When Charles III was proclaimed King in September 2022 from the balcony at St James’ Palace, on display were officiants wearing what appeared to be costumes from centuries past. Who were they, and why were they there?
They were heralds of the College of Arms. These ancient proclaimers of all things royal might seem to be archaic and just a symbol in today’s world. Not so. Here we look at their past to see why they remain relevant in the present.
Coats of Arms
A coat of arms was originally a garment worn over armour, showing symbols that indicated family alliances and aristocratic order. The College’s officers were responsible for making certain only those entitled to arms received them and that they were issued according to rank and pedigree. They literally kept order in the royal court. Other roles involved communicating events of state throughout the country, and overseeing the protocol of ceremonies of state, as witnessed at the recent Accession of Charles III and the funeral of Elizabeth II.
For centuries, supervising these functions has been the responsibility of the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk. They receive extremely small salaries from the Royal Household. However, they can charge professional fees for researching genealogical claims and designing heraldic arms for applicants.
When someone who had the right to a coat of arms was buried, the officers of the College took charge of arranging the event. Using their expert knowledge of genealogy and heraldry, they determined what could be displayed in the procession, on the tomb, and the details of the procession – according to the participants’ rank in society. Elizabeth I’s coronation and burial were documented showing this information, which has been preserved on a scroll.
Protocol was used for state occasions with records of the events, such as coronations and visits of foreign ambassadors. Scrolls such as the one preserved for Elizabeth I listed the names, ranks, and offices of the people in the ceremonies. During the procession, officials of the College kept order with long white staves, which literally kept everyone in line.
Proper order was ensured due to the meticulous information the College maintained in the form of complex genealogical records. Lines of descent were researched so coats of arms would tell accurate stories. A coat displayed the patrilineal line on the left and the matrilineal on the right. Anyone who wanted a coat of arms, or an updated one, paid the officers of the College to create their arms, and this is still in effect.
The officers of the College kept track of the right to display arms by making visitations to the counties. Progressing through the country, they called before them people who claimed the right and asked to see the evidence of their birth and breeding. These heralds’ visitations remain important genealogical records.
It was and is a highly complex profession. The officers of the College need extensive knowledge of genealogy and history.
The standardisation of the College of Arms
Here’s five things that standardised the College of Arms:
- The College of Arms was chartered by Richard III when the Earl Marshal was no longer required to care for the King’s horses or muster his troops. They were given a house in Coldharbour, London in which to keep their records. The Earl Marshal came to preside over Courts Martial, regarding the matters of arms and who had the right to display arms on their shields.
- After being crowned, King Henry VII gave the College of Arms at Coldharbour to his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, for the remainder of her life. It caused disruptions in the storage of books and records, yet the heralds were still treated well at the royal court, always attending the king.
- Henry VIII loved pageantry, which gave the heralds ample opportunity to exhibit their roles at court. It was noted “At no time since its establishment, was (the college) in higher estimation, nor in fuller employment, than in this reign.”
In 1520, Henry VIII brought 18 officers of arms to the Field of Cloth of Gold to manage ceremonial duties. Yet, Henry’s penchant of giving his queens heraldic honours, which also extended to their families, was considered harmful to the science of heraldry. In his book, A Manual of Heraldry, Historical and Popular (1863), Charles Boutell said that the ‘Arms of Queen Anne Boleyn are the first which exemplify the usage, introduced by Henry VIII, of granting to his Consorts ‘Augmentations’ to their paternal arms. It is a striking illustration of the degenerate condition of Heraldry under the second Tudor Sovereign’.
Yet somehow – even with his love of pageantry – like many things Henry did, the heralds of the College of Arms were left in disarray by the end of his reign.
- The heralds proclaimed Lady Jane Grey as queen following the death of Edward VI; embarrassing, because they soon had to proclaim Mary I as the queen.
- The College was reformed, some might say redeemed, in the reign of Mary I, but due to the internal strife within the group, a new set of statutes was imposed by the Fourth Duke of Norfolk. (This is the same man who was later executed for plotting to marry Mary, Queen of Scots.)
The officers of the College were eventually made royal servants. To this day, their salaries remain nominal. Now the College remains essentially a private entity recognised by the Crown as having authority over issues of chivalric honour and protocol.
Although they might seem archaic and dated, the College of Arms retains a vital role witnessed throughout the centuries as the keepers of the order of formal society in England, as have their counterparts to the north – the Scottish College of Arms.
Deb Hunter is a podcaster, historian and USA Today bestseller for fiction who has an insatiable quest for knowledge and adventure. She was elected as an Associate Fellow by the Royal Historical Society in 2022, owns the All Things Tudor brand, and is represented by Past Preservers Casting.