Law Enforcement or Living Heraldry? Assessing the Armorial Function(s) of Heralds in the Long Seventeenth Century (Spanish Monarchy and Archducal Netherlands) (Steven Thiry)

My main interest centres on the political use and appropriation of heraldic symbolism. Although the link between heralds and the armorial field is highly problematic for the middle ages, it is my conviction that the shape shifting figure of the early modern herald can be approached through broader contemporary attitudes about the visual representation of authority and order. Seen from this angle, I would like to formulate some preliminary hypotheses and possible avenues for further research. In this specific reading, roughly speaking, the armorial functions of officers of arms emerge significantly in two contexts: Firstly, they appear alongside the princely ambition to monitor the symbolic order of society, leading to their involvement in an upshot of heraldic litigation during the seventeenth century. Secondly, in the guise of ‘living heraldry’, they fulfilled an important role in the performance of power. The Spanish Monarchy, and in particular the late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Low Countries, serves as an interesting case in point.


Regulating the symbolic pyramid

For many contemporaries, (para)heraldic signs functioned as significant tools for structuring and shaping harmony and stability on a symbolic plane. From the fifteenth century onwards, princes (and other authoritative bodies) increasingly sought to regulate this field in order to endorse their own positions, curb discord, and structure the ever more complex functional differentiation of the state. In the first place, the royal coat of arms appeared as the ultimate embodiment of dynastic excellence and public dignity. Standing at the top of the symbolic pyramid, it represented both the sovereign and the abstract body politic. Therefore, the proper observance of a visual hierarchy was imperative. In order to preserve the precarious symbolic equilibrium of society, described in terms of its essential fabric, all heraldic expressions were gradually drawn into the orbit of royal legislation.[1]

In this process, the extent and development of heraldic tasks assigned to officers of arms comes to the fore. At least in theory, their authority in the registration, the composition and the granting of arms seems to have been enhanced over time.[2] Complaints about armorial abuse and, hence, recurring subversions of the natural order of being, coincided with pleas to improve the officer’s knowledge of the rules of blason. A so-called jurisdiction in heraldic affairs became a source of pride for heralds, constantly repeating their ancient yet anachronistic monopoly to design and interpret arms. From the 1620s onwards, the legal prosecution of violations concerning coats of arms before a competent law court was in the Archducal Netherlands entrusted to the provincial kings of arms.[3]


Brokers of political order

Besides their growing interference in cases of heraldic usurpation and crime – at least in the Spanish context and in the Southern Low Countries – heralds and kings of arms should likewise be considered as ‘living heraldry’, holding the extraordinary privilege to publicly display and ‘instrumentalize’ the plain heraldic panoply of their overlord in a ritual context. Being ‘baptized’ with a new name and wearing the royal arms depicted on tabard and email, their own individual person was initially effaced in order to become an abstract representation of majesty.[4] One could go as far as to suggest that the herald vested in his master’s coat of arms should be interpreted in the same light as non-human representative images and objects, with the additional faculty of being able to adapt royal presence to the needs of the moment. The tabard not just epitomized the privilege of bearing and sharing the arms of the sovereign, yet also the ability to manipulate them ostentatiously when an alteration in the fabric of state arose. On important ritual moments, such as a princely funeral or a dynastic succession, a set of heraldic gestures literally established new political order.


Parting public and personal identities?

However, if we compare the situation of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with such early characteristics, some notable evolutions and changes stand out. I would like to broach two points of discussion in particular:

1)      Beyond doubt, the herald’s visual apparel remained a fundamental keystone of his status. Yet, at the same time, it seems that the performative and transformative capacities of ‘living heraldry’ in state ritual slowly transformed and eroded. The participation of officers of arms in seventeenth-century Habsburg ceremonial was no longer presented as a creative solution for a situation of political ‘change’, but rather as a timeless marker of ‘unchangeable’ protocol and ancient custom. So far as I known, this transition has been hardly studied nor noticed by heraldists and scholars of royal ceremonial.

2)     Simultaneously, the personal identity of the holder of the office – or to put it more simply, the man under the tabard – came more and more to the foreground. Instead of transforming the individual into an abstraction of monarchical dignity, the appointment to the post of herald/king of arms was now a source of private pride. Several indications point in this direction:

–         The substitute name became an official ‘title’, marking the distinction between the individual person and the public dignity. (person x is king of arms “à titre de”, next to his membership of a private family or the possession of additional titles)

–         Accumulation of the office with other titles and functions in the royal administration.

–         Hereditary ‘succession’ to the office (even real dynasties of kings of arms in the eighteenth century)[5]

–         Aristocratization of the office: noble provenance became an outspoken requirement from the 1630s onwards.[6] Impersonal signs of office such as batons, the email, and a coronet were merged with familial and personal signifiers in their own heraldic achievements.[7]

–         Regular abuse of their genealogical and heraldic authority to boost their own familial pedigree and arms.[8]

In short, the growing armorial function(s) of heralds in the early modern period, reaching in the Low Countries its high point in the seventeenth century, can be partially explained by their status as living representations of the sovereign and brokers of a political order that manifested itself in a visual way. Yet, the gradual appearance of the men behind the tabards slowly affected the performative agency of living heraldry, instead turning them into law-enforcing officials and static markers of tradition whose many tasks could be easily delegated to others.


[1] The most influential, early modern legal discussion in this regard (also outside France) can be found in: B. Cassaneus, Catalogus gloriae mundi, Lyon, 1529.

[2] I. De Stein d’Altenstein, ‘Institution et office des hérauts d’armes aux Pays-Bas’, Bulletin et annales de l’Académie d’archéologie de Belgique, 2(1844), 410-424.;

[3] See in particular: L. Duerloo, ‘ “Seer groote ongheregeltheden … aengaende de titulen”. Evaluatie van de rol en het belang van het heraldisch proces’, in: J. Verbesselt et. al., De adel in het hertogdom Brabant, Brussel, 1985, 89-110.; L. Duerloo, Privilegies uitbeelden. De Zuidnederlandse wapenkoningen en wapenkunde in de eeuw der Verlichting, Brussel, 1991, 99-119.; A. Huart, ‘Les procès héraldiques dans le comté de Namur’, La noblesse belge. Annuaire de 1922, 73(1923), 133-179.; L. Fourez, Le droit héraldique dans les Pays-Bas catholiques, Brussel, 1932.

[4] Cf. L. Hablot, ‘Revêtir le prince. Le héraut en tabard, une image idéale du prince. Pour une tentative d’interprétation du partage emblématique entre prince et héraut à la fin du Moyen Âge à travers le cas bourguignon’, Revue du Nord, 88(2006), 755-804.

[5] Cf. Duerloo, Privilegies uitbeelden, 53-60.

[6] Cf. also: A. de Ceballos-Escalera y Gila, Heraldos y reyes de armas en la corte de España, Madrid, 1993, 126.

[7] P. Gérard, Histoire de la législation nobiliaire de Belgique, Brussels, 1846, 106.; L. Arendt & A. De Ridder, eds., Législation héraldique de la Belgique, 1595-1895: jurisprudence du Conseil héraldique, 1844-1895, Brussels, 1896, 156-157 (request 10 April 1639).; [A. Jaerens], Une dissertation sur les rois, hérauts et poursuivants d’armes…, in: ‘Supplément aux trophées tant sacrés que profanes du duché de Brabant’, The Hague, 1726, vol. I.  

[8] E.g. L. Galesloot, Pierre-Albert et Jean de Launay, hérauts d’armes du duché de Brabant. Histoire de leurs procès (1643-1687), Brussels, 1866.

Cite this blog post
Steven Thiry (2014, January 24). Law Enforcement or Living Heraldry? Assessing the Armorial Function(s) of Heralds in the Long Seventeenth Century (Spanish Monarchy and Archducal Netherlands) (Steven Thiry). History of Heralds. Retrieved May 20, 2024, from

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