Regulation of Heraldry in England: the Middle Ages


The Middle Ages

Unregulated England

In Medieval Europe, heraldry was unregulated, in the sense that anyone was entitled to bear arms, and there were no restrictions based on class or any other distinction. This was true also in England, and there are documents by English jurists which document it: they are quoted in another article. The presumption, then, is that heraldry was also unregulated in Medieval England.

Squibb's View

An "official" view of heraldic regulation in the Middle Ages appears in Squibb's article on the Law of Arms in England. That article was published in 1967 and summarizes aspects of the author's book on the Court of Chivalry (1959). Squibb tries to prove that heraldry is regulated in England and self-assumed arms are illegal. In doing so, Squibb reaches back to the Middle Ages and produces two pieces of evidence:

  1. pleadings before the Court of Chivalry in the late 14th-early 15th centuries
  2. the writs of 1417.
He uses this evidence to try to prove that heraldry was also regulated in the 15th century. Each piece of evidence will be examined in turn.

The Cases before the Court of Chivalry (1390-1410)

The pleadings in the Court of Chivalry prior to the 16th century never deal with self-assumption of arms, that is, the assumption by a man of arms not otherwise in use. On the contrary, all cases are brought by one man against another for usurping his arms. The logical method to resolve these cases, and the one used by the court, is to determine who began using the disputed arms first. In one case (Scrope vs. Carminow) where both parties seemed able to prove usage from time immemorial (going back even to the Conquest of 1066, we are told), the Court decided to let both use the same arms.

In the process, both parties would try to prove usage from time immemorial, to pre-empt the other party's claim. From the nature of the deposition of witnesses, and from nothing else, Squibb "deduces" that "the right to arms" was only founded on usage from time immemorial. In other words, according to Squibb, as of 1400 or so, the only legal arms in England were the ones born since 1066.

Never mind the known fact that arms were constantly being assumed by all sorts of people (as documented later in this article). Whatever the conclusion, it is only a conclusion on the method used by the Court to resolve disputes over a specific set of arms. Squibb, by a complete non-sequitur, claims that this is evidence for a prohibition on the self-assumption of arms.

The Writs of 1417

The only shred of evidence for regulation of heraldry before Henry VIII comes from a document endlessly but not always accurately cited by authors, including Squibb.

In 1417, a writ was issued by Henry V to sheriffs in Southern England, commanding that soldiers who were about to join the upcoming expedition in France were not allowed to bear coats-of-arms or armorial tunics of arms if they did not have "an ancestral right" or a "grant of some person having sufficient authority thereunto". All men were to register their arms with persons "named or to be named for the purpose". An exception was made for those who had borne arms with the king at Agincourt; they didn't even have to register. It is quite clear that the writs were issued for the special purpose of the upcoming expedition, and were intended to apply to men under arms in the forthcoming expedition, not to society as a whole. So this is no evidence of regulation of heraldry in England, and the text by Nicholas Upton cited above suggests that the writs did not establish to much control even on soldiers campaigning in France. Rather, it indicates that heralds, the Court of Chivalry, and government regulation of heraldry were all involved in military expeditions, but not outside of the context of such expeditions.

The full text of the writ is available. Squibb, in his zeal to stamp out any evidence of self-assumption, claims that the exemption for those who fought at Agincourt is explained by the presumption that members of the 1415 expedition had already proven their right to arms. But the text of the writ explicitly states that members of earlier expeditions had assumed arms without specific right.

Was Heraldry restricted to the Gentry?

As we have seen, there is no legal evidence of regulation of heraldry in England on a society-wide scale before the 16th c. at the earliest. But some have argued that, in fact, heraldry was limited only to members of the gentry, and that the modern association of gentry with the use of arms in fact started in the Middle Ages. This restriction may not have been founded on any legal document we can now identify, but it was a social convention that had the strength of law. I now proceed to debunk that myth.

Nobility and Gentry

The first problem is one of definitions. What social group are we considering? There are three terms involved, namely knights, the knightly class and the gentry.

England's social structure was defined in the wake of the Norman Conquest. The king was deemed to be owner of the whole land, most of which he in turn ceded in tenure to various individuals in exchange for certain obligations.

In 1086, there were 170 tenants-in-chief, who held land directly from the king, and might be called barons, holding 50% of the land; 17% was the king's demesne, 25% went to the Church and the rest (8%) went to minor officials and lesser tenants-in-chief. The numbers of the baronage remained roughly constant at around 200 to the 14th c.

The barons or lords, in turn, infeoffed some of their holdings to other men, who held the land in exchange for certain military services to their lords: these were the knights, who held a knight's fee. Such as system allowed barons to use some of their land in order to meet their commitment to provide the king with a certain number of knights, or mounted soldiers, in case of need. In the 11th c. there were possibly 4000 to 5000 knights. By the late 13th c. there were 3000 landholders in the knightly class , which comprised not only active knights (about 1500) but also others who could have assumed knighthood, but could not or would not. This last group was composed of esquires. Originally, an esquire was a man who had not yet completed training to become a knight. Knights typically had incomes of £40, while esquires were around £20. Division of land through inheritances, increasing costs of a knight's equipment (as well as a dwindling need for knights in increasingly professional armies) account for the reduction in number of knights, and the corresponding rise of the esquires. While esquires did not take up military careers, they played a role as officials and administrators in the counties. By the late 13th c., the knightly class had coalesced into a social class, marked by its high status and hereditary quality.

It is important to note that, in England, knighthood did not undergo the transformation from professional class to hereditary class that occurred in most places on the Continent. Rather, the knightly class itself, that is, the pool from which knights could be drawn, became hereditary, but the title of knight could only be used by those who actually undertook the career of a knight. By the 15th century, rare were those, except in the highest gentry, who were willing to take up the burden of knighthood: in fact, from the 13th c., the willingness of the knightly class to pay a fine rather than take up knighthood became a source of revenue for the king.

In the course of the 14th c., the baronage itself evolved into the peerage on one hand, about 70 families, who held an inheritable right to individual summonses to Parliament, and the bannerets, somewhat intermediate between peerage and knights, and later came to be seen as part of the knightly class or the upper gentry. The knightly class itself evolved into the gentry, with three distinguishable tiers: the knights (about 950 in 1436, with incomes between £40 and £200; about 500 in 1500), the esquires (about 1200 in 1436, 800 in 1500, with incomes between £20 and £40) together a fairly homogeneous group called the county gentry; and lastly the gentlemen, 5000 or so, with incomes between £5 and £20. An income of £5 was considered "fair living for a yeoman" by Sir John Fortescue. Only the county gentry played a real political role and held offices in local administrations (the limit was put at £20 income in 1439 for a number of offices). There is yet another, wider concept, that of parish gentry, which seems to incorporate gentlemen, lawyers and merchants who had invested in land, and richer yeomen: those numbered in all about 6000 or 8000 in the 15th c. Whether this had much meaning is open to question: this stratum was by essence an intermediate category.

The term gentleman itself comes into widespread use in the 15th century only. A law of 1413 required that the social status or occupation be indicated in all legal proceedings, and soon after one sees the adoption of the term gentleman to designate small landholders whose lifestyle placed them above franklins or yeomen. The title was in effect self-adopted: in the words of Sylvia Thrupp, "a man was free to judge of his own ripeness in gentility, subject only to the opinion of his neighbors". Elsewhere, she comments that, from the point of view of others, especially chroniclers and poets, "the relative rating or individual gentlemen [...] rested on a nice balancing of considerations of birth, lands, and type of service. Enjoyed in combination, wealth and birth outranked all else. When they occurred separately, the rating depended on circumstances."

Where did these gentlemen come from? From above and below, I suppose: impoverished knights who could not hold their rank any more and younger sons whose lot was small, as well as merchants, lawyers and successful yeomen who rose upward. The question of the permeability between merchants and gentry is difficult. Mingay has a number of quotes, from the 16th-17th c. it is true, stating that gentlemen could not exercise trade (Locke, Addison, Steele, Defoe). There is an anecdote of a soldier in 1433 killing another soldier who called him "no sort of a gentleman" and claimed he was a haberdasher.

It must be strongly emphasized that the concept of gentry is peculiar to England. Continental Europe never knew anything like it. On the Continent, nobility is defined as a legal status in society which is either inherited or acquired through very specific procedures, like holding certain offices, or ennoblement by the sovereign. There was never any definition based on income, although the prohibition against manual labor meant that nobles who could not afford not to work might lose their nobility (in fact, in France, their nobility was not lost, but went into abeyance, and would return if they quit their trade or manual labor). And it was not possible for anyone to glide into the nobility simply by assuming the lifestyle of a noble. Nobility carried important implications, especially fiscal exemptions, and exclusive access to certain functions, offices or privileges, and it was important to make sure that the concept of nobility maintain its legal content. In France, in the 17th century, massive inquiries were launched by the king to ferret out self-assumed nobility. So it would be a serious mistake to equate the English gentry with the Continental lesser nobility.

Gentry and Merchants

Sylvia Thrupp, in her monumental work on London merchants, makes a clear distinction between merchants and the gentility, and treats them as separate categories throughout, but she spends a good deal of time studying the interpenetration between the two, as well as the resistances encountered by merchants as they tried to enter the gentility. Symptomatically, there was prejudice against merchants marrying gentlewomen, but gentlemen were quite eager to marry merchants' (rich) daughters and widows: between a third and half of London aldermen's daughters married into the gentility. By contrast, between a quarter and a third of wives of aldermen were from the gentility, and the proportion was very much lower for the merchant class as a whole.

There were very few merchant knights, less than half-a-dozen at all times, and they had been knighted by the king, usually late in their careers. (The tradition of knighting the lord mayor of London did not begin until the 16th c.). A few merchants in the 15th c. called themselves both merchants and gentlemen, but these were also quite rare. At the time, then, contemporaries, and in particular merchants themselves, made a distinction between merchants and gentlemen.

Gentry and Heraldry

What about heraldry? The heralds were willing in 1530 to give arms to men with an income of £10 or more, so that would seem to include about all of the gentry at the time, probably more. What about before the 16th c.? Chris Given-Wilson states (p.70): "At the beginning of the fourteenth century, for example, knights were allowed coats of arms, but esquires were not. From about 1350, coats of arms were allowed to esquires, but it was another hundred years or so before they were allowed to gentlemen." There is absolutely no reference given for this contention, unfortunately, and it certainly does not square at all with the proven cases of 14th c. merchants bearing arms: one can see how they might be construed as gentlemen, but certainly not as knights stricto sensu.

The problem, as should be clear by now, is two-fold: there are no texts restricting heraldry to any class, and there is no gentry to restrict heraldry to until the 15th century. So, as far as the 14th century is concerned, either one believes that heraldry was restricted to the knightly class, or else one has to admit that there were no such restriction.

Merchants and Heraldry

Unfortunately for that thesis, there are plenty of counter-examples from the 14th and 15th centuries. Merchants commonly assumed and bore arms; they used them on their seals, and placed them on their tombs; they passed them on to their children; and, when composing them, they used any charge, not shying away from ordinaries, lions, eagles, etc.

Sylvia Thrupp discusses heraldry at length in her book: here are some citations.

"English writers have often stated that the medieval merchant was not allowed to bear arms, but there is no medieval authority for this view. In London it was customary for aldermen to bear arms in the same manner as any military commander of high rank, and there that their right to do so was ever challenged or ridiculed [...] Tudor and seventeenth century compilations ascribe arms to about half of the aldermen and sheriffs of the 14th c. and to all but two of the 15th c. aldermen. [...] In 12 of the 14th c. cases the men's monuments or surviving impressions or their seals supply an exact confirmation of the heralds' record, and in several more there is similar evidence that the arms were at least in the family, near relatives having used them on seals. [...] For the 15th c. aldermen there is archaeological confirmation either of the fact that the men bore arms or of the exact charges as given in the books, in at least seven cases, and in a few others there is some contemporary allusion to their possession of arms.

But it was not necessary to be an alderman in order to possess a coat of arms. Several of the 14th c. aldermen had been making use of armorial escutcheons on seals long before they were elected, and impressions of nearly 80 other shields of arms have been found from the seals of London merchants who never arrived at aldermanic rank. [...] On the whole there is little doubt that the use of arms was fairly widespread among London merchants in both centuries, and provincial deeds and monuments indicate, in the same way, that the custom was also common among the greater provincial merchants.

Merchants must have acquired their arms by one or other of the same means that were open to gentlemen. One means was by inheritance. Some of the armorial merchants of London may have inherited their arms from ancestors of gentle rank; in view, however, of the large proportion of London families that were not of gentle origin, it is unlikely that this was the rule. Another means was by grant from the king. This would have been a rare honor [...] According to his epitaph Sir William Walworth was so honored, receiving a coat of arms when he was knighted for his services in the Wat Tyler crisis. Yet Walworth's arms had been engraved on his seal at least 4 years before the date of his knighthood. [...] A third way of acquiring arms was to purchase an official patent from a herald [...] Only one such grant to a London merchant has been found [...] there was a fourth way of acquiring arms---simply by assuming them. Many merchants who had no family arms may have saved the herald's fee, relying on a painter or a seal-cutter to devise a coat of conventional design. [...]

Outside the merchant class, citizens were in general too poor or too closely identified with their trade to develop many of the traits of culture that were associated with gentle rank. Those who required a seal for business purposes were often content with one of round or oval shape depicting the tools or material of their craft [...] Some had shield-shaped seals but by preference either filled them with simple graphical trademarks or else contrived a coat-of-arms from pictorial devices of their trade [...] There is no reason to suppose that heralds would have challenged those as not armorial [...] A few, however, broke into the more aristocratic armorial tradition, one glover bearing a lion's mask, a brazier a lion rampant, a brewer two dragons; and well-to-do corwainers, chandlers and others would follow the fashion of placing the predatory and fantastic creatures of conservative heraldry on seals of other shapes."

From her book, and other sources, I have drawn up an armory of London merchants, based essentially on seals. There are about 80 names in it, mostly from the 14th c. but also from the 15th c. A majority of these merchants were aldermen, and members of guilds, or livery companies as they later became known: hence they were prominent merchants. But, as emphasized above, they were not part of the gentry. It is interesting to peruse this armory. It shows that the design of merchant arms does not often betray the status of the owner (although fishmongers seem partial to fishes). It also shows that, very often, arms were adopted by merchants fairly early in their career, 20 or 30 years before their deaths or retirement from public life. In other words, they did not wait for success or becoming aldermen to take arms. In fact, a number of seals belong to merchants who apparently never made it to alderman, and to merchants belonging to far less prestigious guilds. The earliest example of armoried seal belong to a 13th c. butcher, for example.

The limits of the available documentation have prevented me from looking elsewhere than in London, but Thrupp makes clear in the above passage that armorial bearings were not used only by London merchants.

Modern Times


  • Mingay, G.E.: The Gentry. 1976, London: Longman.
  • Gentry and Lesser Nobility in Late Medieval Europe. Ed. Michael Jones. 1986, Gloucester; Alan Sutton.
  • Chris Given-Wilson: The English Nobility in the Late Middle Ages. 1987, London; Routledge & Kegan Paul
  • .
  • Thrupp, Sylvia: The Merchant Class of Medieval London. 1948, Chicago; Chicago University Press.

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François Velde

Last modified: Sep 30, 1999