What is the College of Arms, who is the Earl Marshal, and how are they connected to funerals?

What is the College of Arms and what do they do?

The College of Arms is the corporation of heralds for England, Wales and Northern Ireland (in Scotland, the Lord Lyon fulfills a similar role). There are thirteen ‘heralds in ordinary’/officers of arms in total – Garter King of Arms (the senior officer), the two provincial Kings of Arms (Clarenceux, and Norroy and Ulster), six heralds, and four pursuivants. They oversee the issue of coats of arms, and provide guidance on heraldic matters ie: orders of precedence, protocols around the use of arms/standards/banners/flags, correct usage of titles etc. The officers also play a ceremonial role in events such as the annual Garter Service and the State Opening of Parliament, they play a role in the organisation of coronations and royal funerals.

The officers of arms are all part of the Royal Household and receive a nominal (sub £50!) yearly salary from the Crown. Garter King of Arms is also paid for advising the government and Royal Household on heraldic matters, but the bulk of their income comes from private heraldic and genealogical work.

Where did heralds and the College of Arms come from?

In the medieval period, heralds were employed in the households of individual noblemen and the Royal household. They were used to carry messages, for example between armies – in the run-up to the battle of Flodden in 1513, heralds carried messages from James IV of Scotland to Thomas Howard and vice versa. At Flodden, there were concerns that the Scottish herald should be kept away from the main camp in case he reported back to his King on the English army, suggesting that heralds were expected to carry out some basic spying.

Another primary function of the heralds was promoting and organising tournaments – as a result they developed an in-depth knowledge of the coats of arms and crests borne by the knights participating in the tournaments. This expertise made it logical for them to become responsible for heraldic matters, a function that they retained as their other roles became redundant.

In 1484, Richard III granted the royal heralds a charter of incorporation and a property (though the house was taken away from them following the Battle of Bosworth) beginning the process of creating the College of Arms. Under Henry VIII heraldic visitations were introduced, whereby the heralds could investigate illegal uses of arms. Also during his reign, the dissolution of the monasteries, meant that the College of Arms increasingly held the genealogical records that had been kept by monasteries. A new charter was granted to the College of Arms in 1555 by Mary I. By the late-16th century, the heralds were under the supervision of the Earl Marshal and, in Elizabeth I’s reign, the then Earl Marshal, Thomas Howard 4th duke of Norfolk, was responsible for refining the structure and function of the College through a series of new ordinances.

So, who is the Earl Marshal?

The Earl Marshal is one of the Great Officers of the State in the United Kingdom. The marshal was originally the person responsible for the King’s horses. The role became particularly prominent when the office was held by William Marshal, earl of Pembroke. Over time the title evolved to be ‘Earl Marshal’ – because the office was being held by an earl! One of the Earl Marshal’s roles was to hold the Court of Chivalry, giving him jurisdiction over the misuse of arms – eventually this would lead to the Earl Marshal being given oversight of the College of Arms. The Earl Marshal also has oversight of all state ceremonies.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, the office of Marshal was held by the Marshal family as a hereditary role. Between 1245 and 1672, the office of Earl Marshal was not hereditary but it was regularly held by the dukes of Norfolk (first the Bigods, then the Mowbrays, and finally the Howards). In 1672, it became a hereditary office held by the dukes of Norfolk, and this continues to be the case today.

What is the connection between the heralds and funerals?

During the 15th century, the heraldic funeral emerged as the normal type of funeral for the English nobility. Highly ritualised and costly, heraldic funerals acted as a symbolic transfer of power from the deceased to their heir. They also had a religious function (particularly prior to the Reformation), incorporated charitable elements, and were intended to provide social stability. The personal expression of grief, whilst present, was largely a secondary function of the ceremonies. The funerals could involve hundreds, or even thousands, of people and sometimes included several days of processions and, pre-Reformation, multiple masses. The heralds played a crucial role in organising the funerals and in marshaling the processions – work for which they were well rewarded!

Heraldic funerals began to fall out of fashion in the 17th century. Their declining popularity was due to a mix of the high costs and time involved, the desire for a more private expression of grief, and (in some cases) more Puritan tendencies. However, vestiges of the heraldic funeral have survived in ceremonial and state funerals, for example the processions and the prominent use of the deceased’s standard and arms – the College of Arms continues to be involved in their organisation.

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