Heraldry - that is, the use of a shield device and a helmet crest to identify a knight in battle and tournament - was traditionally one of the distinctive features that set a knight apart from other members of medieval society.
The custom originated in the twelfth century, when the newly introduced visored helmet made the face of its wearer unrecognizable. Though in classical antiquity and the Dark Ages individual warriors could be known by their personal shield emblems, true heraldry is different insofar as shield devices and helmet crests are hereditary with a family and carry legal status, on seals for instance, beyond mere marks of recognition. They were also displayed on banners, horse trappings, and the surcoats covering the knights' armor; from the latter use, it became customary to call them "coats-of-arms".
By the time the great Arthurian epics were composed, heraldry had become so firmly established as an integral part of knightly culture that neither the authors nor their audience could imagine the knights of the Round Table without proper heraldic bearings.
The "historical Arthur" lived in the preheraldic Dark Ages, and his famous dragon banner is definitely derived from the battle standard of Late Roman auxiliary cavalry. But his dragon helmet crest, which according to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia (ca. 1135) he had inherited from his father, Uther Pendragon, is an example of how true heraldry came into being.
King Arthur's shield device seems to have been first a cross and/or an icon of the Virgin Mary, as reported in the Annales Cambriae and in Nennius's Historia Brittonum (ca. AD 800). Though he is said to have carried these "on his shoulders", this might result from a confusion of Welsh ysqwyt, 'shield', and ysqwyd, 'shoulder', in the translation into Latin from a hypothetical Welsh source. From the fourteenth century on, however, the shield charges attributed to King Arthur are three crowns, probably meant to indicate his superiority over ordinary kings. In the fifteenth century, after the idea had taken hold that these three crowns stood for his three realms of North Wales, South Wales, and Logres, their number was increased up to thirteen, to represent all the kingdoms allegedly conquered by him. The color of Arthur's shield is usually red, though in French sources it is blue, corresponding to the French royal arms.
Some authors of Arthurian epics were experts in heraldry - Chrétien de Troyes seems to have been a herald himself, and Wolfram von Eschenbach and Hartmann von Aue were knights - and went to considerable lengths to describe their heroes' armorial bearings. There is occasional disagreement among competing authors and also with the illustrators of the manuscripts about the charges borne by their favorite heroes, in much the same way that the authors of the Grail romances disagree about the exact nature of the Grail, but these arms by themselves conform to the accepted rules of heraldry, though they might become marked as something out of the ordinary by frequent application of the unusual tinctures vert and purpure.
It will be usefull to define a few of the more common heraldic terms:
Or [French] = "gold" or yellow
Argent [French] = "silver" or white
Gules [Persian gûl 'a rose'] = red
Azure [Arabic az'raq 'sky'] = blue
Sable [the Siberian mink] = black
Vert [French] = green
Purpure = purple
Shortly after the middle of the fifteenth century, a roll of arms, Les Noms, Armes, et Blasons des Chevalliers et Compaignons de la Table Ronde, was compiled as an appendix to the famous Livre des tournoys, by King René d'Anjou (ca. 1455), which gave detailed instructions how a tournament should be held "according to the rules set up at the time of King Uterpendragon and King Artus and his Knights of the Round Table". Of this Arthurian roll of arms, the three most important copies in this country are in Cambridge (Harvard University Library), in New York City (Pierpont Morgan Library), and in Baltimore (Walters Art Gallery). Among these, the Harvard roll is the earliest, ca. 1470, but it lists the shields and names of only 150 knights, while the Morgan copy (ca. 1500), gives names and shields of 175 knights together with brief descriptions of their achievements and their appearances, such as the color of their eyes and hair; the Walter roll (ca. 1510) is the most comprehensive, adding the knights' crests, shield supporters, and "reasons" (mottoes).
The author if this Arthurian roll of arms it thought to have been Jacques d'Armagnac, Duke of Nemours, who was married to a niece of King René's. Interestingly enough, many of the arms of the lesser knights, which had to be filled in because they would not be recorded in the romances, were borrowed from a contemporary (ca. 1440) handbook of heraldry, Le Traitié du Blazon d'Armes, by Clément Prinsault, dedicated by its author to Jacques "filz de monseigneur le duc de Nemours".
Some of these arms are directly related to motifs in the tales, such as the arms of Yvain, "le Chevalier au Lion", who bears: Azure, a lion Or, and those of Lancelot: Argent, three bends gules, referring to his having the strength of three ordinary men. Others are "canting arms", representing a wordplay on the knight's name, such as Tristram de Lyonesse's: Vert, a lion Or, Sir Brumor de la Fontaine's: Quarterly Or and sable, a fountain argent over all, or Sir Brandelis des Vaulxsur's: Gules, three swords (brands) erect argent. On occasion, a scribal error can change a charge, such as Sir Kay's: Sable, a chief argent, which he bears in the early French romance Durmart le Gallois (ca. 1220) to indicate his position as seneschal and "head" of Arthur's household, into two keys argent, in the armorial roll. This makes sense, too, but is the result of reading clefs 'keys' instead of chef 'chief'.
Sometimes, an entirely new character is created by such a mistake. For instance, in the Arthurian roll is listed Bauiers le Forcenné, who owes him existence to a misunderstanding of the description of the banner (baniers) of Sagramours le Desrée in the Second Continuation of Perceval: "Aprés recoisi Sagremor/ Qui baniers de noir et d'or/ Portoit, ce sanbloit, gironees..." Interestingly, it is the spurious Sir Bauiers who retains the arms gyronny, while Sagramours's shield is changed to: Sable, two stars Or, on a canton argent a star sable. In some cases, heraldry is used for comic relief. In Wolfram's Parzival, King Hardiess of Gaskon bears the forepart of a griffin in his shield, while his retainers bear the griffin's hindquarters!
Owing to the complexity of traditions in Arthurian epics, the arms even of champions of the first magnitude can differ fundamentally from author to author. For instance, Chrétien does not mention Gawain's arms at all, though he gives detailed descriptions of the blazons of a number of minor knights. Wolfram, who makes it a special point that for his Parzival he did not follow Chrétien, but a rival authority, "Kyot the Provençal", has Gawain wearing a surcoat with two gampilûns of sable in appliqué work. This is a variant of the single gampilûn borne by his cousin, Ilinot, Arthur's son. The gampilûn has escaped zoological classification so far; most likely, it is a Germanic phonetic rendering of the dragonlike heraldic gamelyon, whose name was later reassigned to the now more familiar chameleon.
In the thirteenth-century French romances Durmart, Escanor and the Second Continuation of Perceval, Gawain's arms are: Argent, a canton gules, with related blazons for his brothers. These are probably "canting arms" in French, derived from the name of their father, King Loth of Orkney, because lot means "section", and a canton can be considered to be a section of a shield.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gawain was educated in Rome and was given his arms (not described) by Pope Sulpicius (alas, a pope unknown to all other historians); in the Perlesvaus, Gawain received from Pope Gregory the Great the shield of Judas Maccabeus: Gules, an eagle Or. In "official" fifteenth-century tradition, as represented by the roll of arms attributed to Jacques d'Armagnac, Gawain bears: Purpure, a double-headed eagle Or, a device derived from both the shield of Judas Maccabeus and the emblem of the Holy Roman Empire. Again, his brothers share the same arms with appropriate differences.
Gawain's most famous armorial bearings, however, are those assigned to him in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (ca. 1365): Gules, a pentangle Or, the "Seal of Solomon, that the English call 'the endless knot'". The Gawain-poet's elaborate explanation that this "devys" is a symbol of Gawain's being perfect in his five senses, in the dexterity of his five fingers, in his reverence of the five wounds of Christ, in his love for the Queen of Heaven and her five joys, and in his five virtues makes it clear that the pentangle is a strictly personal badge and not his inherited family coat-of-arms. When in the fourteenth century tournament armor developed away from battle armor, it became fashionable for knights to have garnitures of two shields, a "shield for War", of the traditional triangular shape bearing the family arms, and a "shield for Peace", a squarish targe with a cutout for couching the lance, displaying the personal badge for use in tournaments and other peaceful pursuits. Therefore, when Gawain went on his quest for the Green Chapel, he quite properly took along his "shield for Peace". The reason the Gawain-poet chose the pentangle as Gawain's "devys" might have been that he saw a "canting" reference to Gawain's home country, Orkney, in Or-knit, the golden knot.
Though the heraldry of the Arthurian roll of arms was accepted as authentic and perpetuated in handbooks of heraldry up to the nineteenth century, nothing of it - with exception of the shield of Sir Galahad - was incorporated into Le Morte Darthur. Surprisingly, Sir Thomas Malory's monumental work contains only a handful of heraldic descriptions. For this reason, modern retellers of the tale, such as Lord Tennyson and T.H. White, and particularly illustrators like Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Robert Ball, and Hal Foster, have had to rely on their own imagination. It is heartening to see, though, that the designer of "King Arthur's merry-go-round" in Disneyland did research the "authentic" shields of the knights of the Round Table from the roll of arms of Jacques d'Armagnac!
Round Table | The Legend of King Arthur
Tournament Books | The Legend of King Arthur