600th anniversary of King Henry V's 'writs'
Posted: 02 Jun 2017, 08:02
King Henry V of England (by Dan Escott)
Today, 2 June 2017, is the 600th anniversary of the so-called "writs" issued by King Henry V of England, regarding the use of coats of arms. On 2 June 1417, as his army was mobilising in southern England for a campaign against France, Henry issued an order to the sheriffs of the four counties where the men were being assembled. He directed them to make sure that no man who reported for service used a coat of arms unless
* he had inherited it, or
* it had been given to him by someone with the power to do so, or
* he was a veteran of the battle of Agincourt in 1415.
Anyone found with arms that did not comply with these requirements was to give them up. If he refused he was to be dismissed from the expedition and forfeit his wages.
What is the significance of this military order? Well, although it was of limited and temporary application, it was later misrepresented as a general ban on the use of self-assumed arms in England.
There is ample evidence that the heraldry authorities recognised and accepted self-assumed arms during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Many were recorded during the official Visitations, which were held periodically from the 1530s to the 1680s.
But things changed after the Visitations ended. The College of Arms began to call the self-assumption of arms "disputable", and refused to recognise these arms without a formal grant.
From the early 18th century to as recently as the 1980s, heraldic writers helped to drive this narrative through their books. Through selective, and sometimes distorted, quotations from the writ, they insisted that Henry had imposed a blanket ban on self-assumed arms throughout the kingdom, and that it was still in force.
Today, though, the College of Arms has dispelled the myth. Its website makes it clear that the writs applied only to "the forthcoming expedition to France."