by George Evans#
Coat of Arms No.2, April 1950.

Among the many things of interest to be found on the walls of our parish churches up and down the country are those fairly large lozenge shaped Heraldic Paintings known as hatchments and usually painted on canvas within a wooden frame about 4 feet deep. The hatchment was originally displayed over the front door of the house of a dead person, whose arms it portrayed, and remained there until the deceased person was buried in the local church, whence it was then conveyed and hung on the wall of the nave aisle until a tomb or monument was erected. Fortunately for us, many of these hatchments were not removed after the tomb was made.

The custom of painting hatchments started at the end of the seventeenth century and has continued until our time, although new hatchments are very rare indeed. I had the honour of preparing a hatchment two years ago of the arms of the late Sir Thomas Courtenay Thaydon Warner, M.P., who was Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk, and who died about 13 years previously. This is the only occasion which has come to my notice of a hatchment being prepared and hung in a church after a long lapse. The church is Brettenham in Suffolk. Very few new hatchments have in fact been seen during the last twenty years. In the Sunday Times some months ago there were several letters to the Editor concerning the use of hatchments. Here are extracts from three of them :

" I well remember seeing a hatchment fixed over the front door of the Earl of Powis' house on the west side of Berkeley Square, in 1891."

" In 1925 a very old lady died in Eaton Square, London. The hatchment was hung over the front door. I was so impressed that I took a snapshot of it, feeling that I would be unlikely to see such a thing again."

" On the death of the Rector of Exeter College, Oxford, in 1944, a hatchment was hung over the main gate of the College."

The subject of hatchments has only briefly been touched on in our heraldic text books, but by far the most interesting recent account comes from " Intelligible Heraldry," by Sir Christopher Lynch-Robinson, Bart. and Adrian Lynch-Robinson.

The interest in hatchments lies in the background as well as the Coat of Arms, for the colour of the former will determine whether the deceased was a widower or a widow. The background will vary from all black to black and white halves. The custom developed for impaled arms that when the spouse was still living the background behind their half of the shield would be rendered white, as distinct from the black background of deceased person.

The workmanship of these paintings varies considerably. Some were probably the work of local artists. The eighteenth century versions are interesting but for the most part of poor design. An interesting collection can be seen in Harefield Church (near Uxbridge), Middlesex, where also can be seen the famous tomb to the Countess of Derby with its fine Heraldic ornaments (1636).

Not to be confused with hatchments are the rectangular paintings of the Royal Arms which were for the most part placed in churches at the Restoration, and this was compulsory. The Royal Arms were introduced into church decoration during Henry VIII's reign when the Pope's jurisdiction was repudiated by that monarch, who then made himself head of the Church of England.

When Henry's Catholic daughter succeeded him to the throne of England, nearly all these wall paintings were destroyed, but with the death of Mary I and the coronation of Elizabeth, these appeared again, only to be destroyed by Cromwell's followers. With Charles II's arrival on the scene, fresh paintings were prepared and many of these remain, and others have been added in subsequent reigns, although the practice was discontinued in the 19th century.

At St. Ethelreda's Church in Ely Place, Holborn, London, the Royal Arms panel will be found outside the Church on the wall. This ancient building was handed back to the Roman Catholic Church during Queen Victoria's reign and the signboard of the King's jurisdiction was therefore removed from the inside of the building.

by Mr M. R. W. C. Holmes

John Titterton's interesting article in the Coat of Arms no 154, Summer 1991 (The hatchments of Marnhull church, Dorset) illustrates the patient research which he and Peter Summers have put into the study of hatchments and the awakening of interest in these monuments which has taken place in recent years.

It is usually stated, in effect, that hatchments were carried in the funeral procession, then hung on the outside of the house during the period of mourning and later transferred to the local church. As we begin to study them more closely this explanation becomes less satisfying and fails to account for some practical problems.

Recently (cf. The March Heraldry Gazette 1991) I have had the opportunity to paint a hatchment and to carry it in a funeral procession. Even with fairly fast drying modern paints and with the longer time needed for the application of gold leaf, it would be difficult to have a hatchment ready in under a week and preferably longer. Whilst great state funerals might be delayed, it does not seem so likely that minor local gentry would remain unburied for long after their deaths. If the hatchment were to have been painted prior to the death of its owner, the artist would have to gamble on whether or not the husband would predecease his wife (or wives) in order to colour the background correctly ó technically it would not be satisfactory to paint it in after finishing the Arms. This might suggest that the hatchment was not required until some time after the funeral.

In the case of a widow, of course, the problem does not arise and I am at present working on a hatchment for such a lady still happily living. In connection with this, it might be of general interest to refer to a reply from Lord Lyon to my enquiry as to whether, in view of the complex nature of the Arms, he would allow them to be displayed on an oval rather than a lozenge. He says, 'I am increasingly finding the lozenge unsatisfactory from this point of view for the display of ladies' Arms and, increasingly, I am specifying that for ladies the Shield should be of oval form.' Garter has offered no opinion on the subject. As hatchments grew larger and larger (I have restored one in Lichfield Cathedral measuring nearly six feet from corner to corner!) one can understand why they came to be painted on canvas since, unless the Arms were actually attached to the funeral carriage, the weight of even a small all-wood panel is considerable when carried atop a pole,as I can avouch!

Somewhere there must be funeral records which will cast light on the use which our ancestors made of these interesting examples of heraldic art and could we also hope for their revival to add colour to some of our flowerless modern funerals.

PF editorís note: it is possible that the answer to this conundrum is that the hatchments formerly carried at heraldic funerals were of different design and function to those which now hang in churches, although the one tradition presumably gave rise to the other. Depictions of 17th century heraldic funerals show that the heralds would process in front of the bier carrying the knightly accoutrements: spurs, sword, banner, helm and shield. This follows a tradition stretching back into the Middle Ages, when the arms were often left above the tomb. The shield in the procession, from the reign of Henry VIII, was called a hatchment, a corruption of the word achievement. In an era when gentlemen no longer had in their possession actual shields of arms the hatchment came to be painted on canvas, making it light and portable. It is quite evident from herald painterís funeral books from the 17th century that coffin shields and hatchments were indeed painted between the time of death and the funeral. Multiple shields were typically placed around the draped coffin.

The earliest surviving church hatchments date from the second quarter of the 17th century when heraldic funerals were still very much in vogue. It is possible that these items were carried in the funeral, and deposited in the church; but they might equally represent a new innovation, the buildings hatchment which was hung over the doorway of the house throughout the period of mourning.