Monday, August 22, 2016

Coat of Arms Tell a Story

by Samantha Wilcoxson

The medieval coat of arms was a source of pride for its owner, not only identifying them with its unique design but telling a story of their achievements and ancestry. The differentiations added with each generation and family member who used a coat of arms increased its complexity and put their individual touch upon the family story. The example of Margaret Pole’s coat of arms is an excellent study in the intricacies of heraldry.

Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury
Coat of Arms
As you can see, Margaret had good reason to be proud of her heritage and her own position as Countess of Salisbury. Each color, line, and image within this breathtaking coat of arms has a particular meaning. By looking at each element we can learn much about the lady herself.

Let’s start by looking at the top left quarter of Margaret’s shield. This undoubtedly is familiar as the quartered Plantagenet lions and French fleur-de-lis had been used since the reign of Edward III, the monarch whose many descendants would cause the Wars of the Roses that created so much upheaval for Margaret and countless others. He was the first to take England’s three lions and combine them with the banner of the French throne.  Each of the monarchs since Edward III’s time had included this in their coat of arms, and Margaret’s children kept this intact in their own shields.

George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence
Coat of Arms
The field of red, or gules as it is referred to in heraldry, indicates the status of a warrior or one who is eager to serve, while France’s azure (blue) represents loyalty and strength. Lions were common features on royal shields, these are in a position of passant guardant with three feet on the ground and head facing the observer. A differentiation on Margaret’s family’s version of the royal arms is the white label, or tournament collar, charged with canton gules (the red marks) which designates it as the shield of the Duke of Clarence, Margaret’s father.

Moving clockwise, we begin to see the many elements that Margaret’s shield takes from her Neville ancestors, who were earls of Warwick, Montagu, Westmoreland, and Salisbury. The gules field is repeated in the square included from the Nevilles of Middleham. From the late 13th century, this shield was in place for this noble family when it was first used by Ralph Neville, 1st Baron de Raby. 
The label charged with canton azure was added by Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury, to differentiate between family branches. Salisbury passed on this element to his son, the infamous Earl of Warwick, later known as the kingmaker. It is found on the coat of arms of Margaret Pole because her mother was Warwick’s daughter. She also was restored her great-grandfather’s title to the earldom of Salisbury by Henry VIII.

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick
Coat of Arms
Many other elements of Margaret’s shield also come from that of her grandfather, which combines several items from his family’s various earldoms. The Howorth crosslets and field of chequed gold and azure with the chevron of ermine are evidence of his inheritance from his father-in-law. Richard de Beauchamp passed along the Warwick earldom to Richard Neville through the former’s daughter and latter’s wife, Anne Beauchamp. This portion of the shield finds its roots in de Clare family arms, ancestors of the Beauchamps. They were added by Warwick to the eagle and series of three red fusils that were featured on Warwick’s father’s shield, combining key features of the many noble names and titles he could lay claim to.

The final eighth of Margaret’s coat of arms is taken directly from her grandfather’s lower right quarter. The red chevronels on gold quartered with gold fret on red indicate Despenser family heritage, also through Warwick’s wife, Anne Beauchamp.

Henry Pole, Lord Montagu
Coat of Arms
A brief analysis of Margaret Pole’s coat of arms makes clear how quickly family connections and titles cause the evolution of a shield. Each person who passed on a particular element to be marshalled into Margaret’s shield had very particular reasons for choosing the colors and images that may simply seem eye-catching and romantic to us.

The Warwick chequed azure and gold would have been chosen due to a deep respect for virtue and loyalty. The white chevron over top of this field charged with ermine indicated a vow to protect and status as a noble family. In the same manner, each of the Montagu fusils were a proud statement of honesty, constancy, and noble birth. When Margaret gazed upon her coat of arms, she would have a resounding sense of the past and all that her family had accomplished before her time. The upper left quarter of her shield especially would have been a constant reminder of her family’s former royal status.

Cardinal Reginald Pole
Coat of Arms

Margaret’s sons carried on their family’s heritage with pride, though theirs did not repeat the complexity of Margaret’s shield.  They took the dukedom of Clarence arms of their mother’s shield quartered with the gold and sable saltire of their father, Sir Richard Pole. The lower half included the Neville saltire and the Warwick crosslets. Henry and Reginald’s coats of arms were identical but crested with indications of their status as an earl and a cardinal.

Boutell's Heraldry by CW Scott-Giles & JP Brooke-Little
A Complete Guide to Heraldry by AC Fox-Davies

All images are in the public domain.

Samantha Wilcoxson is the author of the Plantagenet Embers series, which features the stories of the Plantagenet remnant in Tudor times. The first novel in the series, Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen, tells the story of Elizabeth of York, who became the mother of the Tudor dynasty. This book was named an Editor's Choice by the Historical Novel Society and is a Kindle biographical fiction bestseller. Faithful Traitor, also a Kindle bestseller, is the second installment in the series and features the story of Margaret Pole. The final book of the trilogy, Queen of Martyrs: The Story of Mary I will be released in Spring 2017.

Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen and Faithful Traitor are available worldwide on Amazon.

Connect with Samantha on her blog or on Twitter.


  1. I did enjoy this post, thank you for taking the time to make it. Heraldry is a fascinating subject, perhaps I should look more deeply into it.

    1. Thank you! It was neat to look at the evolution of the design through various branches of the family.


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