In all our discussions very little attention has been given to the actual nature of the Earl Marshal's office. As I understand it, the office of Marshal is of great antiquity, long antedating the earliest use of heraldry in England. Originally he and the Contable were the officers of the King's horses and stables, but they became in course of time the leaders of the army and developed into Great Officers of State. The Earl Marshal's connection with heraldry came about almost accidentally. In conjunction with the Lord High Constable he held a court, known as the Court of Chivalry, for the administration of justice in accordance with the law of arms, which was concerned with many subjects relating to military matters, such as ransom, booty and soldiers' wages, and including the misuse of armorial bearings. Changes in the methods of military organisation at the close of the Middle Ages caused much of the jurisdiction of the Court of Chivalry to become obsolete, leaving it with only armorial caes to decide. The office of Lord High Constable having being allowed to lapse, apart from occasional revivals, the Earl Marshal was left as sole judge in matters relating to armory.
In addition to his military jurisdiction in heraldic matters the Earl Marshal came to have authority over the English Officers of Arms. When he first came to have such authority is not knowm, but we find him exercising it in a fully developed form in 1568. In that year the Earl Marshal promulgated "Orders to be observed and kept by the Officers of Arms". These "Orders" recited that before that time the Earl Marshal had had authority by virtue of his office to make orders and statutes to be ovserved and kept by the Officers of Arms. Among other things it was ordered that no new arms should be granted without the Earl Marshal's consent. A further set of orders for the Officers of Arms was made by the Commissioners for executing the office of Earl Marshal in 1668.
Notwithstanding the long-continued exercise of authority over the Officers of Arms, Sir Edward Walker, Garter, in 1673 claimed that he had, as belonging to his office of Garter, power and authority to grant arms and "other ensigns of nobility" without being subject therein to the authority and jurisdiction of the Earl Marshal. This dispute was referred by the King to the Earl of Anglesey, the Lord Privy Seal, for his report and opinion. The King, having come to the conclusion that Garter's claim was "groundless and unreasonable", took advantage of the occasion to declare the powers of the Earl Marshal. The declaration, dated 16th June 1673, was in the widest terms. The Earl Marshal was declared to have power to order, judge, and determine all matters touching arms, ensigns of nobility, honour, and chivalry; to make laws, ordinances, and statutes for the good government of the Officers of Arms; to nominate Officers to fill vacancies in the College of Arms; to punish and correct Officers of Arms for misbehaviour in the execution of their places. It was further declared that no patents of arms or any ensigns of nobility should be granted and no augmentation, alteration, or addition should be made to arms without the consent of the Earl Marshal.
Walker was dissatisfied with this declaration and petitioned the King to review it, whereupon it was referred to the Privy Council. The Earl Marshal and Walker were heard in Council, and on 27th January 1673/4 the delaration was confirmed.
In the declaration of 1673 the Earl Marshal was described by the King as "the next and immediate Officer under Us for Determining and Ordering all matters touching Armes, Ensigns of Nobility, Honour and Chivalry". In this capacity the Earl Marshal not only had power to control the Officers of Arms, but he also came to be concerned with kindred matters, such as alterations in the Royal Arms, the assignment of arms to members of the Royal Family, grants of precedence, changes of names and arms, and the use of foreign titles and insignia. Royal Warrants on these matters are addressed to the Earl Marshal, to whom, they state, "the cognisance of matters of this nature doth properly belong".
In an earlier posting, quoting the current Norroy & Ulster King of Arms, I asserted that the English Law of Arms was the basic ancient laws and usages of arms as augmented by the rulings of the Kings of Arms and the warrants of the Earl Marshal. In counter-argument it was stated that this was not so and the English Law of Arms was formed from the decisions of the Court of Chivalry. I would seriously question this counter-argument in the light of the 1673 declaration of the powers of the Earl Marshal. In England and Wales his powers in armorial matters was declared to be supreme and there was no mention of him being subject to any higher sanction or control.
This view is not inconsistent with the authority of the Court of Chivalry as set out by Blackstone. The Earl Marshal and the Officers of Arms were concerned with the confirming, granting and ordering of armorial bearings and the Court of Chivalry dealt with inter alia complaints relating to the usurption of armorial bearings. In my view the two roles appear to be complimentary.
Patrick Cracroft-Brennan FSWW HonFHS FSA(Scot)
Last modified: Apr 03, 1999