law was passed in Scotland which gave a solid foundation to heraldic regulation there, down to this day.
Many writers believe that English heraldry is just as regulated nowadays as it was in the 17th century. In fact, this essay will argue, the heraldic authorities have been essentially deprived of the means of enforcement they had, by disuse and by changes in society, which has demonstrated a large measure of indifference for the claims of heralds to regulate all heraldry in England. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 saw an immediate end to the visitations, and the Court of Chivalry, which had been the heralds' means of enforcement, fell into disuse and then oblivion. Its one-time resurrection in 1954 dealt with a case of usurpation of a city's registered arms by a private corporation. But, since 1797, no case of free assumption of arms has ever been successfully prosecuted in England; not for lack of occasion, to be sure.
In the current state of affairs, in my opinion, the College exists and continues to grant arms at a sizeable rate; but its coercive authority has long disappeared, and it cannot prevent anyone from assuming arms, as it once did. Those who seek grants from the College do so of their own will.
The points of view expressed here somewhat unorthodox, although well within the tradition of Oswald Barron at the turn of the century and Leslie Pine closer to us. Most English textbooks on heraldry are written by heralds of the College of Arms or people otherwise closely associated with that institution. Their general tendency is to describe the state of things they think ought to prevail, and their own activities, without perhaps paying enough heed to actual practice.
For the "official" view (as well as much more information on English and British heraldry) see the British Heraldic Archive. In particular, see an article on the Law of Arms by G. D. Squibb.For a recent example of an official grant, see Alex Robertson's grant of arms from the English College of Arms.
Last modified: Nov 15, 2002