Heralds and heraldry

The medieval heralds were a highly trained profession with an important part to play in the feudal society of the age. Heraldry is a collective term for all the tasks of the herald - proclaiming and conducting tournaments, carrying messages between princes and armies and directing and performing various ceremonies. In Western Europe, where the art of heraldry attained its highest pitch of development, countries were organised into heraldic provinces led by a King of Arms who was assisted by Heralds and Pursuivants.

For reference, the heralds compiled rolls of arms in which the armorial bearings of different knights were painted. Knowledge of the coat of arms and symbols by which the knights were recognised, and of their entitlement to display these arms, was the essence and sine qua non of the herald. Heraldry lives on today in England, complete with Kings of Arms, the Royal College of Arms and so on. In Sweden as in other European monarchies, heralds have acted as masters of ceremonies right down to the present and have often been linked with the orders of chivalry.

The first heralds, and also the first organised tournaments, appear in the north of France and in England during the 12th century. Together with these phenomena, heraldic arms then spread rapidly across Europe, partly as a result of contacts between knights from different countries during the Crusades.

Tournaments gave princes and knights a means of displaying their power. Various limits were therefore defined for the exclusion of non-noble persons; nobody, for example, could take part in tournament unless they were of noble descent.

During the 13th century it became common practice for tournaments to be based on themes of chivalrous romance - the story of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and other, similar themes, were very popular. Sometimes a group of knights would be established on a more permanent basis as a sodality or order, and this is how our most prestigious orders of knighthood, such as the Order of the Garter and the Order of the Golden Fleece, came into being. In Germany there were special tournament sodalities which arranged tournaments of their own, also for an exclusive aristocratic circle.

Heraldry in the modern sense evolved in Europe during the 12th century as a practical means of identifying the individual knight in war or at a tournament. The mounted knight and his armour carried great status and were also used as symbols on the knight's seal - his legal signature at a time when only the priests ("clerks") could write. As a vassal, it was common for the knight to carry a coat of arms based on that of his feudal overlord, modified by means of additions, changes of colour or different number of charges.

To be easily recognisable, the coat of arms had to be simple and distinct, with bright colours and clear lines. It was formed either by dividing the shield up in various ways with lines or else by depicting animals, objects etc. (charges). The distinct lines were alos essential for the coat of arms to be reproduced in small format on the knight's seal. Rules and vocabulary, blazoning, were therefore evolved for the description of the coat of arms. The coat of arms was usually depicted in the form of an armorial shield, with the knight's helmet and mantling (originally a cloth hung down over his neck to ward off the sunlight), attaches with a torse (crest wreath) or, later on, a crest coronet. The crest, a plastic decoration, sometimes alluded to motifs in the shield. Armorial bearings played an important part in the preparations for a tournament. The coat of arms and the helmet with its crest were checked by the heralds to establish the knight's entitlement and worthiness to participate in the tournament. The coat of arms was displayed, not only on the shield but also on the knight's banner, on his tilting skirt, on his horse's "coverture" and on other parts of his tilting armour.

The oldest known coat of arms, a shield charged with small lions, was used in 1127 when Godfrey of Anjou (1113-1151) was dubbed a knight by King Henry I of England. Godfrey of Anjou, surnamed Plantagenet, was married to Henry I's daughter Matilda and founded the English Plantagenet dynasty.

The first coat of arms in Sweden appear in the early years of the 13th century and rapidly acquire the same role as in other countries. In the Alsnö Statue of 1279, Magnus Ladulås ("Lock-the-Barn) laid down a new military organisation, replacing the old ledung naval defence system with an army based on heavy cavalry - an army of mounted knights. This codification of the feudal system laid firm foundations for the art of heraldry in Sweden.