Proceedings of the Workshop: ‘History of Heralds in Europe (12th-18th c.)’ – Münster, 26-28 March 2014

The participants of the first workshop on the history of heralds in Münster (26-28 Mars 2014)

The participants of the first workshop on the history of heralds in Münster (26-28 Mars 2014)

In spite of their prominent role in many aspects of political and cultural life, heralds have remained rather obscure historical figures. The two-part workshop ‘History of heralds’ aims to shed light on these elusive persons, their backgrounds, functions and meaning in medieval and early modern society. The first of this two-part workshop was dedicated to exploring this largely neglected theme, structuring the state of research and engaging in discussions in order to make the first steps towards a synthesis. Initiator TORSTEN HILTMANN opened the workshop by setting out the aims and key questions: what are the major subjects concerning the office of arms? What are the fundamentals of this subject? What can be learned by studying the office of arms and which areas should future research focus on?

Session 1 – The Middle Ages: Between Perception and (Arte)Facts

The first presentation by HENRI SIMMONEAU dealt with the heralds in medieval literary sources, demonstrating the value of these sources for research on heralds. From the first mention of a herald in Chrétien de Troyes’ ‘Chevalier de la Charette’, in the quality of a boy who knows the truth, to the multiple statements on heralds by Jean Froissart in his romance ‘Meliodor’, the depiction of this figure has seen a development. It has always been connected to knights and courts and was often mentioned in relation with tournaments. First, however, the herald’s image was quite negative, and he was sometimes associated with dwarfs. Later, from the fourteenth century onwards, he became a more respected figure as a vital helper of the knight on his noble adventures and he was seen as a prophet, someone who knew the truth.

OTFRIED KRAFTT followed with an inquiry about heralds in medieval Hesse. He showed that the appearance of this office of arms was closely related to political developments. Heralds in Hesse only appeared after the Hessian landgrave Louis I gained an important victory over the archbishop of Mainz in 1427. The following reorganization of court and administration saw a small and short term rise of heralds in this province after the mid-1430s. Account books, in which the name Hessenland regularly appeared as a messenger, suggest the presence of a herald in the Hessian administration in these years. Only once was the name Hessenland explicitly connected to the office of the herald: in a letter, a messenger called Hans Hessenland was mentioned, with addition that his father had served as a herald. Was Hessenland a family name? It is hard to reveal the identities behind the name Hessenland, as often no distinctions were made for the different persons carrying this name. The uncertainty around the use of a title for heralds makes this an interesting and puzzling case. Not long after, from the 1450s onwards, this office was already in decline and around 1500, there was no evidence of heralds in Hesse anymore. Kraft suggests that the herald was a form of luxury in political prosperous times. He was not indispensable and his tasks could be executed by others as well.

As a trained archaeologist, GEMMA WATSON applied an interdisciplinary approach to provide insights on the life of heralds. In her research on Roger Machado, the Richmond king of arms of Henry VII of England, she focused on material sources. In the first part of the presentation, Watson argued that it is very likely that Machado participated in the Buckingham Rebellion of 1483 and that he was exiled afterwards. Machado’s political connections, his political career (Henry Tudor made him his personal herald after he had seized the throne) and especially an inventory of his possessions which only listed portable goods (indicating his exile status), support this claim. In the second part of her presentation, Watson turned to the excavation site of Machado’s residence in Southampton, where a valuable inventory was found containing Venetian glass and luxury pottery. Pointing out the importance of dining as a social activity that showed social standing, Watson demonstrated that the herald Machado had quite an expensive and exquisite taste, had been to many places and had a fashionable lifestyle.

The following discussion focussed on the obligation of the heralds to tell the truth. Many examples supported this statement. In Portugal, there was a link between heralds and astrology, since both acted as prophets. Concerning the name Hessenland, it was noted that it was common practise that an office name (such as Franche-Comté, Navarra) became a family name. Further, the increasingly important link between heralds and genealogy was emphasised.

Session 2 – The Burgundian Heydeys: Functions and Cultural Transfer in the 15th Century

ALEXANDRE GROSJEAN treated the subject of heralds and history writing in the late middle ages. Heralds were keepers of knowledge of noblemen, their life and actions, which they first transmitted orally, but later these testimonies were written down. Could heralds then be considered historians? Focussing on heralds such as the king of arms Toison d’Or in the service of the dukes of Burgundy, herald Beyeren/Gelre and herald Berry, Grosjean demonstrated that they did not took up the role of official historians (as for example Chastellain in Burgundy or the Religieux de St. Denis in France), but rather were contributing to the historians’ work by their reports. Heralds themselves stated that they left this job to the clerks and historians; history writing was a different activity. For example, the Chronique by herald Berry should not be perceived as a historical work, but as a succession of reports on military campaigns. Since heralds were expected to tell the truth, they were respected as rapporteurs, and Grosjean described them therefore as the champions of direct evidence. Grosjean further noted that, although heralds obviously had a great knowledge of heraldry, they did not display this knowledge in their historical works.

SONJA DÜNNEBEIL presented a paper on the order of the Golden Fleece and in particular the role of the king of arms and other heralds in its service. She has studied the little researched and still largely unknown records of the archive of the order (Ordensarchiv) which shed some light on the functions of the heralds within the order, which were manifold. The herald was involved in the preparation of the feasts; he informed new members about their appointment, he distributed the invitations, and – by 1478 – was giving written reports of these activities which are preserved in the Ordensarchiv. Thus, he served as a master of ceremony and as a messenger, a task that had certain dangers attached to it. The Toison d’Or king of arms had extensive knowledge of the members and their lifestyle habits and he actively participated in ceremonies in which the coats of arms, as a representation of the members, often played an essential role. He wore a chain with detachable coats of arms of the living members and this made him into a ‘walking register of members’. Dünnebeil argued that the records in the Ordensarchiv do not only provide insights on the heralds themselves, but on the self-conception of the nobles as well.

The first day was concluded by NILS BOCK, who examined the heralds in the late medieval Holy Roman Empire, comparing them to the situation in Western Europe and to Burgundy in particular. He presented a short overview of the presence and functions of German heralds, from the first mentioning in German sources, in which the word herald appeared quite late. Providing a survey over the different sources, he referred especially to the moral qualities heralds were supposed to possess in Germany. The herald was given a role of supervision of the noblemen’s behaviour and was expected to show them the path of good virtue and to expose evil-doers and even punish them ceremonially if they were to go off this path. The heralds’ obligation to tell the truth played an important part in this task.

The following discussion concentrated on the internationality of the heralds. Heralds travelled regularly, and it was assumed that there was contact between e.g. the Garter king of arms and the Toison d’Or king of arms. Further, the relationship between heralds, the nobility and princes was discussed. How close were they to this upper class of society?

Session 3 – The 16th Century: The Turning Point of the Burgundian Legacy?

If the history of medieval heralds has remained largely unexplored until now, the history of early modern heralds is still totally off the map. The second day was opened by PIERRE COUHEAULT, who pointed out this problem and provided a structured overview of the history of heralds in the 16th century, concentrating mainly on Flanders and Spain. The office of arms developed during this period. Charles V introduced some administrative changes that affected the office. The officers served now more in the local administration and were less present in the service of individual lords. Only the high noblemen kept employing heralds. The recruiting of these officers therefore changed as well, shifting from members of the écurie (messengers, etc.) to painters and lower functionaries of the administration. At this time, heralds were already part of nobility or were ennobled in their office. Later, the declining number of learned officers led to a loss of knowledge, a situation that was complained by both heralds and high noblemen who still made use of the service of heralds, in particular for funerals. Further reforms in the period between 1598 and1616 led to more difficulties. The office of arms became a mechanical administrative function that was primarily aimed at defending the nobility. The office lost its diplomatic function and heralds became mere functionaries, not of a person, but of a territory or institution.

This overview was followed by a case study by JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BLANCHARD, who studied the development of the office of arms in the duchy of Lorraine during the reigns of René II (1473-1508) and his son, Antoine (1508-1544). The ducal accounts portrayed a detailed picture of the functions of heralds under René II’s rule. They served first and foremost as messengers of the prince, but they executed other tasks as well, for example at princely ceremonies and for negotiation in wartimes. No accounts stated that heralds were involved in tournaments. In the 16th century, under Antoine’s reign, Blanchard noted a shift in the functions of the herald. Heralds such as Gérard Durant and Pierre Gringore still mainly served as a messenger, but their later colleagues, such as Georges Gresset, concentrated on the production of treatises, moralities and paintings that magnified the status of the prince. Hence, the messenger-heralds were slowly replaced by the artist-heralds. The artist-heralds seemingly were recruited on these special skills, and other officers even impersonated heralds in ceremonies when there were not enough heralds in office. In the first half of the 16th century, the heralds were ennobled.

CLIVE CHEESMAN’s contribution focused on the self-perception of heralds in the 16th and 17th century. He stated that while the medieval perception of heralds regarding their past was a more genealogical one, this changed in the early modern times where heralds took a more polygenetic view on their history, focussing rather on similitudes in function than on direct descent. For example, medieval heralds looked at the Roman fetiales as their actual predecessors. Under the influence of antiquarianism in the early modern age, heralds reached an interpretative model of institutional parallelism, so these Roman fetiales became a similar institution in a different time period. This shift is clearly visible in William Camden’s (1551-1623) treatises on the subject. Cheesman further noted that from the late 16th century onwards, Latin became a more prominent language for heralds. The new terms that occurred, such as fetialis, replacing the neo-latin word heraldus, served the self-definition of the heralds in a time in which their reputation became slightly tarnished.

Central to the next discussion was the recruiting of heralds and the social class they belonged to. In some regions, for example in Portugal, heralds had to be noble, while in other regions, this was by no means a prerequisite to take up this office, although heralds often became ennobled there as well. Considering these differences, one should be cautious with generalisations. In relation to this, the connection between the shift in social class (i.e. the ennoblement of heralds) and the new qualities the heralds were expected to have (a shift from people who talked to people who painted) was discussed. Further, the difficult relation between heralds and printed books was pointed out.

Session 4 – Heralds and Heraldry

The next three papers tackled the difficult relation between heralds and heraldry. TORSTEN HILTMANN stated that there is a common conception that heralds and heraldry were exclusively linked to each other. This relation needs to be reassessed, since it forms, and perhaps distorts, our view on heralds themselves and their impact on medieval and early modern society. Hiltmann separated this relation into three fields: knowledge, expertise and legal authority. He argued that, although heralds undeniably knew a great deal about coats of arms, this heraldic knowledge was not exclusively reserved for heralds, since others possessed it and wrote about it too, as the many treaties on heraldry by non-heralds demonstrate. Neither was their expertise on the subject uncontested nor, at least in the Middle Ages, had they any legal authority concerning coats of arms. Hiltmann emphasised that there is another, more important link between heralds and heraldry: the knowledge of persons.

STEEN CLEMMENSEN explored to what extend heralds can be linked to the production of armorials. After starting with the assertion that it is not certain that Jean Lefevre, Toison d’Or king of arms, produced the armorial Toison d’Or, he pointed at the similarities of many armorials and divided them in different groups by common contents. According to Clemmensen, content was copied and the armorials influenced each other. The resemblances were sometimes so striking that parts of different armorials might have been produced by the same maker. This is particularly visible by the different depictions of imaginary arms. This, along with the fact that the same woodblocks have been used to press the outline of the shields, suggests that there was a powerful commercial force behind the production of armorials. Armorials were not exclusively produced by heralds. Heraldists and armorists made armorials as well. However, there are no obvious criteria to distinguish heralds from armorists or other artists as the producers of armorials.

In many ways the nature and function of the Portuguese heralds greatly differed from that of their colleagues on the rest of the continent. MIGUEL METELO DE SEIXAS explored this theme, focusing on the rivalry between the heralds and the noblemen in the production of heraldic works in Portugal from the 16th to the 18th century. In Portugal, the king controlled a system in which heralds were granting arms and renewing these grants. New coats of arms were created. In the complex system of Portuguese genealogy, a rigid scheme of brisures was applied. This marked a shift in the office of arms: the creative aspect of heraldry was expelled and this reduced heralds to administrative machines. The production of heraldic works by heralds, such as armorials, was commissioned by the king as well. The second half of the 16th century witnessed the first armorials that were not made by heralds. Heralds and non-heralds engaged in a certain rivalry, for example in making a grand universal armorial. At the end of the 16th century, it was prohibited to publish treatises and other texts concerning heraldry without the consent of the king of arms. Metelo de Seixas showed that behind this literary rivalry a deeper social and political rivalry was hidden between the benefactors of these works, the king and noblemen, who used these heraldic works for political claims and justification of the social order.

The following discussion concentrated on the question: who had heraldic knowledge? Many examples demonstrated that heraldic knowledge was not exclusively reserved for heralds. In England, for instance, all treatises on heraldry were written by non-heralds. The question was raised whether there was a difference in the heraldic works written by heralds and non-heralds. Further, the armorial function in military context, for example the writing of the muster rolls, was discussed.

Session 5: Early Modern Times: Are there Enduring Functions of Heralds?

STEVEN THIRY delivered the next presentation on heralds in the early modern times, in which he assessed the armorial functions of heralds in the Spanish Monarchy and the Archducal Netherlands in the long 17th century. In the 16th century, princes sought to justify their position in political order and to demonstrate their dynastic excellence through the display of coats of arms. This objective was literally embodied in the person of the herald, who with his tabard and new name should be considered as living heraldry and an impersonal representation of the prince he was serving. Due to this process, heralds in the Archducal Netherlands gained authority over the registration, composition and granting of arms. The late 16th and 17th century saw some developments as the personal identity of the herald came to the foreground: the office of arms sometimes became hereditary, and the heralds often reached a noble status.

In her research on the iconography of political assemblies in early modern times, ANNA-MARIA BLANK encountered the important function of heralds in this phenomenon. First, she analysed the well-known illumination of the opening session of Parliament in the House of Lords in 1523, a picture commissioned by the Garter king of arms Thomas Wriothesley. Generally, this picture is merely considered as a seating plan of Parliament (as it was the herald’s task to arrange the seating and call in the members), but taking into account the context of the picture in the content of the Garter Book, Blank argued that this picture was a legitimisation of the rights and duties of the Garter king of arms. In the second part of her presentation, Blank used the etching of the opening session of the États Généraux in Blois in 1576 to suggest approaches to analyse the functions of heralds and their significance in pictorial representations of assemblies.

ANNE-SOPHIE BESSERO’s presentation dealt with the subject of heraldic elements in funerals in early modern times and the role of heralds therein. At the royal funerals in France, a huge number of coats of arms and other heraldic presentations were displayed. These funerals were organised by the Grand Master of the Ceremonies. Contrary to England, there were many officers involved in the funeral ceremony, such as the juré crieur de corps et de vin, who made lots of different announcements. Heralds played a part in the ceremony as well, but rather as assistants. The coats of arms that were exposed at the funerals were not delivered by heralds but by the painters of the royal order. To be a herald in the 17th and 18th century, it was necessary to be noble. Heralds still executed some functions at this time, at ceremonies such as royal baptisms, weddings and funerals, but it was an office in decline.

The theme of heralds at funerals was the centre of the next discussion. The role heralds played in ceremonies in the different regions in Europe and in different periods was compared. It was noted, for example, that in 16th century Netherlands heralds were, contrary to the French situation, organising funerals and becoming the experts on ceremonial protocol.

Session 6: Modern Times: The Case of the Holy Roman Empire

In his detailed account of the successive heralds in the service of the emperors, MICHAEL GÖBL demonstrated that the evolution of the office of arms was closely connected to the development in the public administration of the Holy Roman Empire. In the 16th century, the heralds in imperial service, such as Caspar Sturm, acted as messengers, were sent on diplomatic missions and regularly wrote accounts of the proceedings of the Reichstag and other treatises. This ceased in the 17th century, when for example no armorials from heralds are known. The 16th century also witnessed the rise of the chancellery heraldry (Kanzleiheraldik), in which the royal chancellery granted and confirmed noble status and coats of arms. However, these tasks were executed by regular officials and not especially by heralds. The same was true for the office of the Censor of Arms, introduced in 1707, an institution checking the coats of arms. Heralds were only at times being employed to perform tasks at ceremonies.

The last contribution to this workshop was given by BERND KLESMANN, who analysed the role of heralds in the international politics and diplomacy in the war of the Spanish Succession (1700-1714). He stated that heralds played a considerable part in the political ceremonies concerning this conflict, such as the proclaiming of declarations of war, the tearing down of coats of arms in order to break the dignity of their bearers and functioning in ceremonies that emphasised the prince´s authority. In this function, they did not have decisive power; they functioned rather as living emblems. Nonetheless, the political and social standing of the herald was diminishing in this period. Klesmann noted, however, that in the literary works of the 18th century, the heralds were honoured and had a positive presence in the literary-metaphoric discourse.

In the final discussion, the question was raised in whose name the heralds were acting. Were they representatives of the Empire or the Emperor? Further, the theatrical aspect of the office of arms, the performance, was discussed.

The contributors to this workshop have different academic backgrounds, ranging from heraldists to historians and from archaeologists to archivists; the central theme was therefore approached from many different perspectives. This interdisciplinary approach revealed the variety of natures, functions and social positions of the heralds from the 12th to the 18th century. The goal of this workshop is to produce a book that provides a clear synthesis of the history of heralds that does justice to the grand dynamics and diversity of this historical figure. The first part of this workshop was concluded with a plenary discussion on the goal, outline and the themes of the book. The first results of this process are to be presented at the second part of the workshop ‘History of heralds’, scheduled in 2015. In the meantime, the progress of this book project can be followed on the workshop’s own blog:


Anne-Sophie Bessero (Paris): Héraut, héraldique et pompes funèbres à l’époque moderne
Jean-Christoph Blanchard (Nancy): Les hérauts d’armes d’Antoine, duc de Lorraine (1508-1544): Des « hérauts-messagers » aux « hérauts-artistes »
Anna-Maria Blank (Berlin): Heralds and Parliaments
Nils Bock (Münster): Les hérauts d’armes dans l’Empire au bas Moyen-Âge
Clive Cheesman (London): Institutional identity and history in an age of learning: heralds and their alternative pasts
Steen Clemmensen (Farum): Heralds and armorists as editors of armorials
Pierre Couhault (Paris) : L’office d’armes au XVIe siècle : un métier en mutation
Sonja Dünnebeil (Vienna): Herolde im Dienst des Ordens vom Goldenen Vlies
Michael Göbl (Vienna) : Mosaiksteine zur Geschichte des neuzeitlichen Heroldswesens im Reich
Alexandre Grosjean (Dunkirk) : Le héraut et l’écriture de l’histoire à la fin du Moyen Age
Torsten Hiltmann (Münster): Heralds and heraldry in the Middle Ages
Bernd Klesmann (Cologne): Das Heroldsamt und der Konflikt um die spanische Erbfolge. Zeremonialpolitik und barocker Fürstenstaat, 1700-1714
Otfried Krafft (Marburg):  Heralds in medieval Hesse
Miguel Metelo de Seixas (Lisbon): Un savoir disputé: la rivalité entre hérauts et noblesse pour la production d’œuvres héraldiques au Portugal (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles)
Henri Simonneau (Lille): Le héraut d’armes, personnage de roman (XIIe-XVe siècles)
Steven Thiry (Antwerp): Law enforcement or living heraldry? Assessing the armorial function(s) of heralds in the long seventeenth century (Spanish Monarchy and Archducal Netherlands)
Gemma Watson (Southampton): Roger Machado (d. 1510): A herald’s life in objects

Cite this blog post
Elmar Hofman (2014, April 21). Proceedings of the Workshop: ‘History of Heralds in Europe (12th-18th c.)’ – Münster, 26-28 March 2014. History of Heralds. Retrieved April 22, 2024, from

2 Responses

  1. 27/05/2014

    […] as the sole authority on coats of arms (see the proceedings of the conference held on this subject: For one thing, many medieval authors of important treatises on heraldry, such as Bartolo di […]

  2. 20/10/2014

    […] heralds and heraldry is seen as a mutual exclusive one. However, as were the conclusions of the workshop on heralds in Münster organised by Torsten Hiltmann two weeks earlier, heralds were definitely not the only ones engaged […]

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