Last week we looked at heraldry, so it only seems right that we should look this week at the men whose role it was to be so thoroughly acquainted with the arms of knights from all over Europe that they could identify them on a crowded battlefield just from a banner like the ones in the picture above.
The role of the herald developed and changed over the course of the Middle Ages. Initially they were no more than minstrels who opened and closed the proceedings at a tournament, but over time they became the emissaries and spokesmen of kings.
Their only connection with the battlefield to begin with was the tournament. In their early days, though, this was not as remote a connection as it became later. Tournaments were originally very violent, involving large numbers of men fighting one another over huge swathes of countryside, and they could get out of control. The more sedate tournaments in enclosed spaces that were well-behaved enough to be viewed by women came much later.
Tournaments were associated with fairs and general entertainment, which meant music and minstrels. Heralds began as minstrels, starting and ending tournaments by sounding their trumpets, but they managed to turn their role into something far more substantial. This caused jealousy among the other minstrels, who said that the heralds were corrupt, which some of them undoubtedly were.
Tournaments were events that needed to be organised, taking months and even years of preparation. Heralds were an integral part of this. They planned the tournaments and knew how they were supposed to proceed. Once the arrangements were made, they took the invitations to the invited participants.
When the tournament started, the heralds introduced the knights who were going to take part, praising their skill and bravery. By the time that tournaments had become a spectator sport rather than a rehearsal for war, the spectators were interested in knowing who the participants were.
During the tournament, the heralds gave the command to start the jousts. They were also the tournament referees and recorded what happened during the course of the tournament. They judged, or helped to judge, who the winners were and awarded the prizes.
Under a statute of Edward I to prevent open warfare at tournaments, heralds and other tournament officials were not permitted to carry weapons. Servants of participating knights and the spectators were also prohibited from carrying arms. Tournaments had been banned in England altogether during the reign of Edward I’s father, Henry III, for fear of knights meeting together there with their retinues and fomenting revolution. It was all too possible that trained knights could turn their expertise on the king, taking their armed followers with them.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, heralds were advising on chivalric disputes arising from a tournament. By then, though, they had an important role elsewhere.
Since heralds could identify participants at a tournament from their arms, they were also useful on the battlefield. It was helpful to know who the knights on the other side were and whether they had reputations as good fighters or were men of little experience. A herald would know those details.
At the beginning of an engagement heralds were probably taking notes of who was in the opposing army by reference to their banners, which would have been visible while the two sides were waiting for the other to attack. It’s thought that one of their roles was to report the heroic deeds of knights in battle. This meant that they had to get close to the fiercest fighting, whilst not taking part. Even heralds could make mistakes, though, and the similarities in colour of the arms of some French knights led the English heralds at the battle of Crécy to declare that some knights had died, only to discover later that they had survived.
As it had in tournaments, the herald’s role increased on the battlefield. They eventually became officers of the crown and served as emissaries, spokesmen and diplomats. They had come a long way from being mere entertainers.
The Road to Crecy by Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel
Tournaments by Richard Barber and Juliet Barker
The Tournament in England by Juliet Barker
The Battle of Crécy, 1346 by Andrew Ayton and Philip Preston