Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Arms and the man

Last Tuesday evening was the first meeting this academic year of the Oxford University Heraldry Society. We had a most interesting lecture from Dr Paul Fox of Imperial College in London on the heraldry ascribed to King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.

Having made the point that heraldry began to develop very much at the same time as the Arthurian romances became popular in the twelfth century he went on to show how the arms of the members of the Round Table were developed and received.

Thus King Arthur's own arms, dervied from an early chronicle reference to him bearing on his shoulders in battle the image of Our Lady , were originaly shown as Gules, the Virgin and Child proper, but then, following King Edward I and Queen Eleanor's visit to Glastonbury for the re-burial of Arthur and Guinevere's remains, and to other places associated with the legend, in 1278 a new coat appeated, Azure, threee crowns or, 2 and I - as in the arms of Sweden. Other versions had an azure shield crowns semee, indicating the kingdoms arthur had conquered. This remained the standard coat for Arthur through the middle ages.

King Arthur from The Nine Heroes tapesteries
France or South Netherlandish, circa 1400-1410. The Cloisters, New York

Image from www.navema.com

King Edward III was also an Arthurian enthusiast like his grandfather, and is known to have visited the site at South Cadbury which John Leland two centuries recorded as the site of Camelot, and which upon ecxcavation has been shown to have been a major centre in the sixth century. Both of these King Edwards held tournaments at which they and their courtiers and guests dressed and jousted as Knights of the Round Table. Edward III's use of lion imagery on such occasions may well have influenced his choice of the name Lionel for his son in 1338, the future Duke of Clarence.

Some men, especially thise who could attempt to claim descent from the paladins retained these Arthurian arms as their own coat armour. Two families adopted Lancelot's arms (Argent, three bendlets rouge), and appear to have resolved the issue of a shared heraldic identity amicably, with one family raising the bendlets to the upper part of the shield to differentiate the arms.

Another added red scimitars to his argent and noir checky coat from the persona of Sir Pallamedes from the legends to stress the idea of eastern exoticism. In connection with this I have included an extract from the Sigillum Secretum website:

Because they are described in the "Tristam und Isult" cycles, the arms of Sir Pallamedes, the Moorish prince who becomes a knight of the Round Table, have received a certain amount of scholarly attention. Chequered in black and white, this highly contrasting design would appear to be nothing more than perhaps the most abstract icon of those dualities already pointed to, such as God and Jacob (Jacquelado is the word for checkered in Spanish), or Church and State. Instead of his coat armour, it is the body of Sir Fierfitz Angevin, the black knight from Eschenbach's "Parzival" that is patterned in a piebald motif. The fact that the poet likens Fierfitz's skin to a parchment with writing is what expands this symbol to its most encompassing parameters.

The OUHS talk opened up a wide range of insights into chivalric court and heraldic culture, and Dr Fox plans to publish a version in the magazine Family History.

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