Who Begat Whom?

Heraldry is a fascinating subject that probably needs to be learned early ( like dinosaurs and Sanskrit). By the fifteenth century the heraldry in Europe had become exceedingly complex.

Shield of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (circa 1450)

Shield of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (circa 1450)

The shield of Richard Neville, aka “The Kingmaker”, contains more information about who he is than can be reasonably deciphered in a quick glance. I can imagine him dispatching an opponent as he stands gawking at Neville’s shield wondering who this guy is! By the seventeenth century almost no one was wearing their heraldry (a blessing for anyone wargaming in 10mm), yet the problem doesn’t end there.

I am only beginning to learn SOME of the arcana of the British Peerage system AND the variants present in each of the three kingdoms. I am sure that I am far from the first to be constantly confused by who is who.

First is the person’s Christian name which seems to be in limited quantity over the history of the family. “James” and “John” may be used, for example, generation after generation with substantial overlap between the generations. The family name is straight forward enough but often there are branches and you can happily follow the wrong branch for hours (sometimes days!). Often (particularly in Celtic lands) the appellation ” of thus-and-so” helps sort out this confusion BUT then you have the possibility of The Gaelic ( or alliterated Gaelic) being used. Of course since there where no “spelling-police” the names and places in all three kingdoms may seem to vary ( sometimes substantially) over time.

Many of the principals in my area of interest have titles, often inherited, often acquired. By convention contemporaries ( and thus historians) refer to the person by their highest rank AT THE TIME A SPECIFIC EVENT OCCURS. Lord So-And-So may be the father in September but refer to the son in October and a nephew a year later. In multi-titled individuals, the lesser titles may be parsed out among the sons, or not – there seems to be no coherent rule for this. Sometimes a son may have a courtesy title like “Lord Place-Name” if no secondary title is available. Some titles are by temporary position, Lord Chancellor for example, and are usually not connected to a specific family for any length of time. Finally even hereditary titles may go extinct (or be removed) only to pop-up sometime later belonging to an entirely different family.

There are also minor titles to consider and these are often unique to only one of the kingdoms, “The Master of This-Clan” or “The Tutor of That-Clan”in Scotland are useful examples. Contrary to any former understanding I had of the knightly title “Sir” it could be in this period just as easily inherited as earned.

Of course there are also nick-names to learn (“Black Tom” or “The Devastator” come to mind) AND the fact that they may not always refer to the same person. Finally there is the decidedly English penchant for a making any foreign name or word sound English. One of my favorite examples comes from a later time when British seamen referred to the HMS Bellerophon as the “Billy Ruffin”!

The point of all of this is to explain that I am in a continual process of learning and probably make hideous errors in my description of who was doing what to whom when! So – onward through the fog!

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