Braveheart was a good film," Gerard J. Brault graciously admits, but not an especially accurate one. "The Scottish noblemen don't seem to have any coats of arms in the movie," he notes with disappointment. "And we know, at that time"—the turn of the 14th century—"that some of them did."
Braveheart himself, William Wallace, would have ridden onto the field as a knight bearing the arms of the Guardian of the Realm of Scotland: Gules, a lion rampant argent. Not to be confused with Edward the First's Gules, three lions passant guardant or. Or, for that matter, the saltire and chief of gules on a field of argent of Robert the Bruce, who fought until Wallace's death on the English side. (Only after becoming King of Scotland, did Robert the Bruce add a mullet argent in the dexter point of his chief.)
If you are only a dabbler do not trouble to read this. It is meant for those who are really interested in heraldry . . . That's the invitation of Hugh Stanford London in his slim pamphlet, The Right Road for The Study of Heraldry. London edited Rolls of Arms of Henry III, the second volume in the Aspilogia series published by the Society of Antiquaries of London. Brault, who is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of French and Medieval Studies at Penn State, recently completed the third Aspilogia volume, The Rolls of Arms of Edward I (1272-1307). He is a bit more inclusive: "The people who will use the book," he explains, "won't all be specialists. They'll be people who have a problem to solve. People who need to identify a coat of arms."
Film directors. Folk tracing their family trees. Rare book collectors. "Say you own a manuscript that has a shield on its front page, but no name," Brault suggests. "You could turn to my book."
Oxford University, for example, has a manuscript of Perlesvaus, a 13th-century French romance about the Quest for the Holy Grail. On the frontispiece is a shield bearing horizontal yellow and red stripes. If you can translate "yellow and red stripes" into the language of heraldry (Brault's 1972 book, Early Blazon, is good for that), you will find, using Brault's Aspilogia volume, that "barry or and gules" was the trademark of Brian Fitzalan, Lord of Bedale in Yorkshire from 1267 to 1306. Reading further, you can learn that Brian served in King Edward's wars against the Welsh in 1282, 1287, and 1294, and against the Scots in 1297. At the siege of the Scottish castle Caerlaverock, in 1300, he and Hugh Pointz had an argument over the right to bear the "barry or and gules" shield; their disagreement was immortalized in a poem which lists at great length (956 verses) the coats of arms borne by the King's men.
In 1300, when The Siege of Caerlaverock was written, "barry or and gules" would not have been so impenetrably arcane as it is today; nor, for that matter, would "gules crusily and a fess dancetty or."
In the England of Edward I, French was spoken at court. Such words as or, gold, and gules, red (from Old French gole, animal's mouth or throat, as in our word "gullet") were part of common speech. Other descriptors—barry, barred; crusily, covered with crosses; and a fess dancetty, a zigzag stripe like the one on Charlie Brown's famous yellow shirt—came, says Brault, "from the clichÃs of earlier craftsmen." What came to be known as blazon, the language of heraldry, he explains, "is derived, for the most part, from the specialized language of artists. Thus besant does not mean a Byzantine coin, chevron a rafter, cotice a leather thong, and manche a sleeve, but the stylized bezant, chevron, cotice, and maunch of artistic tradition."
It was a language still new in Edward I's day, and full of inconsistencies. "For example," Brault writes in his introduction to The Rolls of Arms of Edward I, "it was a matter of indifference to the early compilers whether they blazoned a charge a bend or a baston, a canton or a quarter, an indented or an engrailed cross, a mullet or an estoile, a pale or a pile: I use only the first of these terms having the same meaning. Crosslets were arbitrarily painted in a variety of ways, botonny, cross crosslet, fitchy, paty, plain, etc.: I say crusily for all such semy fields. . . . Compony, which designates a single row of checkers in early as well as present-day heraldry, is used here, but the expression counter-compony for a double row is a later innovation and has been omitted in favour of the medieval term checky." (No wonder Hugh Stanford London warns that heraldry is not for dabblers!)
Having compiled the first scholarly glossary of medieval heraldic terms in his Early Blazon, however, Brault can easily translate gules crusily and a fess dancetty or into "a red shield with a pattern of gold crosses and a gold zigzag stripe through the middle." To a medieval herald, that description would say "William de Engaine" as quickly as Number 13 in the Aqua and Orange says "Dan Marino" to any American sportscaster.
For heralds were the sportscasters of their day. On the tournament fields and battle grounds, a knight in armor was anonymous but for the colorful tunic, or coat of arms, worn overtop of his breastplate, and the matching pattern on his shield and pennant. It was up to the herald to keep straight all the bends and checkers and crosslets and chiefs and to call out, correctly, "Sir Edmund Deincourt," upon seeing the azure billety and a fess dancetty or and not "Sir John Deincourt," who bore a shield marked argent billety and a fess dancetty sable. (Billety is a pattern of long rectangles, shapes like billets of wood.) For Hugh Pointz and Brian Fitzalan to both bear the barry or and gules at Caerlaverock was the same as if Dan Marino and Deion Sanders both sported the Number 13 Aqua and Orange jersey at the Superbowl.
To make their job easier, as the number of shield designs grew (by the end of the Middle Ages, Brault notes, there were 800,000 of them), heralds began to compile (or convinced the court clerks to compile—it's not clear who did the actual work) the rolls of arms that form the basis of Brault's study. There are painted rolls, which show actual colored images of rows of shields, and blazoned rolls, where the shields are only described in the language of heraldry. Some are actual scrolls of vellum, up to ten feet long; others have been cut apart and rebound as books; still others are later copies in book form.
The rolls were compiled for two reasons. Some, were general rolls, "reflecting no known event," writes Brault. Others, such as the Galloway Roll, list the participants in a certain battle or other occasion. Three weeks after the siege of Caerlaverock, in this case, some of King Edward's soldiers "went off in search of provender as far as the Cree, beyond which the Scots were lurking in an inaccessible glen," according to G.W.S. Barrow's Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland. "There was a skirmish, and Sir Robert Keith the Marischal was captured. Next day the whole English army reached the Cree and found the Scots facing them across the tidal estuary. . . . The archers on both sides exchanged shots across the river, and when the tide went out the English infantry crossed over and harassed the enemy at close quarters. In each army the cavalry was grouped in three brigades. Edward, mistrusting snares and traps which the Scots were reported to have laid, wished to keep the English horse on the east side. But owing to a misunderstanding the earl of Hereford's brigade went over, whereupon the king and his son Edward of Caernarvon followed in support. At this the three Scottish cavalry brigades, commanded respectively by Buchan, Comyn of Badenoch, and Umfraville, took to flight, many knights abandoning their horses and fleeing to the moors." Composed soon after this battle, the Galloway Roll is blazoned (not painted). It's not a very good roll—"many names and blazons are garbled," Brault notes, "and in nine places, only the title Sir is provided"—and it includes only the knights in the King and his 16-year-old son's squadrons. The Earl of Hereford—who misunderstood the king's command—is missing, for whatever reason. Yet, combined with other records of the period, it provides historians with a portrait of how, exactly, the English king organized his troops.
For Edward I had quite an embattled reign. In his twenties he joined a rebellion against his father, led by Simon de Montfort, but soon switched sides. Then it was off to the Crusades, not to return until 1274, after the old king's death. "The early years of Edward's reign," writes Brault, "were peaceful ones during which the new king governed energetically and wisely." Yet by 1277 he was at war with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd of Wales. In 1282, Edward took by right of conquest the title "Prince of Wales" that the current heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, still holds.
Meanwhile, the Scots allied themselves with the French, who attacked Edward's possessions in Gascony. Edward went to France in 1294, but lost. He put down another uprising in Wales, then sent his army against the Scots, who surrendered in 1296. The Stone of Scone, where Scottish kings had been crowned for centuries, was taken to Westminster Abbey and encased in a carved oak throne still used as the British coronation chair.
But in 1297, the Scots rebelled again, this time led by the William Wallace of Braveheart fame. The Scottish wars, including the Siege of Caerlaverock and the battle at the River Cree, seemed to end in 1306, when Braveheart was beheaded. Yet, as Brault writes, "In an astonishing turnabout, on 10 February 1306, Robert de Bruce, earl of Carrick, who had been supporting the English, murdered John Comyn of Badenoch [whom Edward had set on the Scottish throne] and, a month later, was crowned king at Scone." Edward was on his way to a battle with Bruce when he died in 1307, aged 66.
Beside him, in all these battles, Edward I would have had a herald, naming the enemy, finding upon the field Simon de Montfort (Gules, a lion rampant with a forked tail argent), Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (Quarterly or and gules, four lions rampant guardant counterchanged), or Robert the Bruce (Argent, a saltire and a chief gules).
The first heralds to be mentioned, beginning in the 1170's, were mere announcers at tournaments, for years grouped in the royal payrolls along with minstrels, trumpeters, harpers, and even confectioners—"no doubt to their annoyance," writes a modern herald, Sir Anthony Wagner, who was Garter King of Arms, the chief herald of Britain and head of the College of Arms from 1961 to 1978. Yet as the number of knights grew and the importance of heraldry as a means of keeping friend and foe straight increased, heralds rose in stature to be considered ambassadors and great men in their own right. According to Wagner, "by 1416 William Bruges, the first Garter King of Arms, was rich and grand enough to feast the Emperor Sigismund, when he came to England, at his own house in Kentish Town in Middlesex." Wagner himself led the Coronation procession of King George VI, supervised Sir Winston Churchill's funeral, and planned the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales. (He also, according to his obituary in the New York Times in May 1995, "created a splash in the United States in 1939 when he disclosed research indicating that George Washington and Queen Elizabeth, now the Queen Mother, were distant cousins.")
# It was Sir Anthony's dream to have all 300 to 400 English rolls of arms published in scholarly editions.
He approached Brault on the publication of Early Blazon in 1972, but Brault had by that time begun his classic edition and translation of the Old French Song of Roland, which Penn State Press published in 1984. There followed an interlude into his own background—The French-Canadian Heritage in New England, published by the University Press of New England and McGill-Queen's University Press in 1986—before Brault would return, full-circle, to the queries of his graduate school days at the University of Pennsylvania when, writing on the Old French poet Girart d'Amiens in 1957, he was faced with untangling the latter's Escanor.
A romance of King Arthur's days written for Edward I's queen, Eleanor of Castile, Escanor includes a tournament scene in which 21 knights strive for the hand of the princess Andrivete. Girart describes the coats of arms of all 21—a tedious bit of nonsensical verse to a modern reader until one discovers that, as Brault writes, "The arms attributed to the King of Scotland and to the King of Wales correspond to the historical arms of King Alexander III of Scotland and Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, and the fact that the latter is shown in a favourable light means that Girart's romance was composed about 1280 during the brief period when the rebel price enjoyed singular favour at the court of Edward I."
Other coats of arms at the crossing of history and literature await explanation: Why, for instance, does the Herald's Roll (also called "Eleanor's Roll," since it includes the arms of the English queen) begin with the coat of arms of the legendary missionary Prester John (azure, a cross or)? Why do other rolls list such storied knights as Roland (or, a lion rampant gules within a bordure indented sable) and Sir Gawain (sable fretty or, a shield linked to an otherwise little-known family, the Maltravers), or the Saints Edmund, Edward the Confessor, and Peter?
"The study of heraldry is at least a hundred years behind parallel disciplines," Brault notes. Of the 600,000 to 800,000 medieval coats of arms, only about 10 percent, he estimates, have even been catalogued.
Why is not hard to fathom: To edit the 17 rolls in The Rolls of Arms of Edward I took Brault, for whom blazon is hardly a foreign tongue, seven years. First came the ordinary difficulties of any manuscript work: reading the handwriting; puzzling out lacunae, those gaps in the text where the scribe skipped a word or a line; unscrambling the spelling and expanding abbreviations; and organizing similar manuscripts (Brault had 77 manuscripts of 17 different texts) into a "tree" showing which was copied from which and what one was closest to the "original."
Because the painted shields in 12 of his rolls were more than illustrations, Brault pored over their colors with a magnifying glass. "In many instances all that was left was a few flakes of paint, but it was enough to see the telltale color," Brault says. Except in cases such as silver, which often turns black with age. Even when the color is clear, the charge, or design, might not be correct. "Sometimes copyists misinterpreted charges and painted something else," Brault notes. "The best manuscript of Segar's Roll has three stylized castles on a bend for John de Stirling. Later copies—and modern editors—erroneously show three fleurs-de-lis.
"All medieval copies are marred by errors of some sort," he continues. "One of the most difficult problems was deciphering garbled names or poorly transcribed verbal blazons. For instance, in Lord Marshall's Roll, a blank shield captioned Hue de Aubbeswrth is for Hugh de Bibbesworth's; in Collins' Roll, the shield for the same individual has the correct arms but is labeled Hue de Bibusnnorey."
Once he had distilled the 5,126 entries to 2,100 individuals and was satisfied he had the right name together with the right shield, then came the question of who these people were. With the help of a research assistant (Norval Bard, a doctoral candidate), Brault checked Charter Rolls, Close Rolls, Fine Rolls, Inquisitions post mortem, Patent Rolls, Parliamentary Writs, and Welsh Rolls (most of these rolls had been collated, in the late 1920's, by a scholar named Charles Moor) and the Book of Fees—in short, the voluminous medieval lists that recorded "any time someone had dealings with the Crown." He searched for seals on documents, tiles, tombstones, and monuments, and pored over county histories. From these various sources Brault compiled biographies.
For instance, the shield of Henry de Herice appears in two rolls of arms: Or, three hedgehogs statant sable (that is, a yellow background showing three black hedgehogs, in profile, standing on their hind legs). Writes Brault, in a scholarly staccato of facts and sources: "Henry de Herice of Widmerpool, Notts., d. 1273, leaving a bro. and h. John (d. 1299; Cal. Inq. Edw. I 3: 401, no. 526). (Cal. Inq. Edw. I 2:12, no. 12; Moor 2:222.) John's arms are sculpted at Gonalston, Notts. (Lawrance, p. 23). Hedgehogs (OFr. heriÃ¡on) are a canting device."
Canting devices, or puns on a knight's name, were fairly common: Henry of Henneberg's shield bore a hen; William Heringaud's bore herrings (harenc in Old French); while Godard, John, and Roger Heron's all bore (what else?) herons (OFr. hairon).
Sometimes it took both a pun and an artifact to identify a rare shield. "I think I got the most satisfaction out of solving the problem of Arnoul de Caupenne's arms," Brault notes, "found in only one source that I am aware of. Galloway Roll—which is chock-full of scribal errors—blazons the charge on this Gascon knight's coat as sis pennes de signes cheverunÃ©, that is, six swan's feathers 'chevronny.' It was only after finding the armorial seal of a descendant, Raymond Guillaume de Caupenne, that I was able to understand that the feathers are shown in pairs with the points of the quills upward and joined to form three chevrons."
There were, of course, some among the 5,126 entries that defied identification (sadly, one is the "Brown" who bore Gules billety or, a canton ermine, according to Charles' Roll). And for all that they " had developed a specialty in identification," the heralds themselves remain for the most part anonymous. Although Brault lists the names of some 32 French and English heralds and "Kings of Arms" active at the time of Edward I's reign, he says, "We haven't connected a specific herald to a specific roll."
Heraldry—the brilliant coats of arms on shields and surcoats and gay pennants bright above the grim visored knights—such is the image of pomp and splendor and chivalry the term evokes. But the heralds' rolls of arms, at least in Edward's day, "were often very crude kinds of things," Brault admits. Lists for use, not presentation. Their interest, to him, lies most in the puzzles of their language.
Historians, too, will find that Brault's The Rolls of Arms of Edward I can answer many questions.
How many knights did King Edward command? "People who had a coat of arms," Brault explains, "were knights who could be called up for military duty." Of "strenuous" knights—those of age and fit to fight—there were some 500 at any given time. "Actual knights we've identified number 1,250, and from that we can project a larger figure of 3,000 potential knights for the entire reign."
Was a knight's rank apparent from his shield? "What is new and perhaps most important here," Brault writes in the introduction of his book, "is the roster of second- and third-rank armigers"—people who bore coats of arms—"in the reign of Edward I. The heraldry of these individuals does not appear, at first blush, at any rate, to have been any different from that of their social superiors." King Edward's three lions passant guardant or on a field of gules (three gold lions, down on all fours and looking out at the viewer, on a red shield) was no more elaborate (or simple) than his enemy, William Wallace's gules, a lion rampant argent (red, with a white lion up on its hind legs), or Robert the Bruce's saltire and chief of gules on a field of argent (a white shield bearing a large yellow Saint Andrew's cross, with a yellow band across the top).
For genealogists, Brault's compilation is useful for the families of knights, spanning several generations, he has been able to link by their shield designs. Rare book collectors, archivists, art historians, and others trying to pin a name on a shield will be delighted with his Ordinary: an index of coats of arms grouped by their major design elements, such as lions, saltires, fesses dancetty, and such.
But, as Brault notes in Early Blazon, "Illustrators of medieval manuscripts were not always accurate in their depiction of the arms borne by literary characters and often decorated shields with purely conventional devices." The makers of Braveheart, it would seem, were following a long artistic tradition.
Gerard J. Brault, Ph.D., is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of French and Medieval Studies in the College of the Liberal Arts and Fellow of the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies, 406S Burrowes Bldg, University Park PA 16802; 814-865-6062. Graduate students who contributed to the project include Paul H. Oorts, Margo Brault, and Norval Bard Jr. Funding was received from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Camargo Foundation of Cassis, France, the American Philosophical Society, and Penn State's Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies, the Graduate School, and the College of the Liberal Arts. Aspilogia III: The Rolls of Arms of Edward I (1272-1307) was published in 1996 by Boydell & Brewer for the Society of Antiquaries of London.