Husband and Wife
By Roger F. Pye, F.S.A
Coat of Arms No. 90, Summer 1974.

True to their tradition of concentrating on the things that do not very much matter and largely ignoring the things that do, almost all the English manuals of heraldry tend to go at great length into the question of how arms should be marshalled depending upon the marital condition of the armiger, and have in the process managed to make a great mystery of what ought to be a very simple matter.

The Lynch-Robinsons (1) for example, leaning heavily on Fox-Davies, became quite worried because "we do not know how a married lady displays her arms", but in fact it is perfectly obvious how a married lady displays her arms, and the solution, like that to so many other armorial problems, is not to be found by examining the practices of the decadent post-mediaeval period as the writers mentioned above have done (which is merely to allow the blind to lead the blind), but to go back as far as possible and try to work out the evolution of the thing down the ages.

It will then be seen that impalement by a man of his wife's arms was, so far as we know, unheard of in mediaeval times. If she were an heiress, in the real sense of conveying an estate to her husband, then the latter as lord thereof, jure uxoris, would indeed quarter her arms with his own (or perhaps even place them "in pretence") to indicate his lordship, but no self-respecting man would ever have dreamt of cluttering up his arms by impaling those of a non-heiress wife. I think we are on fairly safe ground in saying that it was only the wife whose paternal arms were impaled by those of her husband.(2) The reason for this was no doubt the obvious one, viz. that she, upon marriage, became a member of her husband's family,(3) whereas he did not become a member of hers.

This then seems to have been the general rule up to the time of the Tudors, and the question which has since tormented the manual mongers, as to how the arms of a married man are to be distinguished from those of his wife, simply did not exist. The husband stuck to his paternal coat, if necessary quartering the arms of any lordships he might have acquired by marriage, while his wife bore her husband's arms impaling those of her father.

Unfortunately this has not been generally understood, with the result that the impaled coat is frequently ascribed to the husband (to whom, in mediaeval times at any rate, it did not belong), rather than to the wife (to whom it did). To mention but one example, we are told that "Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford,”impaled the arms of Bohun with the quartered arms of Fitzalan and Warenne"(4) but of course he did nothing of the sort. It was his countess who bore this impalement, while the Earl bore the plain Bohun coat.(5) I should be very surprised if the same did not hold good for almost every mediaeval example, and in the Great Cloister Vault at Canterbury Cathedral there are numerous instances of un-impaled shields (obviously for the husbands), while further shields are to be found having the same coats impaled with others (obviously for the wives). Thus we twice find a shield for Richard of Coningsborough, Earl of Cambridge (15/21 and 24/18),(6) and another for his countess, Ann Mortimer (which naturally bears her husband's coat impaling her paternal arms — Mortimer and de Burgh quarterly — 33/4). Following the slovenly thinking of the past three centuries or so, however, all three shields have been attributed to the Earl and none to the Countess; the impaled shield being described as "For Richard of Coningsborough who m. Ann Mortimer, dau. of the 4th Earl of March"(7) (as though he used one shield for himself and another as his wife's husband). In fact, of course, the third shield should be "for Ann Mortimer, dau. of the 4th Earl of March, who m. Richard Coningsborough".

Similarly we find a shield for Edward Plantagenet, Duke of York (14/34) and another (impaled) for his duchess, Philippa Mohun (30/8). Again both shields are attributed to the husband, the second being described as "for Edward Plantagenet who m. Philippa, dau. & coh. of John Lord Mohun".(8) Naturally it should be "for Philippa, dau. & coh. of John Lord Mohun, who m. Edward Plantagenet".

Unhappily only too many others examples could be mentioned, but it is interesting to note that the impaled shield of the present Queen-Mother has been correctly assigned to her,(9) and not to "King George VI who m. Elizabeth, dau. of the Earl of Strath-more and Kinghorne". With regard to the more ancient coats, however, we have all been so thoroughly brain-washed over the years that we seem to have lost the ability to think for ourselves, and so the false criteria of the post mediaeval period are blindly accepted and applied to mediaeval coats without question.

With the coming of the Tudors there seems to have grown up an acceptance of the impaled coat as being the arms not only of the wife but also of the married pair. This is quite understandable. If one were prepared to use two shields then there would be an un-impaled one for the husband and an impaled one for the wife, but it is quite easy to think of various circumstances when it would be awkward to use two shields, and more convenient to use a single impaled shield representing the collective arms of the pair. In a series showing the arms of successive members of the family and their wives, for example it would become rather tedious to keep on repeating the same shield over and over again for each successive husband. These collective conjugal coats were often borne in conjunction with the husband's crest and even supporters, but that the achievement was considered to be that, not of the husband but of the conjugal pair, may reasonably be inferred from the fact that the names of both husband and wife would quite frequently be adjacently inscribed.(10)

At precisely what decadent stage the impaled shield came to be thought of as appropriate to a married man in his own right I cannot say, and possibly some reader may be able to enlighten me. That the idea was a development of the earlier one of collective conjugal arms I have very little doubt, and it may well have arisen from the misleading form of expression, still much in vogue today, whereby such and such impaled arms are said to be borne by Joseph Soap (or whatever his name might happen to be) "in representation of his marriage to Frances Adams"; a pompous but inaccurate way of saying that these are the conjugal arms of Joseph Soap and Frances Adams.

Naturally it was inevitable that the manuals should sooner or later have started illustrating what they considered to be the proper form for the "arms of a bachelor", "arms of a married man", etc., and in order to combat this pernicious nonsense I herewith append my own illustrations, showing what I consider to be the correct forms, on the basis both of the old tradition and of practical common sense.

These matters are of course governed not so much by rule as by custom and taste, which are to some extent changeable things. Whether a married man does or does not impale his wife's arms is entirely a matter of his own choice.

Although I have no very rooted objection to the modern convention of depicting her arms on a lozenge, I have never been able to understand why it should be considered so important that the arms of a widow should be distinguishable from those of a wife, and I should have thought that the idea would be as repugnant today as that of having to wear widow's weeds for the rest of her life (the idea behind the two things was probably very similar). No doubt with a little ingenuity the lady's arms could be made to convey all sorts of interesting facts, such as whether she had passed her driving test or had suffered from measles in youth, but this is not the purpose of heraldry, at any rate as it used to be understood, and all that the lady's arms were required to show was the fact that she had been born Miss Smith and was now Mrs. Brown. The decease of Mr. Brown of course makes no difference to these facts whatever; she is as much Mrs. Brown (née Smith) after his death as she was before it. Moreover, unless her daughter-in-law should, by some strange coincidence, have been born Miss Smith also, there is no question of confusion between them, since the widow would bear Brown impaling Smith, whereas her daughter-in-law would be bearing Brown impaling, say, Robinson. This is presumably why our mediaeval forefathers, who had more common sense regarding these matters than we have today, never bothered to distinguish armorially between the wife and the widow, thereby causing yet further confusion among the manual mongers who came after them. (Nobody, I am delighted to say, has yet suggested distinguishing between the arms of a married man and a widower.)

A few years ago it was decided that the arms of a divorced woman in England should be distinguished by adding a mascle to her maiden coat, This provoked some indignation among ladies who already bore mascles as part of their basic coat, but, leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not the mascle was a good choice for this purpose, it seems astonishing that the heralds should have decided to stigmatise the divorcee at precisely the time when the social stigma attached to divorce was rapidly disappearing. It would seem logical that the divorcee who reverts to her maiden name should also revert to her maiden arms, undifferenced. For the divorcee who retains her married name, however, it would seem at least arguable that she should also retain her impaled coat, and in this case of course it would indeed be essential that some distinguishing mark should be borne to shew that, although still Mrs. Brown (née Smith), her legal connection with the Brown family had been severed. In this case the mascle (if mascle it must be) would obviously be charged across the line of impalement so as to lie over both coats, and thus could not possibly be confused with any charge in either. In my humble opinion, however, some more drastic form of distinction would be preferable, and had I the ordering of these matters (which fortunately I have not) I should be inclined to debruise the impaled coats with a baston over all.


1 Intelligible Heraldry, p. 173.
2 This of course is not to say that married ladies have from the first borne impaled arms, indeed from the evidence available it seems clear that they originally bore no arms for themselves, but generally placed their husband's arms in the middle of their seals, surrounded by the arms of their father, and sometimes of their grandfather(s) and/or former husband(s) as well. (The same method has been noted of the early heraldry of the Iberian Peninsular). When they did begin to use arms for themselves, however, it seems to have been invariably in the impaled form reserved for wives and widows, and which was only used by their menfolk in the most exceptional cases (e.g. when John Gaunt impaled Castile and Leon with his own arms in token of his titular kingship, jure uxoris, of those kingdoms).
3 Even in Scotland, where a lady does not entirely abandon her maiden name, being referred to in legal documents as, e.g. Mrs. Elizabeth Smith or Brown (Smith being her maiden and Brown her married surname), she nevertheless remains very much part of her husband's family unless she chooses to formally opt out of it. Vid. Clan Chattan matriculation of 9th April 1947, wherein Arabella Mackintosh, 30th Chief of Clan Chattan, is shewn to have forfeited the chiefship upon her marriage to Major J. A. Warre, because "as Mrs. Warre" she "became conventionally dead as a Mackintosh". (Innes of Learney, Scots Heraldry 1956, Pl. XLVI). Dame Flora Macleod of Macleod, on the other hand, not having taken the name of Walter upon her marriage to Hubert Walter, remained a Macleod and so remained eligible to assume the chiefship of that Clan.
4 C. W. Scott-Giles, Heraldry in Westminster Abbey, p. 31.
5 The coats of the Earl and Countess are depicted on separate shields on the brass of their daughter Alianore, Duchess of Gloucester. C. Boutell (Heraldry Historical and Popular, 1864, p. 389) describes the six shields of arms, suspended from the shafts of the canopy thereof. It is perfectly obvious that the three shields on the dexter (or male) side (all of them unimpaled) are those of (1) her husband, Thomas Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, (2) her father, Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, and (3) her ancestor, Milo, Lord of Gloucester and Hereford. The shields on the sinister (or female) side are equally obviously those of (4) herself (France and England within a bordure argent, impaling de Bohun and Milo quarterly), (5) her mother (de Bohun impaling FitzAlan and Warenne quarterly), and (6) shield lost, which might perhaps (to hazard a guess) have been that of Margeria, dau. and coh. of Milo, Lord of Gloucester and Hereford, who brought those lordships to the de Bohuns and to whom we might expect to have been attributed de Bohun impaling Milo. Boutell, infected with the inevitable malady, naturally infers that these impaled coats were those of the ladies' husbands, and indeed throughout his book makes such statements as "For his wife Anne Mortimer this Prince impales Mortimer and De Burgh quarterly." (said of Richard of Coningsburgh, Earl of Cambridge; ibid. p. 243).
6 The references are those given in Cmdr. A. W. B. Messenger's The Heraldry of Canterbury Cathedral — The Great Cloister Vault, 1947. Unfortunately the Armorial at the end of this otherwise excellent book requires complete overhauling in order to attribute the many impaled shields to their correct owners. This may present quite a fresh appreciation of the shields in question; e.g. the arms of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, appear nowhere in the Great Cloister Vault, whereas those of his Countess (which have been wrongly attributed to him) appear no less than three times, once in the central (i.e. most honourable) position in the first bay, and it would seem reasonable to suppose that the lady was included as a sister of Archbishop Thomas Arundel, whose blood relations are prominently represented in this collection, and that her de Bohun husband did not interest those responsible for the erection of these shields.
7 ibid. p. 80. 8 ibid. p. 116. 9 ibid. p. 86.
10 For modern corroboration of this vid. Certificate given on 7th April, 1948 by Sir Gerald Woollaston, Norroy and Ulster, shewing impaled arms with helm, mantling and crest, specifically described as "The Armorial Bearings of Richard Campbell Andrew Brandram M.C., Major the Royal Artillery, and of Lady Katherine Brandram, his wife, dau., of H.M. King Constantine of Greece" (Lynch Robinson, op. cit. p. 145); i.e. these are not his arms, be it noted but their arms.,