Armoria familia

‘The wrong side of the blanket’

by Mike Oettle

“bar sinister” / Edward the Confessor / difference/distinction / arms of dominion / Beaufort

arms with a ‘‘bar sinister’’ - the arms of the Duke of St Albans

BASTARDY has always been a special case in heraldry – indeed, it has been a special case in Western Christianity, the group of societies in which heraldry first arose.

Heraldry sprang from the warrior elites of societies which had been established by barbarian invaders – Germanic tribes, chiefly (even in Roman Gaul, which became France, and Roman Hispania [Spain and Portugal]), but also Celts[1] in Ireland and parts of Britain – and it later spread to another group of barbarians, the Slavs.

All of these Indo-European societies were pagan to begin with, and tolerated or legally sanctioned polygamy, concubinage and extra-marital relationships. The conversion of their members to Catholic[2] Christianity enforced monogamous marriage (without the prospect of divorce)[3] and, for some, celibacy.

But there remained many who had affairs outside the boundaries permitted by the Church and produced offspring from these affairs. Down the years different arrangements were made in different places to accommodate or exclude them, as the prevailing social attitude might tolerate.
arms ascribed to Edward the Confessor

Long before heraldry was established there were very pious monarchs and other rulers, such as Charlemagne[4] [*c742 †814; crowned emperor on Christmas Day AD 800] and England’s two St Edwards (the Confessor [*c1003 †1066] and the Martyr [*c963 †978]) – King Edward the Confessor, after six years of marriage, actually took a vow of chastity.

But there were also those who ignored the rules enforced by the Church and not only fathered bastards but even arranged for their succession.

None of the Saxon kings knew coats of arms, but later heralds attibuted arms to Edward the Confessor, based on a coin minted during his reign. The coin had a cross with four martlets between its arms, but because Norman and Plantaganet shields were so long, a fifth martlet was added in the base.

A famous example of a bastard who succeeded is Duke Robert I of Normandy, whose bastard son William was effectively ruler of Normandy at the age of 15 and in 1066, when he was about 38, made himself King of England. Known widely as William the Conqueror, King William I[5] always insisted that he had become king not by conquest but by contract (an otherwise unattested arrangement with Edward the Confessor). Hence he refused to be called “the Conqueror”, but tolerated being referred to as William the Bastard.

Other bastards have had less success in succeeding to their fathers’ estates – or, often, any paternal inheritance at all – and the coats of arms devised for them were intended to indicate that they were not in the line of succession.

Even the terms used to describe those born outside the marriage bond have varied. They have been termed euphemistically “natural children” or even as having been “born on the wrong side of the blanket”.

It has at times been said of bastards that their arms included a “bar sinister” – and especially in Victorian times this was held to be a terrible social disability. People from armigerous families who were of bastard descent would often forget or deny their connections in order not to be obliged to bear arms that included the said “bar sinister”.

Yet this is a total misunderstanding of the function of heraldic marks of bastardy, and is indeed a complete misnomer.

Franklyn and Tanner[6] remark:

“The bearing of coat-armour is . . . an honour, albeit a minor honour; hence it follows, in spite of deeply ingrained popular fallacy, that illegitimate offspring of an armiger, either sons or daughters, are not stigmatized by a punitive addition to the achievement.

“When an armiger has acknowledged his paternity, and has made the necessary arrangements with the heraldic authority, his illegitimate offspring will receive a grant of the pronominal quarter of his arms ‘suitably differenced’.

“The mark of difference is not for the purpose of declaring the irregularity of the new armiger’s birth, but simply to indicate that he is not the heir to any titles or estates that may be associated with the achievement of arms to the use of which he has been admitted.”

Franklyn and Tanner add, after describing marks used for bastards, as well as for adopted sons:

“The idea that such marks of distinction may be abandoned after being in use for three generations is absurd.”

The reason for marks of distinction of any kind (in family arms) is, after all, to distinguish between the head of the family and its junior members. The removal of a mark of bastardy would have the same effect as the removal of a mark of cadency: an unjustifiable claim to the headship of the family and the titles and estates entailed to that position.

This could even amount to high treason: in Tudor times, persons of Plantaganet descent who displayed arms that suggested that they had a better right to the throne than the reigning monarch lost their heads – literally, on the block – for such presumption.

Franklyn and Tanner’s point is underlined by Fox-Davies,[7] who writes:

“. . . there can be very little doubt that the use of armorial marks of bastardy was not invented or instituted, nor were these marks enforced, as punishment or as a disgrace.”

arms of the Duke of Richmond arms of the Earl of Munster

The reference by Franklyn and Tanner to the “pronominal quarter” is obscure, since there are many instances when a bastard has been granted the full quarterings of his father’s arms – for instance, the many British royal bastards whose descendants still bear the quarters of England, Scotland and Ireland (with or without France or Hanover) with appropriate additional marks.

Shown here are the arms of the Duke of Richmond (the British royal arms as borne by King Charles II, within a border compony, the argent segments each charged with a red rose) and those of the Earl of Munster (the royal arms as borne by King William IV [without the crown of Hanover] with a blue sinister baton charged with three gold anchors). (The dukedom of Richmond is now joined with that of Gordon, and the arms illustrated are shown in the current duke’s first and fourth quarters.) Note that while King Charles’s arms include the arms of France, these had been dropped by the time William (the last British sovereign who was also King of Hanover) came to the throne.

There is a further distinction to be made, this between marks of cadency and those of bastardy. Returning to Fox-Davies:

“The official term for a mark of cadency is a ‘difference’ mark, i.e. it was a mark to show the difference between one member of a family and another. The mark used to signify a lack of blood relationship, and a mark used to signify illegitimacy are each termed a ‘mark of distinction’, i.e. a mark that shall make something plainly ‘distinct’. What is that something? The fact that the use of the arms is not evidence of descent through which heirship could be claimed or proved.”

One should add “in the normal course of events” – as is mentioned below, there have been instances where succession has fallen to an illegitimate line.

As for the “bar sinister”: the bar, in English heraldic language, is a horizontal stripe somewhat narrower than a fess. It can be couped (shortened on either side), but it always runs across the shield (or a subdivision of it) and therefore is neither left nor right.

The term actually refers to a charge called a baton sinister couped (see here for an illustration): a baton because it is a diminutive (narrower version) of the bend (diagonal stripe), couped because it is cut short from the corners of the shield, and sinister because it runs from the upper sinister corner (left, as seen from behind the shield) to the lower dexter.

The incorrect name is a misreading of the French term: in French blazon, a couped baton is une barre, and one in the sinister position is a barre sinistre.

The example of the “bar sinister” given at the top of this page is from the arms of Sir Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St Albans, bastard son of King Charles II by Nell Gwynn. The arms are those of the Stuart kings of England differenced with a baton sinister Gules, charged with three roses Argent, barbed seeded proper (quoting from the official blazon).

These arms can be seen (as a grand quarter) in the first quarter of the arms of the present Duke of St Albans. The 1st Duke married Lady Diana de Vere, sole heiress of the 20th and last Earl of Oxford, and their descendants have quartered St Albans with De Vere.

Bendlets were frequently borne for difference in the Middle Ages, and bastards frequently bore them in the sinister position. In time they were borne couped, giving rise to the notorious “bar sinister”. (For more detail on the bend and its diminutives, used to indicate both legitimate and illegitimate offspring, see this article.)

It is not entirely clear whether the expression “left-handed marriage” (for a relationship out of which a bastard is born) arose from or gave rise to this “sinister” usage.

However, other marks were borne as well.
arms of Sir Roger de Clarendon, bastard son of the Black Prince

In the Middle Ages, a bastard would often adopt or be granted arms that only alluded to his father’s or incorporated elements from the paternal coat:
arms of Duke Afonso de Bragança, bastard son of King João I of Portugal

Sir Roger de Clarendon, bastard son of the Black Prince, used a gold shield charged with a black bend bearing the three feathers of his father’s “shield for peace”, while Duke Afonso I of Bragança (*1370 †1461), illegitimate son of King João I of Portugal, took the five inescutcheons of the quinas[8] and placed them on a red saltire.

The current House of Bragança still bears the red saltire, but has changed the blue quinas inescutcheons for inescutcheons of the royal arms, which are hard to see.

A descendant of Afonso’s, Duke João II (*1604 †1656), led a popular revolt against Spain’s King Felipe IV (whose grandfather, Felipe II of Spain, had inherited the Portuguese throne following a failure of male heirs) and became king (as João IV) in 1640.

João then adopted the plain arms of Portugal (the quinas plus the border of Castile that had been in use since 1254). However, this cannot be seen as a repudiation of bastardy: the arms of Portugal are not merely a family coat of arms, but are arms of dominion.

The arms borne by a sovereign reflect his (or her) territories, rather than merely a family connection – indeed, the arms of the present British sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, include nothing of her descent from the houses of Saxony (Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha) and Hanover (each of these houses in turn had inherited the British throne). Nor is it likely that the arms of her successors on the throne will include quarterings for Mountbatten, Greece or Denmark (all three of which are currently borne by her husband, Prince Philip). (To see a banner of Prince Philip’s arms, go to this page and go down to the fifth flag.)

It is asserted on this page that the Queen’s proper family coat of arms is the crown of rue in bend (or crancelin) of Saxony (since she is descended from Prince Albert, of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha), and that arms of dominion do not constitute a family coat of arms.

However, not only have all Queen Victoria’s descendants (in the male line of descent from Prince Albert) borne arms that are differenced versions of the British royal arms, but since 1916 even the inescutcheon of Saxony that was borne by the Prince of Wales has fallen away. (See here for the arms of Prince Charles, the current Prince of Wales, which incorporate, as an inescutcheon, the four lions of Wales.) The British royal house has, since 1916, used the name Windsor and cut its ties with its German relatives.
arms of Sir John de Clarence, bastard of Thomas, Duke of Clarence arms of Sir Ralph de Arundel, combining his father’s quarterings in flaunches

Returning to the arms of mediæval bastards:

Sir John de Clarence, bastard of Thomas, Duke of Clarence (a son of Henry IV), bore per chevron gules and azure, in chief two lions counter-rampant and in base a fleur de lys all or – altering the English lions passant gardant to rampant and facing each other, and adding a fleur de lys for France. (The royal dukedom of Clarence was based on the landholdings of the earlier Earls of Clare, who had three chevronels in their arms.)

Ralph de Arundel, bastard son of a member of the FitzAlan family (who included the earls of Arundel), bore the quarterings of FitzAlan and Warenne on flaunches: Argent, flaunched with FitzAlan and Warenne quarterly.
arms of Sancho de Albuquerque arms of Juan de Castella

As noted in this article, the first quarterly coat of arms was borne by King Alfonso XI of Castile (adding Leon to his shield). Alfonso kept a mistress, Eleonora Nunes Guzman (their relationship began the year before his marriage to Maria, daughter of King Afonso IV of Portugal) who provided him with several sons. One of them, Sancho, Count of Albuquerque, also combined Castile and Leon, but this time dividing the shield into three segments tierced in pile inverted and embowed.

Sancho’s half-brother, King Pedro I, also had a mistress while married. His bastard, Juan de Castella, also combined Castile and Leon, this time using the characteristically Iberian device of two lions’ heads “swallowing” a bend to separate the two fields. (This type of charge often has dragons’ or wolves’ heads at either end of the bend.)
arms (before marriage) of Queen Juana of Aragon, of the House of Henriquez helmet of a Spanish ‘‘bastardo’’, facing the sinister

Pedro suffered a failure of male heirs, and his illegitimate half-brother Henrique de Trastamatera became king (as Henrique II) in 1369. He, too, kept a mistress, and so fathered the House of Henriquez. This family seems also to have borne Castile and Leon tierced in pile inverted and embowed, and a descendant, Juana, married King Joan II of Aragon and Navarre in 1447. Her father’s arms add a border argent (silver or white) charged with five blue anchors.

Incidentally, a Spanish bastardo is additionally obliged to display his helmet facing the sinister, rather than the dexter.
arms of John Beaufort (before legitimation)

A most interesting case is that of the Beaufort family, children of the (eventual) third marriage of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, third son of King Edward III and brother to the Black Prince.

John’s son Henry (by his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster) became king in 1399, and there were other kings among John’s descendants. The Beauforts, however, were born out of wedlock – their mother, Catherine Roelt,[9] only married John in 1396 (as his third wife), when their eldest son, John Beaufort, was already 23 years old.
arms of John Beaufort as Earl of Somerset

In 1397 Parliament passed an Act of Legitimation, by which the Beauforts had their illegitimacy expunged.

Before 1397, John Beaufort bore Per pale argent and azure, on a bend gules, three lions of England ensigned with a label of France. The colours silver and blue are those of the House of Lancaster (ironically the livery of John of Gaunt’s first wife’s family), while the bend shows England with France almost as an afterthought (in the form of a label, rather than as the first quarter, as it was then borne by the English king).

After legitimation, John (by then Earl of Somerset) bore the quartered arms of France and England within a border compony – retaining the Lancastrian silver and blue in the border.

The Act of Legitimation did not exclude succession to the throne, and the Tudor monarchs of England and their successors from the Houses of Stuart, Hanover, Saxe-Coburg and Windsor are all descended from the House of Plantaganet through John of Gaunt and Catherine (as well as Elizabeth of York, daughter of King Edward IV, who became Henry VII’s Queen).
arms of Henry Somerset as Earl of Worcester

Henry Beaufort, third Duke of Somerset, had an illegitimate son, Charles Somerset, who was made Earl of Worcester and bore the Beaufort arms with a bendlet sinister. Charles’s legitimate son Henry removed the bendlet sinister, and instead placed the Beaufort arms (with the border compony) on a fess. Boutell[10] remarks that this was “recognizing the propriety of retaining an indication of bastard descent though rejecting the bendlet”.

In later years, a failure of legitimate heirs meant that a descendant of Henry Somerset inherited the plain Beaufort family arms.

The Beaufort/Somerset family is of interest to us in South Africa because it was ancestral to Lord Charles Somerset, Governor of the Cape from 1814 to ’26. The heraldry of Lord Charles’s family is reflected in the arms of (some, at least) of the towns he named for himself and his relatives – Somerset East, Somerset West, Worcester, Beaufort West, Fort Beaufort and Port Beaufort.

Lord Charles’s father, the 5th Duke of Beaufort, was descended from Henry Somerset, as is the present duke. Lord Charles’s eldest son, an army officer long stationed at Grahamstown, also bore the family name Henry. Some of his children remained in South Africa, and it is possible that their descendants are still to be found in this country.

(To see the arms of the Duke of Beaufort, click here.)

The reason for this lengthy excursion into the Somerset/Beaufort family (aside from the South African connection) is to explain that the border compony is an ordinary method of difference. Indeed it was only adopted after legitimation, so it cannot be seen in this instance as a mark of bastardy. Yet it was seized upon in Scotland as a bastard’s mark, and extensively used, either alone or in combination with other marks, to signify bastard descent.

Ironically, the same happened in England with the border wavy. Borders, as is pointed out in this article, are commonly used in Scotland with a variety of partition lines to indicate cadency. Yet a single instance of the use in Scotland of a wavy border for bastardy led to its adoption, especially by the Tudor heralds and their successors, as the normal mark of bastardy.[11]

In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, English heralds were almost frantic in their insistence on marks of bastardy, even adding them (often in the form of wavy bendlets or saltires) to crests. This had the unfortunate effect of making armigers of bastard descent unwilling to display their crests, so obviously defaced.

Yet it must be emphasised that despite the extensive use in certain countries of particular marks to indicate bastardy, in international heraldry there is no one mark that signifies a bastard. The appearance of a mark that might, in one country during a particular period, indicate bastardy, is not proof of illegitimacy, nor (even if bastardy is indicated) is it a stain on the character of the armiger.

After all this serious discussion, it’s time to have a look at some of Don Pottinger’s humorous drawings.
arms of Campbell, Duke of Argyll, and his bastard son William Campbell, Duke of Argyll, his two legitimate sons (above the blanket) and his bastard son William (below)

He makes use of the expression “wrong side of the blanket” to produce an illustration of Campbell, Duke of Argyll, with two legitimate sons (both doing the Highland fling!), one with a label, the other with a plain blue border. Below the blanket is their illegitimate half-brother William, with a border compony and a “bar sinister” (and a filthy look to boot!).

(Scottish bastards are entitled by right to the name and arms of their paternal family.)

Moncreiffe and Pottinger are a little mysterious in their next reference, since they don’t state which of the two devices put forward was actually used, but it is possible that the same bastard used both coats of arms at different stages of his life.
Sir John Stanley petitions the Crown for a grant of arms badge of Stanley, Earl of Derby

They emphasise the point that in England a Royal Licence must be obtained before a bastard may use his father’s name, and that arms are then granted in terms of the licence. The device used might then be the father’s arms with a difference for bastardy, or it could be one derived from the father’s armorial symbols.

Here they show the arms of Stanley, Earl of Derby (argent, a bend azure charged with three stags’ heads caboshed) and his badge, the claw of a raptor (perhaps an eagle). His son, Sir John Stanley, is shown petitioning the Crown for a grant of either Stanley within a wavy border or a new coat of arms incorporating three claws and Stanley’s stags’ heads.

But the drawing I like best is that of De St Remi de Valois, bastard of France, who is shown looking very resentfully at his royal father. His arms have the fleurs de lys of France on a fess.

Next to him, quite nonchalant, is his son, with a three-pointed label on his chest – and his infant son, proud enough of his royal descent to wave a banner of his arms, with a label of five points.

The arms of adopted children are in many respects like those of bastards, but they are a special case (even more special) and are dealt with in this article.

King of France with his bastard son, De St Remi de Valois, together with the bastard’s legitimate son and grandson

[1] Celtic usage of coat-armour came much later than that of Anglo-Normans in Britain, but it still preceded heraldry in many parts of Europe, especially the Slavic east.

[2] The word catholic (in Greek kaqolikh) means universal, and refers to the Christian Church of the Roman Empire following the accession in AD 324 of Constantine the Great as Emperor in both East and West. The so-called Eastern Orthodox Churches still refer to themselves (in Greek) as “Roman Catholic”.

The barbarian tribesmen were initially converted to Arianism, a heretical form of Christianity, and only afterward became Catholic.

Although the schism of 1054 formally divided the Eastern Churches (loosely led by the Patriarch of Constantinople) and the Western Church (firmly under the control of the Pope in Rome) – following a prolonged period of disagreement – both continued to refer to themselves as Catholic.

Following the Reformation in the 16th century the term “Catholic” acquired other meanings, and the Dutch and Afrikaans word katools (derived from the Greek original) reverses it completely: it means narrow-minded and perverse. (This word arose in the Dutch Republic during the Eighty Years War, and reflects Protestant attitudes towards a Catholic enemy.)

[3] Annulment was open to a few, especially those with sufficient influence in Rome.

[4] This Frankish (Germanic) king was known in his own time as Carl. Only when his son, also Carl, was crowned co-king, did it become necessary to distinguish between the two, and the elder Carl was then referred to in Latin documents as Carolus Magnus. This became, in French, Charlemagne.

Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor on Christmas Day, AD 800, by Pope Leo III appears to have come as a surprise to the Frankish ruler. There had been no emperor in the West for centuries, but the extent of Charlemagne’s territories – his kingdom, Francia, covered present-day France (except Brittany), the northern half of Italy and most of present-day Germany, plus everything in between – as well as the level of learning at his court, seem to justify the Pope’s action.
the eagle of the Holy Roman Empire, attributed to Charlemagne

This was the beginning of what in later times came to be called the Holy Roman Empire, although in Charlemagne’s time this term was not used. It only came into use later, after the kingdom had been divided – on several different occasions – and eventually settled into a small, weak kingdom in what would become France and a German kingdom extending into the Netherlands and present-day Belgium, the north-east of modern France, Switzerland, Austria and parts of Italy. The imperial title fell to the German kingdom.

Charlemagne is not known to have borne arms, but is significant in the history of armory for two reasons: the practice of using coat-armour appears to have sprung up among his descendants in Flanders, and the black eagle on gold borne down the centuries by Holy Roman Emperors and, since 1871, by Germany, is attributed to Charlemagne.

[5] William did not use coat-armour, and the Bayeux Tapestry which depicts his invasion of England is often cited as evidence that heraldry did not exist in his day.
arms attributed to King William I

However, the tapestry – commissioned by his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, and made by a group of ladies in his cathedral convent – is evidence for no more than ignorance on the part of its makers.

Several Flemish knights (not only from Flanders itself, but also from different parts of France) who did bear arms formed part of William’s army. Their use of coat-armour in England led to its widespread adoption in that country and the parts of Wales, Scotland and Ireland that also fell under Norman influence, as well as to its spread among the Continental relatives of Anglo-Norman knights.

Although William had no knowledge of heraldry, he was nonetheless ascribed a coat of arms by later heralds.

[6] An Encyclopædic Dictionary of Heraldry by Julian Franklyn and John Tanner (Pergamon).

[7] A Complete Guide to Heraldry, by A C Fox-Davies, revised and annotated by J P Brooke-Little, Richmond Herald of Arms (Nelson). He was later Norroy and Ulster King of Arms.

the ‘‘quinas’’, arms borne by King Sancho I of Portugal

[8] The five blue inescutcheons, each (eventually) charged with five silver roundels, that became the central element in the Portuguese royal arms. See this table (and the pages it links to) for their origin and development.

[9] Also called Catherine Roët or Catherine Swynford. She was the daughter of Payn Roët and widow of Sir Hugh Swynford, and can be found at the top of this table.

[10] Boutell’s Heraldry, revised by J P Brooke-Little, MVO, MA, FSA, FHS, Richmond Herald of Arms (Frederick Warne & Co, London).

[11] In one instance an entire family born of what later proved to be an irregular marriage was granted their father’s arms with wavy borders, each son and daughter receiving a border of a different colour. This meant that the daughters could, unusually, pass their arms on to their descendants as a quartering even though they had brothers who had offspring.


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  • Acknowledgements: Arms of the Duke of St Albans from Encyclopædia Britannica 15th edition. Arms of Sir Roger de Clarendon, Sir Ralph de Arundel, Sir John de Clarence and the Beauforts/Somersets from Boutell’s Heraldry, revised by J P Brooke-Little, MVO, MA, FSA, FHS, Richmond Herald of Arms (Frederick Warne & Co). Arms of Edward the Confessor adapted from illustrations in Boutell’s. Arms of the Dukes of Bragança, Castilian royal bastards, William I, the eagle of the Holy Roman Empire and the quinas from Lines of Succession: Heraldry of the Royal Families of Europe, by Jirí Louda and Michael Maclagan (Orbis). Other illustrations all from Simple Heraldry: Cheerfully Illustrated by Iain Moncreiffe and Don Pottinger (Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd). Colours adjusted using MS Picture It!

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    Comments, queries: Mike Oettle

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