All this business of heraldry as the art and knowledge of coats of arms is fine, but why is it called heraldry, and what does it have to do with heralds?


See Anthony Wagner: Heralds and Heraldry in the Middle Ages. Oxford University Press, 1956.

The first mention of heralds is in a poem by Chretien de Troyes, written ca. 1170. They were initially of the same class as minstrels, itinerant entertainers who seemed to have been early on associated with tournaments. Throughout the 13th century they are mentioned in connection with tournaments, identifying and announcing the participants. Knowledge of heraldry was thus one of their main skills from the beginning, and they set themselves apart from other minstrels by that specialization. By the late 13th century there are mentions of kings of arms (king of the heralds north of Trent in 1276, king of the heralds of France in 1290), who often use a device with three crowns, and by the 1330s territorial appelations appear (Clarenceux in 1334, Norroy in 1338 in England). At some time in the following decades the territorial appelation brings with it responsibilities over the heralds of that area. By then, the most important heralds are permanently attached to a sovereign and come to play ceremonial roles during court functions. The creation of chivalric orders is accompanied by the appointment of heralds attached to those orders (Garter in England, Golden Fleece in Burgundy: in both cases the king of arms ultimately became the principal king of arms of the country).

The use of heralds as messengers (as in the modern sense of the word "herald", e.g. names of newspapers, "to herald the arrival of spring", etc) appears in the 1330s in England, in connection with the beginning of the Hundred Years War. In the late Middle Ages, one often sees heralds taking letters to sovereigns, or even acting as ambassadors, as well as performing various tasks before and after battle: transmitting challenges, declarations of war and other messages such as offers of surrender, identify friend and foe, and also the dead after the battle and negotiate ransoms for prisoners. Also, fromthe second half of the 14th century, we have the first rolls of arms firmly attributed to heralds, although the earliest rolls date to the late 13th century. The compilation of rolls of arms in their respective areas becomes a standard part of the kings of arms' duties in the 15th century.

In the 16th c., when some kings tried to regulate heraldry for fiscal or political reasons, the heralds became involved because of their knowledge. Only in England and Scotland did this regulation become established. The English heralds, who first appear as expert witnesses in late 14th century heraldic disputes before the court of the Constable, became in the 16th century the main agents of royal control over heraldry. However, in other countries, such as France and Spain, the heralds lost importance after the 16th c. as the forms of warfare became quite different, ambassadors replaced heralds, and heraldry remained unregulated. The office was increasingly held by people who had no qualifications at all for the job, bringing the profession in some disrepute.

An Austrian herald.

There were usually three ranks of heralds. The kings of arms were either appointed by the king or elected by their fellow heralds, and there often werre several kings of arms in a given kingdom. Apprentice heralds were called pursuivants. Heralds begin to form corporations in the 15th century (in 1406 in France, 1484 in England).


The history of English heralds is covered in the pages on England.


See Rémi Mathieu: Le Système héraldique français. Paris: J. B. Janin, 1946.

The heralds were incorporated in January 1407, with the chapel of Saint-Antoine in Paris given to them to meet and have a library. There were twelve kings of arms, chief among them Montjoye, followed in rank by Anjou (Montjoye's preeminence was not constant: Charles VII, while he was disputing the crown to Henry V and Henry VI of England, created Gilles le Bouvier (1386-1455) as Berry king of arms in 1420, and retained preeminence as the first king of arms of France during his life; he was also an important historian, besides composing a vast armory with some 1900 arms). In the 16th century a number of kings of arms (Valois, Champagne, Dauphin, Normandie) and heralds (Guyenne, Angoulême, Lorraine, Orléans) are on the king's payroll and sent for diplomatic missions abroad. In 1487, the herald Bourbon was appointed as maréchal d'armes des Français with powers to compose a catalogue of all noble arms in France and to rectify incorrect arms. This appointment did not have any known result. A mandement of September 30, 1535 by François Ier ordered heralds to research heraldic abuses (particularly usurpation of arms by commoners) and to prosecute them before the courts. Contrary to England, however, these orders had little effect, and in particular heraldic cases continued to be handled by the normal courts, rather than a specialized jurisdiction.

By the 17th century, French heralds were mostly incompetents. To remedy this, an office of juge général d'armes de France was created in 1615, with jurisdiction over heraldic cases, with appeal to the court Tribunal des Maréchaux. This court had been created after the abolition of the office and court of the Connétable in 1607, and its jurisdiction covered disputes of honor between gentlemen. The parallel with England is very strong; but contrary to England where the law of arms was outside common law and therefore common courts, heraldic disputes had long been adjudicated by the ordinary courts (royal judges and the parlements in appeal), and continued to be so even after the edict of 1615.

The office of juge d'armes was first held by François de Chevriers de Saint-Mauris, who was succeeded by Pierre d'Hozier in 1641. From that time until the Revolution of 1789, the office remained hereditary in the d'Hozier family. It was briefly abolished in 1696 and recreated in 1700. The juge d'armes approved all grants of arms by the sovereign, and also issued confirmation of arms. After 1706, he was empowered to issue grants of arms (règlements d'armoiries) on his own authority upon payment of a fee of 50 livres, and these replaced royal grants completely. His judicial authority remained purely theoretical, because the king never gave him the necessary resources: he had no court, no clerk, no bailiffs, and no means to enforce his decisions, although he was occasionally used as an arbiter in heraldic disputes.

See also a list of French heralds.


All the matieral in this section is based on Rafael Dominguez Casas: Arte y Etiqueta de los Reyes Catolicos: artistas, residencias, jardines y bosques. Madrid: Editorial Alpuerto, 1993.

As elsewhere, there were three ranks: persevantes, farautes or heraldos, and reyes de armas. The pursuivant had to be 20 or 22 years old, and was presented to the king by two heralds who detailed his qualifications. If the king approved, he baptized the pursuivant by giving him his name of office and pouring over his head water and wine. After at least 7 years in office, the pursuivant could be presented again to the king, this time by two kings of arms and four heralds; his name of office would be that of a province or non-capital city. A new king of arms had to be approved by the whole set of pursuivants, heralds and incumbent kings of arms, and received as name of office one of the kingdoms in the king's possessions. Heralds and kings of arms had to take an oath of office, while pursuivants did not.

As elsewhere, Spanish heralds by the 15th century had mainly a ceremonial role, as well as a role as messengers and ambassadors. Their garments were the same. Under the Reyes Catolicos, Castilians were appointed asAragonese heralds and conversely. At that time, the offices were already becoming quasi-hereditary.

There is only one mention of a king of arms named España, appointed by Isabel of Castile in 1477, with wages of 25,000 maravedis. There is no further mention of this herald, whose appointment coincides with a program of celebration of the unification of the two Iberian monarchies and the recreation of the Visigothic Spain.


The office of Castilla is known since 1429, and its holder in 1519 was Juan de Peraza, grandson of Guillem de Peraza who was king of arms of Aragon in the1470s, and father of Guillem de Peraza who was baptized as pursuivant Fuenterrabia the same year. Castilla's salary was 24,480 maravedis. The office of León appears in sources in 1434; Enrique Coronado was appointed in 1477, with a pursuivant named Frechas (named after Isabel's famous empresa) and his successor in 1501 was Gonzalo de la Cueva. Toledo is cited in 1442, named after the old kingdom of Toledo; the holder's tabard bore Azure an imperial crown or. Sevilla, Córdoba and Murcia were also offices, with the respective arms on the tabards. In 1496 an office of Granada was created to commemorate the capture of that kingdom, and given to Michel Vranclx, a Fleming who died in 1522 and was succeeded by Nicaise Ladam, previously herald Bethune.


Évreux was the principal king of arms under the dynasty of that name (until the death of Blanche in 1441), otherwise the king of arms was Navarra, the heralds were Estella, Viana (the heir apparent was titled prince of Viana), and Libertat, and the pursuivants were Blanc Lévrier (named after the order founded by Charles III of Navarre), Bonne Foy, Las, Gounzcuant and Lamas. In 1519, Carlos I appointed as Navarra king of arms Sancho Navarro, previously Cataluña herald.


When Juan II of Aragon died, his son Fernando, already king of Sicily since 1468, succeeded him. The same year he rebaptized Sicilia herald Guillem de Pedraza, renaming him Aragón king of arms. His successor was a prominent herald: Garci Alonso de Torres, born in Sahagún (León). He wrote three treatises, which are really three versions of the same treatise, Blasón y Recogimiento de Armas, studied in Martin de Riquer: Heráldica Castellana. Other kings of arms were Valencia (bearing Azure a walled city or surrounded by the sea), Mallorca (bearing the same arms as Aragon), Sicilia which was held under Alfonso V by Jean Courtois, another important author precviously in the service of Pierre de Luxembourg, count of Saint-Pol, and after 1504 Nápoles.



Abstract of an article by Gerald Müller, 'Das bayerische Reichsheroldenamt', Zeitschrift fr Bayerische Landesgeschichte 1996 59(2): 533-593.

Examines in detail the origins, development, and practice of the office of "imperial herald" created in Bavaria in 1808 as part of sweeping political reforms, particularly an edict stipulating that all aristocrats must both document their status and register with the state. Originally the imperial herald's functions were primarily ceremonial, overseeing correctness in court ceremonies, heraldry, and other affairs. Soon, however, the mandated registration of all nobles - the handling of which was the herald's responsibility - overwhelmed all other tasks and became the herald's primary function. Detailed analysis of the bureaucratic functioning of the office and especially the compiling of the official aristocratic registry indicates that the latter was not a veiled effort to suppress or reduce the nobility. Over 90% of all petitions to the registry were accepted, the fees charged were nominal, and no great "uproar" ensued. The registry (a practice soon adopted elsewhere) was in keeping with the modernizing trend of the times, establishing state authority vis--vis the nobility and integrating the latter into the state.

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François Velde

Last modified: Sep 01, 2000