Women and Heraldry

first published: 27 Sep 1996

Contents

The Lozenge Shield

In modern (i.e. post-Renaissance) heraldry, it is common that women's arms are required to be placed in lozenge-shaped shields. This is a fairly recent custom, however, and it was generally not in use in the Middle Ages.

France

In his Études héraldiques, Louis Bouly de Lesdain analyzes French women's seals. He comes to interesting results.

Concerning the shape of the shield, he finds, for the period 1250-1525: 199 normal shields, 34 lozenges, 7 squares and 6 round shields. The oldest lozenge is dated 1262, the next lozenge is dated 1335. The oldest woman's arms is dated 1188.

Moreover, he cites 9 men using lozenges on their seals:

  • 1270: Pierre seigneur de la Fauche
  • 1301: Jean de Hainaut
  • 1302: Jean de Châlon, archdeacon of Autun
  • 1308: Matthieu des Essarts, bishop of Evreux
  • 1322: Eustache de Conflans, advocate of Thérouanne
  • 1324: Pierre d'Estayer, squire
  • 1339: Pihilippe II de Melun, archbishop of Sens
  • 1364: Jean I count of Armagnac
  • 1420: Jean IV count of Armagnac

This provides a nice cross-section: lay and cleric, low and high nobility, titled and untitled, etc. The Armagnacs were among the most powerful lords in France (and, in 1420, leaders of one of the two factions in the French civil wars), and I can hardly imagine him using a lozenge shield if it was deemed the attribute of women. Nine men versus 34 women in the same period shows that the use by men was not that uncommon, compared to the use by women. Moreover, the oldest lozenge used by a man is contemporaneous with the oldest lozenge used by a woman. Clearly, then, the lozenge was one of various possible shapes, used by both sexes without significant distinction.

He also notes two octogonal shields (Jeanne de Ponthieu in 1345 and Marie Chamaillart, wife of Pierre II d'Alençon, in 1391). About 40 women's seals have supporters. One woman's shield has a helm: Alix de Seyssel, wife of Claude de Clermont seigneur de Montoison, conseiller et chambellan du Roi, whose impaled arms on a 1479 seal show a helm with crest and mantling (Demay, Inventaire de la Collection Clairembault, 2587). Crowns do not come into use (even for queens) until the 16th c (Mary of England, wife of Louis XII in 1514, Louise de Savoie and Claude de France, resp. mother and wife of François Ier in 1515). The "cordeliere" (can't remember the English term: rope around the shield for widows?) is very rare before the 16th c., and even in the 16th c. is used by married women as much as (or more than) by widows. Only in the 17th c. does it acquire that meaning.

Conclusion: aside from the helm, women's arms were not substantially different from men's in outward appearance. Impalement, however, is the norm: in the 1350-1625 period, 144 impale compared with 12 who don't (7 in the 14th c.). When catalogues of seals distinguish between the two (collection Clairembault), 36 are simple impalements versus 20 dimidiations.

England

In England, lozenge shields are also occasionally used by men until 1370, for example Thomas Furnival in 1259. Early lozenge shields used by women include that of Joan, countess of Surrey (1306) and Maud Fitzpayne (1356). Several women's seals present a curious arrangement of five lozenge shields in cross or saltire, each bearing arms of the woman, her two parents, and two successive husbands (Elizabeth Darcie 1347, Maud countess of Oxford 1336, Maud of Lancaster 1344). The lozenge nevertheless remains uncommon for women until the Renaissance. A decision of the heralds in 1561 made it mandatory. (Source: Charles Franklin, Bearing of Coat Armour by Ladies, London, 1923).

Heraldry and Discrimination against Women

An argument is made in one book I have, that, at least in France, the law cannot refuse the transmission of titles to females, or even restrict it by primogeniture, and this as a consequence of a number of international conventions to which France is a party. The full texts are available on the United Nations web site or the ECHR Web site (follow the links), along with the reservations and declarations made by signatories.

The relevant texts cited are:

  1. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966, (applicable in France since Feb 4, 1981; signed by the United Kingdom 16 Sep 1968, in force 20 May 1976):
    Article 26:
    All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any
    discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law
    shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and
    effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race,
    colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or
    social origin, property, birth or other status.
    
  2. United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women Dec 18, 1979 (signed by France 17 Jul 1980, in force 14 Dec 1983; signed by United Kingdom 22 Jul 1981, in force 7 April 1986; but a reservation was made upon ratification that "the United Kingdom [...] does not [...] regard the Convention as imposing any requirement to repeal or modify any existing laws, regulations, customs or practices which provide for women to be treated more favourably than men, whether temporarily or in the longer term [...] the United Kingdom's ratification is subject to the understanding that none of its obligations under the Convention shall be treated as extending to the succession to, or possession and enjoyment of, the Throne, the peerage, titles of honour, social precedence or armorial bearings, or as extending to the affairs of religious denominations or orders or to the admission into or service in the Armed Forces of the Crown.")
    Article 5. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures:
     (a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and
         women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and
         customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the
         inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on
         stereotyped roles for men and women; 
    
  3. Protocol No. 7 to the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, signed 22 Nov 1984 (applicable in France Jan 29, 1989; not ratified by the United Kingdom; see a current list of dates of ratification of this protocol)
    Article 5:
         Spouses shall enjoy equality of rights and responsibilities of a 
         private law character between them, and in their relations with their 
         children, as to marriage, during marriage and in the event of its 
         dissolution. This Article shall not prevent States from taking such 
         measures as are necessary in the interests of the children.
    

    Note that violations of this protocol could be the basis for a suit in the European Court of Human Rights.

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François Velde

Dec 10, 2000