Heraldry article

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Some Thoughts on the Heraldry Within and Around Lincoln Cathedral

Item in progress

In this article I want to consider why there is so much Heraldry in an essentially religious structure like Lincoln Cathedral; and what are the consequences of such display.

First we might remind ourselves what is meant by "Heraldry" in this context. For the purpose of this study I am regarding a heraldic item as a specific display of a shield, crest or full achievement of arms intended to represent arms belonging to a specific individual or organisation. In this I am precluding any other use of heraldic images or devices, for example trefoils are used as both heraldic charges and architectural decorative elements, but I am not including the latter - we are only concerned with heraldic imagery meant to be interpreted as part of a heraldic device.

Secondly, we should consider the characteristics of such heraldic devices, as some of these have an important bearing on our discussion.

To begin with, we need to recognise that, although a heraldic device typically represents a specific person, this is only true for a specific period of time. The rights to a heraldic device pass from generation to generation (historically, from father to eldest son), and those that represent a specific office (such as Bishop) pass on to the next holder of the post.

Further, the definitive description of a heraldic device is not its visual appearance, but its description in the language of blazon.[1]. What this means is that different examples of heraldic devices ‘’may’’ have a somewhat different visual appearance, yet still represent the same arms. Thus, to a certain extent, the depiction of a particular coat of arms is up to the individual artist. For a trivial example, the tincture gules can be represented as any desired shade of a reddish colour, as long as it can be clearly distinguished from any other tincture. In a more complicated situation, the precise arrangement of ordinaries and charges can be modified by the artist to fit into the available space, for example in a quartering of arms.

We can now begin to consider the characteristics of heraldry within the context of the Cathedral. I suggest that we can consider heraldic devices to occur in one of a small number of specific contexts with the Cathedral:

  • Funerary - e.g. on tombs, ledger stones, slabs and monuments
  • Decorative - e.g. on screens, tapestries, cloths and vestments
  • Commemorative - e.g. Military chapels and memorials
  • Sponsoring - e.g. Chantries, commercial items
  • Narrative - e.g. Story telling and character identification

I further suggest that the reasons for the use of heraldic devices can differ between these contexts. Consider first the funerary context. Clearly an armigerous person is entitled to use arms on a funerary monument, indeed there is a special device, the hatchment, precisely for this purpose, and indeed many ledger stones and memorials include the arms belonging to the person or persons interred. Tombs, presenting a larger area for display provide an opportunity to display not only the armiger’s own arms, but those of other families with whom the armiger is associated (or wishes to be associated) with. All three Burghersh monuments are good examples of this, not only are the family arms prominent but also those of relations through marriage, and the king and his sons. Royal arms appear quite frequently in these collections of arms, presumably it is often worthwhile to reinforce ones links with the monarchy!

As to the Cathedral setting of these devices, this may be a declaration of status. Only those of the rank of gentlemen and above were historically armigerous, but even this represents quite a large number (Burke’s armory of 1898? lists around 20,000 bearers of arms, and this in a total population much smaller than todays). I conjecture that burial in a Cathedral, and the associated display of arms can sometimes be an attempt to show elevated status - armigers might be of high status, but only ‘’very’’ high status armigers get to display their arms in a Cathedral. Lesser armigers must be content with their parish church...

Whilst on the subject of status we can also raise the question of who this declaration of status and familial relationship is aimed at? How widespread was heraldic knowledge in the medieaval period? With a large proportion of the population illiterate, were heraldic devices widely recognised by the common folk? If so, the message of the heraldry, especially the allied families and nobility could have been aimed at these folk - a statement of family power and influence. Alternatively, if heraldic knowledge was largely restricted to the armigerous themselves then these would be the intended recipients of the message. Finally of course, given the context, the intended recipient could be God, (or at least St. Peter), the message being “I am powerful and influential and deserve my place in heaven!” To answer these questions it would be interesting to know how many different heraldic arms the average ‘’peasant’’ or towns-person would be able to recognise. The author is not able to answer this.

Moving on to the decorative context, these are typically less loaded with any great significance; typically the arms of the King, or the Bishop are used as these are largely "neutral" in meaning, the reason for their presence being obvious and hence largely decorative. Indeed some heraldic devices, especially on cloths and furnishings donated by the laity may contain "made up" or "cod heraldry", purely for decorative effect.




Finally, let us look at the consequences of putting heraldry into a cathedral context, i.e. the history of such devices once the owner has passed on.

Recall our earlier discussion on the nature of heraldic ownership and the fact that this changes with time. The implication of this is that simply finding an object with a particular coat or arms associated with it does not necessarily identify an individual - we need additional information. A certain hubris can accompany the use of arms, a personal identification with arms which does not survive subsequent generations. As an example, consider the tomb attributed to Bartholomew Burghersh in the north wall of the angel choir. This is a substantial structure, some three meters long, four high and a meter deep, richly carved and quite prominent. The person entombed is clearly of some importance and commemorates this by including the shield of Burghersh at the head of their effigy. Unfortunately, despite this prominence and identification, some 400 years later, John Bonney, William Dugdale and (one other) can be engaged in scholarly discussion of just exactly which Burghersh is buried there.

We also need to consider the subsequent history of heraldic imagery, especially regarding its care and maintenance. Stone carvings, particularly those not exposed to weathering can last a long time without requiring any maintenance, and remain recognisable. On the downside, these images are of course monochrome, and thus may be confused with similar arms varying only in their tinctures (fairly common as a means of distinguishing branches of the same family - EXAMPLE?) Secondly, unless the carved image is very large subtle details can be lost, or not possible to represent in stone in the first place. The many variations of the cross for example differ in some subtle respects, Boutell notes for example that the cross crosslet is often indistinguishable from the cross bottony, perhaps I conjecture, because of the difficulty of carving such details.

  1. Contrast this with a typical corporate logo of today in which it is the visual image, precise colouring, lettering and so on which is the trademarked and copyrighted, "definitive description"