Heraldry is the science of the coat of arms, the “art of explaining and describing the coats of arms of each lineage, city or person” (apart from making ostentation and self-praise). It is a science that dates back to the Middle Ages, since it was then that this type of identity representations were born, and with them the figure of the herald, in charge of describing them when he announced his lord in jousts and tournaments.

When this function was extended to a higher level, the so-called King of Arms was created, a specialist in the subject in charge of registering the new coats of arms that were granted and controlling everything related to the subject, from certifying lineages to resolving disputes, as well as other tasks.

A good example of this was Spain, where that official that all the peninsular kingdoms had became an institution of national character from the 16th century, calling himself Chronicler King of Arms and obtaining judicial powers ex profeso. The body of chroniclers had a dean who was assisted by four officers and two undersecretaries who acted as witnesses. They were appointed by the crown for life and, although it was not a hereditary dignity, it was not uncommon for the position to be passed from parents to children, giving rise to dynasties dedicated to this work.

In this painting by Ulpiano Checa(Expulsion of the Jews in 1492) you see two kings of arms flanking the throne/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Among the functions of the Hispanic heralds were also to be plenipotentiary emissaries and to sign agreements in the name of the King, since once signed they would have to be countersigned by the monarch later. In Spain there was a Chronicler King of Arms until 1931, when it was suppressed with the proclamation of the Republic, but it was recovered twenty years later. The last one to hold the position, dependent on the Ministry of Justice, died in 2005 and since then no other has been appointed because the jurisdiction was passed to the autonomous communities.

There is a notable difference with the British case because the High Court of Chivalry and the College of Arms, the bodies in charge of genealogical and heraldic matters, are still active there, although it is true that they do not meet often because, as in Spain and other countries, times have changed. The High Court is one of the many courts or tribunals that exist in the United Kingdom, because the legal system is not unified and each member country has its own, and completes the work of the College in the legal field, resolving disputes related to the subject. That is why it is civil and not common.

It was created in the 14th century, receiving throughout its history names such as Curia Militaris, Court of the Constable and the Marshal or Earl Marshal’s Court, which referred to the office that was -and still is- in charge, the Earl Marshal or Earl Marischal (earl is a British title equivalent to count). Compared to the Spanish model, it is a hereditary position -linked to the duchy of Norfolk since 1672- which is situated in the penultimate place in the ranking of nine Grand Officers of State (traditional ministers of ceremonial character appointed by the crown), between the Lord High Commissioner of England and the Lord High Admiral. Originally he was responsible for the stables but today he has extended his powers to the organization of ceremonies, such as coronations, state funerals, the Procession of the Order of the Garter or the State Opening of Parliament.

High Court of Chivalry Session at College of Arms, 1809/Image: Wikimedia Commons

However, the facet that interests us here is that related to heraldry, since the Earl Marshal is also an officer of arms and supervisor of the College of Arms (or College of Herald). The latter, founded by Richard III in 1484 (not counting the antecedents, which go back almost a century), is the official heraldic authority of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and much of the Commonwealth, including Australia and New Zealand. On its website it describes the functions it performs:

In addition to being responsible for granting new coats of arms, the College maintains records of arms, pedigrees, genealogies, royal licenses, name changes and flags. 
Heralds, in addition to performing their ceremonial duties, advise on all matters relating to nobility and barony, precedence, honors and ceremonials, as well as national and community symbols, including flags

The College of Arms is composed of thirteen officers: three kings of arms, six heralds of arms and four pursuers of arms, plus seven other occasional officers who are not usually part of the College. All of them are under the direction of the aforementioned Earl Marshal, who presides over the High Court of Chivalry together with the Lord High Constable (the Lord High Commissioner we mentioned before), who once also had responsibilities in the administration of the stables.

English Heralds are their gala tabards during the parade of the Order of the Garter/Image: Philip Allfrey on Wikimedia Commons

It was not a minor occupation, as it might seem, because the tasks of both positions extended to war operations involving the participation of the cavalry (which in the Middle Ages was the main force of the armies and was the weapon of nobles and kings). They were also in charge of managing ransoms, distributing spoils, paying the salaries of the troops and punishing anyone who used a coat of arms improperly.

Since their stellar performance today is in great events, the heralds wear a colorful period uniform, a medieval tabard embroidered with the royal arms, carrying a golden mallet and looking like Spanish maceros.

This similarity goes a step further if we look at their history, as it is curious that the statute governing them is not from the Middle Ages but later, from 1555, granted when a couple closely related to Spain reigned in England: Mary Tudor, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, and her husband Philip II, sovereign of the Hispanic Monarchy. They also granted the seat that is still in use.

Earl Marshal’s Chambers in the High Court of Chivalry (College of Arms)/Image: Francis Helminski on Wikimedia Commons

The High Court of Chivalry only saw its functioning interrupted for six years, between 1634 and 1640, due to the political context (the so-called eleven-year tyranny, a period in which Charles I reigned in an absolute manner without convening Parliament), but since then it has met regularly, although this did not imply seeing causes.

Originally there were two judges, the Earl Marshal and the Lord High Constable, but since 1521 only the first one has remained as the only magistrate-with auxiliary staff-after the other (who was the Duke of Buckingham) was convicted of high treason.

His last intervention was in 1954, on the occasion of a complaint by the Manchester Corporation (now the city council) against the Manchester Palace of Varieties Ltd, which used the city’s coat of arms and caused confusion by implying that it was linked to the city council (which, by the way, won). Actually there was another complaint with a similar starting point in 2012: the Aberystwith City Council against a Facebook page that also used their shield, although in the end they agreed to remove it.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 13, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en El Tribunal Superior de Caballería, una institución medieval que sigue activa en el Reino Unido


The College of Arms (John Brooke-Little en The Heraldry Society)/XXV Aniversario de la creación del cargo y oficio de Cronista de Armas de Castilla y León (Emiliano González Díez, Félix Martínez Llorente y Francisco Trullén Galve en Cuadernos de Ayala)/College of Arms (web oficial)/Wikipedia

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