Heraldic embroidery

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In the SCA, virtually everyone has a device or coat of arms, and one of the most enjoyable parts of having one is being able to display it. Medieval folk clearly got just as much enjoyment out of the display of gorgeous heraldry as we do, and it adds a lot to the color and pageantry of the medieval tournament. For a great tournament or festival, banners were (often hastily) appliqued or painted, wall coverings and pavilions were painted and stencilled, and heraldic surcoats and trappings were worn by fighters, their horses, and possibly their consorts.

In everyday life, heraldic display seems to have been done more in techniques that took a bit longer to do, but were more durable. Arms were carved in wood and stone, painted, engraved in metal and on gems, and -- to get to our topic of today -- embroidered. There are not a lot of examples of surviving medieval embroidery, but of those that we have, a fairly high proportion are clearly heraldic, and we have documentary evidence of many more, in a variety of stitches, materials and techniques.

There are a number of surviving heraldic embroideries in applique, for instance, and others in split stitch and stem stitch, in tent stitch ("needlepoint"), in couched outlines and fillings, or in counted thread "brick stitch." Embroiderers seem to have used whichever stitches or techniques were most popular at the time. Heraldic embroidery, being an art of the nobility, was also often done in gold thread, buillon, pearls and other expensive materials which have not survived.

There is a definite etiquette of when to use which kind of display. Entire coats of arms were often used as decoration in a way that we can interpret as "this is me" -- as a sort of symbolic "stand-in" for the personal presence of the bearer. So you see coats of arms on, for instance, an embroidered altar frontal commissioned by a noble family, where the donor's "presence" in the church is symbolized by their embroidered arms. You see a character in a "story" tapestry bearing a shield with coat of arms to indicate that "this is Tristram" (or whoever the character is). In the SCA context, we see this most clearly in combat favors, where the arms of the consort are her or his symbolic "presence" on the field with the fighter. There are also quite a few examples of entire coats of arms built into great houses, carved over the door or fireplace, or as part of a stained-glass window.

Woodcock and Robinson's Oxford Guide to Heraldry dryly observes that heraldic elements were also "used as a symbol of a man's authority on all he owned and directed: on his seals, his plate, his horse trappings, his servants, his gaming counters, his dogs, and so forth." For movable possessions and clothing, it seems to be more common to use a personal or family badge, crest, or single charge from the arms, rather than the full coat of arms. Servants' livery might bear the employer's crest or badge embroidered on the left sleeve or on the chest. Probably the best-known example is the crowned Tudor rose worn by the Yeomen of the Guard at the Tower of London ("Beefeaters"). A precious book owned by a noble might have a badge or arms embroidered on its cover. Even the dogs might have his badge on their collars!

A noble might also wear his or her own badges as decoration. The funeral effigies of Richard II of England and his queen Anne of Bohemia in Westminster Abbey depict fabrics decorated with personal and family badges; a crowned A and R; knots and ostriches for Anne; and the Plantagenet broom-pod and chained white hart for Richard. Such embroidered fabrics are certainly possible and may have been used for clothing and other items.

Wearing a heraldic badge could also be a way to show personal or political loyalty -- think of the white rose or the sunburst of York, in the Wars of the Roses. Noble families would also proudly display the badges or arms of their forebears (real or imagined) or eminent relatives. Several great families in England, including the Bohuns, the Staffords, and the Careys, have a badge of a white swan, referring to their supposed descent from the legendary Knight of the Swan.

Heraldic motifs were also popular on their own -- lions, suns, centaurs, eagles, roses, crescents and the like are found on many embroidered garments and other items. For example, Philippa of Hainault, queen of Edward III of England, had a purple robe embroidered all over with golden squirrels, which was later cut up into church vestments. Since we don't always know all of a person's relatives, ancestors, political opinions and other factors, it's not always possible to say whether a heraldic motif is worn for a heraldic reason or just because the wearer happened to like it.

Based on what we know and don't know about how such embroidery was used in the middle ages, heraldic embroidery can find a plausible and enjoyable place on our clothing, gloves, banners, favors, and other accessories. As with many arts, the use and application of medieval-style heraldic embroidery in these current middle ages is up to the creativity of each of us.

Sources:

Mary Houston, Medieval Costume in England and France, 1996, Dover Publications (originally published in 1939). ISBN 0-486-29060-3 (pbk)

Stella Mary Newton, Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince, 1980, Boydell Press, ISBN

Marie Schuette and Sigrid Muller-Christensen, A Pictorial History of Embroidery, 1964, Thames and Hudson (no ISBN, out of print)

Kay Staniland, Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers, 1991, British Museum Press, ISBN 0-8020-6915-0

Thomas Woodcock and J. M. Robinson, The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, 1988, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-285224-8 (especially Chapter X, "The Use of Heraldry as Decoration").

Thomas Woodcock and J. M. Robinson, Heraldry in Historic Houses of Great Britain, 2000, National Trust/Harry N. Abrams., ISBN 0-8109-6691-3