Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Heraldry in Concord

It is a well-established fact that I know nothing about heraldry. It is frequently pretty, but that is the extent of my informed commentary on the subject. This coat of arms can be found on the Colonel Nathan Barrett gravestone (1791) in Concord, MA. I suppose that those are supposed to by lions rampant in the middle there, though they look more like horse-rat hybrids.

If anyone would like to offer some informed commentary in the comments, I will elevate it to guest post status.


RJO said...

I'm far from an expert and this doesn't qualify as a guest post, but there are a few references people might want to bookmark if they run into heraldic questions from time to time.

Heraldry is a complex subject with a long history, like (say) numismatics or typography or the study of naval architecture. Outsiders can underestimate the depth of the subject, while at the same time mistakenly believing that it's all governed by some kind of secret code that is written down somewhere. ("A green lion facing right with a knot in its tail always stands for...") In fact, heraldry is far more art than science, and always has been. (If you see a man wearing a red necktie with blue and yellow stripes, it could be a sign of his prep school, or it could be the design that was on sale last year when his wife was buying birthday presents. That's a comparison one might want to keep in mind.)

On New England gravestones, there is a very long introductory paper that people should know:

Theodore Chase & Laurel K. Gabel (1997). Headstones, hatchments, and heraldry, 1650-1850. Gravestone Chronicles II: 497-604. (Expanded from an essay in NEHGS's NEXUS magazine, vol. 14.)

The NEHGS has a Committee on Heraldry which has studied and documented coats of arms used in New England. One of their noteworthy resources is the Gore Roll of Arms of early New England.

Anyone who encounters heraldry in historical and art-historical contexts from time to time should have at least one good scholarly reference on the subject. I've always liked The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, which is good for both beginners and experts.

One of the best online resources is Francois Velde's website Heraldica ( It has hundreds of high-quality pages on dozens of topics, including information for beginners.

And a good place to ask questions is the venerable usenet group rec.heraldry. Young folks might not be able to comprehend the internet without the web (huh?), but before the web there was usenet, and one of the best special interest discussion groups on usenet, going back many years, has always been rec.heraldry. The people there (once you filter the automated spam) are very knowledgeable -- they're a lot like gravestone people actually. I just might point some of them over to this message and see if they have anything to add.

David B. Appleton said...

As an academic herald, I like to think that I know at least a little bit about the topic.

Crozier's "General Armory" gives this coat of arms for Humphrey Barrett (Concord, 1640) and blazons (describes them in "herald-speak") as "Ermine on a fess gules three lions rampant or." That is to say, on a white shield scattered with black ermine tails, a red horizontal stripe upon which there are three gold lions rearing up.

Bolton's "An American Armory" notes this specific tombstone (which he had from a drawing by Miss Elilzabeth Barrett of Concord in 1922), and gives the same blazon. However, he says that the lion on the crest (atop the helmet) is "passant", or walking with one forepaw raised, but the lion in the photograph is clearly "couchant" (lying down with the head raised).

A photograph of this armorial headstone appears on p. 584 of Gravestone Chronicles II, one of the books recommended by RJO.

The heraldic lion from the very beginning of the art really hasn't looked very much like the natural lion found in the wild. Like any field dealing with symbols, in heraldry certain animals get drawn in what to outsiders seems a very stylized and unrealistic fashion, but which makes the creatures so drawn more easily identifiable by their "attributes", their posture, placement, arrangement, etc. And, of course, different artists will have slightly differing interpretations of the same heraldic charge. (Indeed, one of the stories of the possible origins of the grinning "Cheshire cat" is based on a Cheshire sign painter's peculiar way of drawing the local Grosvenor family's lion crest on inn and pub signs, which looked to the general populace like a grinning cat, rather than the noble beast it was supposed to be.) So, lions is what they are supposed to be, but "horse-rat hybrids" may be what they are to the modern eye.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I'll bet that other heraldic lions look better than these three! Their faces are quite inconsistent — it looks to me like this sort of fine detail work was at the limit of the carver's skill.

Guy said...


Do your references cite Barrett's motto?

--Guy Power

David B. Appleton said...

Guy -- I do not find a motto for Barrett in any of my sources. (I even went looking through some of the others after drawing a blank in Crozier, Bolton, and Burke. Not even in Fairbairn's Crests did I find a motto, at least not for those Barretts with the same lion couchant crest. Indeed, the only motto for any Barretts in Fairbairn was one for John Basil Barrett of Berkshire, who used a crest of a gold wyvern. His motto was "Honor, virtus, probitas.)

RJO said...

A number of interesting comments have now appeared in the rec.heraldry group (including an unrelated link to an apparent heraldic gravestone scam).