The Bard’s Use of Heraldry: No. 62 of 100 Reasons Why Edward de Vere was “William Shakespeare”

A coat-of arms used by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford

A coat-of arms used by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford – with his motto “Vero Nihil Verius” or Nothing Truer than Truth

At least three books are devoted entirely to Shakespeare’s knowledge and treatment of heraldry.  Two of them are The Heraldry of Shakespeare: A Commentary with Annotations (1930) by Guy Cadogan Rothery and Shakespeare’s Heraldry (1950) by Charles Wilfred Scott-Giles; and on this basis alone, the bard must know a great deal about coats of arms, blazons, charges, fields, escutcheons (shields), crests, badges, hatchments (panels), gules (red markings or tinctures) and much more.

But it’s not simply that Shakespeare has considerable knowledge about heraldry; in fact, it’s part of his thought process.   He uses heraldic terms in spontaneous, natural, unforced ways, often metaphorically, making his descriptions more vivid while stirring and enriching our emotions.

Take, for example, the word badge, which in heraldry is an emblem indicating allegiance to some family or property.  Shakespeare uses it  literally, of course, but also metaphorically:  Falstaff in Henry IV Part Two speaks of “the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice”; Ferdinand in Love’s Labour’s Lost cries out, “Black is the badge of hell”; Lysander in in A Midsummer Night’s Dream talks about “bearing the badge of faith”; Tamora in Titus Andronicus declares, “Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge”;  and, using his own voice, the poet refers in Sonnet 44 to “heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.”

Tomb of Richard de Vere, 11th Earl of Oxford, 1417

Tomb of Richard de Vere, 11th Earl of Oxford, 1417

Surely this great author was “one of the wolfish earls,” as Walt Whitman so readily perceived – a proud nobleman for whom hereditary titles, shields and symbols were everyday aspects of his environment.  From early boyhood, Edward de Vere the seventeenth Earl of Oxford had been steeped in the history of his line dating back five hundred years to William the Conqueror; the heraldry of his ancestors, as well as that of other noble families, became interwoven with his vocabulary.

[Need I add that this is not reported out of snobbery or some kind of preference for the upper class?  Having begun my professional life as a journalist, I can state that everything in this blog comes from an attempt to look at the evidence — as opposed to the myth — and to write what I see.]

Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream extends the metaphor of two bodies sharing the same heart by presenting the image of a husband-and-wife’s impaled arms:  “So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart; two of the first, like coats in heraldry, due but to one and crowned with one crest.”

Royal arms used by Henry IV to Elizabeth I - English lions quartered with French fleur-de-lis

Royal arms used by Henry IV to Elizabeth I – English lions quartered with French fleur-de-lis

An example of “Shakespeare” thinking and writing in heraldic terms occurs in the opening scene of Henry VI Part Two, upon the funeral of Henry the Fifth at Westminster Abbey.  A messenger warns the English against taking recent victories for granted by describing setbacks in France as the cropping (cutting-out) of the French quarters in the royal arms of England:  “Awake, awake, English nobility!  Let not sloth dim your honors new-begot:  cropped are the flower-de-luces in your arms!  Of England’s coat one half is cut away!

(England’s coat of arms presented flower-de-luces or fleur-de-lis, the emblem of French royalty, quartered with Britain’s symbolic lions.  Cropping the two French quarters would cut away half the English arms – a vivid description of England’s losses in France.)

“The Vere arms changed repeatedly over many generations,” the late Oxfordian researcher Robert Brazil noted, adding that details of Edward de Vere’s arms had “numerous documented precedents.”

Such documentation consisted not only of drawings but also the “blazonry” or descriptions of shields in precise heraldic language, using only words.  “Through the science of blazon,” Brazil wrote, “infinitely complex visual material is described in such a precise way that one can accurately reproduce full color arms with dozens of complex coats, based on the words of the blazon alone.”

At the Vere seat of Castle Hedingham in Essex, the young Earl of Oxford necessarily studied the seals and tombs of his ancestors.  He, after all, was a member of the old feudal aristocracy; he would inherit the title of Lord Great Chamberlain of England, raising him to become the highest-ranking earl of the realm.  To assert the rights and rankings of his Vere identity, he needed exact knowledge of his family’s heraldry and to “blazon” or describe it in words through the five centuries of its history.

St. George Chapel at Windsor Castle, where each Knight is allotted an "installment" or stall

St. George Chapel at Windsor Castle, where each Knight is allotted an “installment” or stall

“Shakespeare” uses “blazon” just as we might expect it to be employed by Edward de Vere, that is, as a natural enrichment of language.  Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor, near the end of the play, employs the word in a burst of heraldic imagery:  “About, about; search Windsor Castle, elves, within and out … Each fair installment, coat, and several crest, with loyal blazon, evermore be blest!”

[Oxford knew Windsor Castle well; he is recorded as staying there several times; and at age nineteen, he lodged in a hired room in the town of Windsor while recovering from illness.]

Mistress Quickly refers to each “installment” in the castle, that is, each place where an individual knight is installed; the knight’s “coat” was on a stall-plate nailed to the back of the stall; and the “crest” was a figure or device originally borne by a knight on his helmet.


From the same pen we find “blazon” in a variety of metaphorical contexts:  “I’faith, lady, I think your blazon to be true”Much Ado About Nothing; “Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit do give thee five-fold blazonTwelfth Night; “But this eternal blazon must not be to ears of flesh and blood”Hamlet; and in Sonnet 106 to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton he uses “blazon” in the context of accounts of medieval chivalry, writing of “beauty making beautiful old rhyme / In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,” followed by: “Then in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,/ Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,/ I see their antique pen would have expressed/ Even such a beauty as you master now.”

In Hamlet the prince tells the players that a speech he “chiefly loved” was the one that Virgil’s Aeneas delivers to Dido, Queen of Carthage, about the fall of Troy.  Before the first player can begin to recite it, however, Hamlet delivers thirteen lines from memory.   In these lines he describes how Pyrrhus, son of the Greek hero Achilles, had black arms while hiding inside the Trojan horse; but then his arms became drenched in the red blood of whole families that were slaughtered.  (Such was the origin of “Pyrrhic victory” to describe a success at too great a cost. – NOT!  SEE CORRECTION IN COMMENTS SECTION FROM EARL SHOWERMAN.)

But the story had even greater impact upon members of the audience who knew that the bloody tale was being told in the context of heraldic terms – such as sable arms (the black device displayed on Pyrrhus’ shield); gules (red); and tricked (decorated), not to mention that Pryrrhus’ arms covered with red blood are “smeared with heraldry”:

The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,

Black as his purpose, did the night resemble

When he lay couched in the ominous horse,

Hath now this dread and black complexion smeared

With heraldry more dismal.   Head to foot

Now is he total gules, horridly tricked

With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons…

Even the narrative poem Lucrece (1594), the second publication as by “Shakespeare,” is filled with heraldic imagery:

But Beauty, in that white entitled

From Venus’ doves, doth challenge that fair field…

This heraldry in Lucrece’s face was seen (Stanzas 9 & 10)

(Challenge: lay claim to; field: the surface of a heraldic shield on which figures or colors are displayed, but also evoking a battlefield; from world’s minority: from the beginning of time)

book of shakespeare's heraldryRobert Brazil noted that previous earls of Oxford had employed a special greyhound as a heraldic symbol, but that Edward, the seventeenth earl, had stopped using it; and that in the opening scene of The Merry Wives of Windsor (which begins and ends with humorous dialogue involving heraldry) there’s a line, unrelated to anything else, about a “fallow” or no-longer-used greyhound:

PAGE:  I am glad to see you, good Master Slender.

SLENDER: How does your fallow greyhound, sir?

In this otherwise meaningless “throwaway” exchange, is there a little wink from Edward de Vere, pointing to his own heraldic history?

%d bloggers like this: