Heraldry and the Medieval Gentlewoman

Maurice Keen looks at the significance of female lines of descent in heraldic arms, and what this tells us about women of noble and gentle birth in medieval England.

Around 1450 Richard Strangways, lawyer of the Inner Temple, was putting together a book of notes and comments on heraldry, a subject of keen interest to the gentility of his day. A point came when he wished to include something on marks of cadency, that is to say the differences or marks on the full family arms as borne by the head of the house to distinguish his male children (a label of three points for the eldest son and heir, a crescent for the second son, a mullet for the third, and so on). But what of daughters? With regard to them Strangways makes these interesting remarks:

In cause arms were first ordained that a mighty noble warrior might be known from others … if arms be given to a man and he hath issue a daughter, to what intent should she bear his arms with a difference? To none; because she shall never wear coat armour nor come to wage war in the field … Wherefore understand that she beareth arms only to be known of that noble blood and [for] the continuance of the right to those arms in them that shall come of her.

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