If you’ve watched a royal ceremony on television, been to a medieval fair, or watched a medieval movie, you’ve probably seen a herald at work. These brightly clad men began as early diplomats and learned aristocrats, but quickly became something else. More than referees of battles and tournaments, they were truly the most powerful men on the battlefield, having the power to decide who won and who lost the decisive battles throughout history.
The Rise of the Herald: Early Heralds
The earliest herald was an early form of diplomat. Their duty was to issue proclamations and act as messengers to the emperor and nobles. Like diplomats today, heralds enjoyed a form of diplomatic immunity.
Heralds carried a white rod that told enemy fighters that they would not be attacked or punished for their possessions. Essentially, the herald was holding a sign that said ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’. Without this immunity, the work of the Herald would have been impossible.
‘Is there a lion on your flag? I’ve got a message for you!’ An English herald approaches Scottish soldiers, artist unknown. ( public domain )
Over time, their immunity and frequent interactions with royalty and nobles meant that heralds became experts in heraldry (the study of knights and nobility). This meant they knew all the different badges, standards and coats of arms and who they represented. This information is essential to ensure the Herald delivers the message to the right person.
Since most of these signs were hereditary, heralds soon became experts in the genealogies of the various noble houses. Furthermore, since these family titles were often intricately linked to family histories, heralds also became experts in the histories of different houses and nobles.
Heralds were respected authorities on heraldry. His knowledge was needed to decipher who was who in this picture of two jousting knights. In the royal arms of England a knight (Gules, three lions passant guardant) bearing a moor’s head as his arms. A man bearing the royal arms without a ‘label’ or other heraldic distinction, unmistakably indicates the King of England. Richard I was the only English king to take part in the Crusades in the Holy Land. public domain )
Over time, the role of heralds began to change. Instead of messengers or diplomats, they began to police heraldry. If there was a dispute as to which family a disciple belonged to, it was the heralds who gave the verdict.
Hugo Gerhard Strohl’s “Heraldischer’s Atlas”, 1899 ( public domain )
Heralds in competitions
As pageants became more popular during the Middle Ages, heralds were chosen to organize them. Only the elite could participate, and the heralds had all the knowledge necessary to ensure that only those who deserved it competed. The action in these tournaments can also get very frantic and heralds are the only ones with the depth of knowledge needed to keep track of who wins and who loses.
Early tournaments were not the jousting contests they are today. It was a huge war game, the goal of which was to capture the knights of the other side. If you capture an opposing knight, you can keep their horse for yourself or collect a ransom from the knight’s family. Competitions were big business. Knights were fighting for real money and the best became incredibly rich.
Heralds needed a good eye. These phenomena spread over miles and miles of countryside and can engulf entire cities. Contestants could number in the hundreds, and it was up to the heralds to keep track of who and what side they represented.
As war games, these contests could be incredibly dangerous, and it was not uncommon for knights to lose their lives. Heralds needed to keep track not only of who was winning, but who was dying and how. In the chaos of the Games, it was important that the wrong message of death and injury was not conveyed.
As these events became more popular, they came with a higher level of pageantry. They are usually held at times of religious significance, such as Christmas and Easter feasts, and will include large ceremonies. Heralds were involved in the planning of these large events, making sure that everyone who was supposed to be involved was involved.
As time progressed, the tournaments remained popular but decreased in size, becoming more like modern sporting events. By the Tudor period, it had evolved into the type of jousting contests we see depicted today.
As the tournaments became smaller, heralds played an increasingly large role in the organization of the ceremonies around them. Today, heralds in the United Kingdom still play this role. They take part in important ceremonies such as coronations, state funerals and the opening of parliament.
Heralds in procession to St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle for the annual service of the Order of the Garter in 2006 (Philip Allfrey / CC by SA 2.5 )
Heralds in War
Heralds were not the only ones present at the tournament. They played an important role in the battle. Their ability to indicate and identify important knights and nobles makes them invaluable in recording the events of war.
Heralds were responsible for compiling casualty lists, recording the dead, and conducting funerals. Thanks to their knowledge of heraldry, no matter how badly disfigured a knight is, a herald may be able to recognize them. His continuing role as a diplomat meant that he was also responsible for relaying the requests of high-profile prisoners to their captors.
Heralds acted as referees in battles. Their job was to encourage their commanders to act honorably and bravely. Like referees, they should be impartial. The herald usually flees to a safe distance from the battle, often on a hill and simply watches as the battle unfolds.
Often, heroes from opposite sides wound up sitting next to each other as battles unfolded. In the case of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, French and English heralds sat side by side watching the battle. Both agreed that the English had won, and the French herald, Montjoie, helped King Henry V name the battle (as he had the right to as the victor).
This was an important part of the Herald’s work. His job was to declare victory. If the battle was close, it wasn’t always clear who won. This handshake shows considerable strength and shows how respected his office was. Both sides trusted him to make calls impartially.
Medieval marginalia detail depicting a horned herald right and two caped monkeys riding a bear and a boar. (British Museum / CC BY 4.0 )
The Herald’s office still exists in the United Kingdom today. We may no longer see them on the battlefield, declared victorious, but they play an important role in the kind of ceremonies that draw millions of tourists to the UK every year.
Heralds are symbols of a very different time. Combat in medieval times was certainly brutal and violent, and not every knight fought with the honor they claimed. However, the fact that the heralds ultimately decided who won and who lost shows how much people value honor.
We live in an age of misinformation, information warfare and cyber intelligence. Whoever shouts the loudest can declare himself the winner. At such times, the Herald seems like a good idea.
Top image: Heralds served as messengers on the battlefield. Source: rudall30 / Adobe stock
By Robbie Mitchell