Heralds are officers of arms who emerged in the medieval period and still exist today. In the United Kingdom, they are now to be found at the College of Arms on Queen Victoria Street. This has been their home since 1555, and the current building was erected after the last one was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.
The emergence of heralds
In their earliest days, heralds would deliver proclamations and act as messengers on behalf of monarchs or by high ranking noblemen. They were essentially the forerunner of the diplomats active all around the world today. Heralds carried a white rod to denote their diplomatic immunity: they were not to be attacked in war nor the subject of reprisals on account of the messages they carried. Diplomatic immunity was at the core of their activities moving between parties, particularly in times of war to keep channels of negotiation open.
Over time, this involvement in diplomacy led to heralds becoming experts in heraldry. They came to know the badges, standards and coats of arms used by royalty and nobility in order to help them do their jobs. This in turn opened up another avenue of activity for them. Heralds became experts in genealogy. Understanding heraldry evolved into a knowledge of family histories and achievements, not least because these often played into the coats of arms used by noblemen as heralds needed to understand what they meant.
This aspect of the heralds’ work expanded and made them experts in family history and the coats of arms and heraldic devices that identified nobles. In turn, as the tournament circuit grew across Europe, heralds became the natural choice to organise them. As they understood coats of arms, they could determine who was qualified to participate and could keep track of who won and lost.
Medieval tournaments began as sprawling war games in which the aim was to capture rival knights. Doing so would entitle the captor to keep their horse or claim a ransom, and the circuit made some knights, such as the famous Sir William Marshal, incredibly rich.
The events could cover miles of countryside or drive through towns, involving hundreds of contestants. As well as causing chaos, they could be very dangerous and knights were sometimes killed in tournaments. During these vast events, a herald’s eye for who was who proved invaluable. It was only much later in the medieval period that tournaments began to evolve into the more contained jousting contests associated particularly with the Tudor period.
Heralds also became involved in organising the highly ceremonial moments of pomp and circumstance during the medieval period, including Christmas and Easter feasts. They continue to be involved in many events today.
The heralds of the United Kingdom are today under the watch of the Earl Marshal, an office of state held by the Duke of Norfolk. They still have central roles in the procession and service of the Order of the Garter, the State Opening of Parliament, arranging State funerals, and the coronation of monarchs. You can usually spot them at these events by their brightly coloured tabards, a leftover from their medieval forerunners.
The College of Arms
On 2 March 1484, the College of Arms was formally incorporated as a legal body by Richard III, who had overseen the heralds for more than a decade as Constable of England before becoming king. He gave them a house named Coldharbour on Upper Thames Street. This was taken from them by Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth and given to his mother. The charter still in operation today was granted by Queen Mary I in 1555, along with Derby Place as their base. This building was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the present building is its replacement, completed in the 1670s.
Richard III’s charter of incorporation stated that the responsibilities of the heralds included that ‘all manner of solemn occasions, solemn acts and deeds of the nobility, those concerned with the deeds of arms as well as others, be truthfully and indifferently recorded’.
Heralds and battles
Medieval heralds also had key duties on the field of battle. For the same reasons that they were useful at tournaments in knowing who was who and spotting where they were, they were also perfectly positioned to record battles. They could compile casualty lists based on heraldry even when facial features may have become unrecognisable. They were responsible for recording numbers of dead and injured, organising the burial of the dead and for relaying the requests of prisoners to their captors.
Although they were expected to encourage their masters to behave honourably and in a chivalric manner on the battlefield, they were also required to remain impartial. Traditionally, heralds would withdraw to a safe distance, on a hill if possible, and observe the battle. Heralds of the opposing forces could do so together, protected by their diplomatic immunity and bound by an international spirit of fraternity that was above the fights of their masters.
One of the key roles of the heralds on a battlefield was the official announcement of the victor. It may seem obvious who would have won a battle, but heralds were medieval VAR, officially determining who had triumphed. This convention was on display at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. One account of the battle written by Enguerrand de Monstrelet, who was a Frenchman and governor of Cambrai, details the immediate aftermath of the fighting.
‘When the king of England found himself master of the field of battle, and that the French, excepting such as had been killed or taken, were flying in all directions, he made the circuit of the plain, attended by his princes; and while his men were employed in stripping the dead, he called to him the French herald, Montjoye, king-at-arms, and with him many other French and English heralds, and said to them, “It is not we who have made this great slaughter, but the omnipotent God, and, as we believe, for a punishment of the sins of the French.” He then asked Montjoye, to whom the victory belonged; to him, or to the king of France? Montjoye replied, that the victory was his, and could not be claimed by the king of France. The king then asked the name of the castle he saw near him: he was told it was called Agincourt. “Well then,” added he, “since all battles should bare the names of the fortress nearest to the spot where they were fought, this battle shall, from henceforth, bare the ever durable name of Agincourt.”’
So, for all the knights and warrior kings, it was the neutral heralds who decided who granted victory on the medieval battlefield.