Canting heraldry
By D. H. B. Chesshyre
Chester Herald
Coat of Arms No. 139, Spring 1988

Heraldry emerged in Europe towards the middle of the twelfth century as a means of identifying knights and noblemen, particularly in battle and in tournament. We do not know how these early warriors chose the emblems for their shields, but in due course canting arms, or armes parlantes, devices involving a pun on the owner's name or occupation, became fashionable. According to Professor G. J. Brault, an expert on early blazon, they were rare in the twelfth century. They were certainly not rare by the thirteenth century, and it is an interesting exercise to work through medieval rolls of arms seeing how many puns one can detect. Sometimes they are obvious, but in other cases they have been obscured by changes in the meaning of words.

As far as the word cant itself is concerned, it is said to derive from the Latin cantus 'song', though it has some less attractive overtones: for instance it can mean 'a whining manner of speaking', 'a secret or peculiar language of a class, sect, or subject, or the jargon of thieves and beggars'. Its punning connotation seems to be restricted to the realms of heraldry and perhaps arose because the cant of heralds was generally assumed to include puns. An alternative term is allusive heraldry, but this is even less satisfactory, as coats of arms can include references to items or events without any play on words: for example the skull in the arms of Zephaniah Holwell who survived the Black Hole of Calcutta. We must therefore be content with the word canting for arms which include pictorial puns.

Returning to the thirteenth century, in the "obvious" category we can place the arms of Eleanor of Castile (died 1290), Queen of Edward I and daughter of Ferdinand III, King of Castile and Leon, who bore quarterly 1 & 4 a castle, 2 & 3 a lion. Also Odinel Heron (Azure three herons Argent) and Thomas Corbet who bore Or two ravens (corbies) sable, which conveys to me something of the primitive flavour of the old folksong "The Twa Corbies", in which the sinister black scavengers plan to feast on the body of a newly slain knight.

Then there are the hammers (martels) of Martell, the oak of Oksted, the three pike (lucies) of Lucy, and the horseshoes (fers) borne by Montgomery as the tenant of Ferrers.

Among the less obvious puns I would mention the coat of Robert Muschet (Azure three sparrowhawks Or), a musket being a male sparrowhawk; that of Nicholas de Kennet (Gules three dogs Argent), a kennet being a small hunting dog (French chienet); the gurges or whirlpool in the arms of Gorges; the degrés or steps in the barry coatof Grey; the cross voided (crevé au coeur) of Crevequer; the six annulets (VI points) of Vipont; and the sharply pointed fusils in the arms of Montagu (alias Mont-aigu or de Monte Acuto) and in those of Percy. In the latter case there may be a double allusion: being piercing they suggest the name Percy, and if seen as mill-picks they recall the twelfth century Picot de Percy.

There must surely be other thirteenth-century canting coats with earlier roots. For instance, twelfth-century seals in the Archives Nationales in Paris for members of the family of Candavène, Comtes de St. Pol, all include garbs or sheaves which one assumes to be of oats, as a pun on the surname (l'avoine = 'oats'). Then there is the familiar coat of Bar of Bar-le-Duc, which includes two barbels (fish). The version which appears in several popular books on heraldry shows the banner borne by John de Bar at the Siege of Caerlaverock Castle in Scotland by King Edward I in 1300, but it has much earlier precursors. A single barbel appears on a coin of Henry I, Count of Bar, in 1180 and on his equestrian seal of 1189; while the seal of his brother Thibaut I, also dating from 1189, shows two barbels back to back.

There were many other medieval canting coats but I shall mention only a few. The family of Setvans or Septvans bore three vans (winnowing fans), illustrated on the shield and surcoat of Sir Robert de Setvans on his brass of about 1305 at Chartham Church in Kent. Inspired by this example I asked a modern artist to include butterflies and winnowing fans in the illuminated border of the grant of arms to a current client of mine, Mr. Alan Buttifant.

Queen's College, Oxford bears three eagles in honour of its founder, in 1340, Robert Eglesfield, confessor to Queen Philipa, wife of Edward III. There are many other ornithological puns in the heraldic repertoire, including the swallows (hirondelles) of Arundel and the kingfisher crest of Fisher. I was recently responsible for a grant of arms to the English conductor Sir David Willcocks, whose shield includes two cockerels each supporting a wheel.

Intricately carved rams may be seen in the chantry chapel at St. Albans which commemorates Abbott Ramryge (died 1524), and other allusive beasts abound in heraldry, including three bears (safely muzzled) for Barham, a camel for Camel, and two elephants supporting the shield of Lord Oliphant. Fish are likewise a common source for the punster and apart from the barbels and lucies already mentioned, we find eels for Ellis, trout for Troutbeck, gudgeon for the French family of Goujon, a dolphin between three ears of wheat for John Fyshar ("fish-ear"), Bishop of Rochester, and of course the dolphin in the arms of the Dauphin of France.

Some writers have been scornful of canting heraldry and many of the more obvious puns do indeed seem to insult the intelligence. Nevertheless, the practice has a venerable history, and I have no doubt that it will persist as long as heraldry survives. When designing new arms it is difficult to resist a pun if an obvious one presents itself, and many of the examples to be found in the records of the College of Arms seem almost inevitable: a robin on a sun for Robinson; a rat for Ratton; three rabbits for Hopwell; three apples for Sweetapple; per bend grady (i.e., in the form of steps) for Stairs; a hedgehog (hérisson) for many a Harris or Harrison. One of my favourites is the coat for Dodge, recorded at the heraldic visitation of Kent and other counties in 1531, which includes a woman's breast (dug) distilling drops of milk.

Sometimes, however, a grantee prefers not to impose on his descendants a canting coat, particularly if he considers the suggested charges to be crude or undignified. When Jesse Boot (founder of the famous chain of chemist's shops) was knighted in 1909, he was granted arms consisting of a chevron between three black boots with smart red tops, soles, and heels. When he became a Baronet in 1919, the boots acquired spurs; but when he was made a Peer in 1929, with the title of Baron Trent, the boots disappeared and were replaced by more traditional heraldic emblems (two galleys and a rose).

I rather enjoy heraldic puns and I encourage my clients to accept them. I was the agent for a recent grant to Sir Herbert du Heaume, formerly a senior official in the Indian Police, whose arms include two helmets. On the same theme I have another client, Mr. Paul Holmer, lately British Ambassador to Rumania, whose name is thought to derive from the Norman haulmier meaning 'helmet maker,' and accordingly a single helm takes pride of place in his shield. In order to take full advantage of the punning opportunities afforded by his surname, we included in the crest a homing pigeon with a sprig of holm oak in its beak! Another modern coat which may provoke a groan is that granted in 1977 to Dr. Claude Bursill, which includes three burrs, or teasels, and the heraldic ordinary known as a fess, which resembles a horizontal slab or sil. One of the tricks of the trade favoured by some heralds is to use terms which do not resemble the surname, so that the enthusiast can have the pleasure of working out the pun for himself. Sometimes the motto is made to join the game: for example, QUERCUS ROBUR SALUS PATRIAE 'The strength of the oak is the safety of our country' for a family of Oaks, with an oak tree for their crest; and QUO SPINIOSOR FRAGRANTIOR 'The more thorny, the more fragrant' for a family of Ross whose crest is a hand holding a sprig of rose.

So far I have discussed mostly the formal heraldry of shield and crest; but there is also the more casual sphere of badge and rebus where pictorial puns have always been the order of the day. There is not room here to discuss the subtle differences between badge and rebus so I will merely give some examples. The badge attributed to the Plantagenet kings of England was a sprig of broom (planta genista) and during Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon he symbolized the link between England and Spain by means of a badge combining the English rose with the canting pomegranate of Granada.

Familiar examples of the rebus are the owl with a scroll in its beak bearing the letters dom for Bishop Oldham in his chantry at Exeter, and the human eye with a branch (or slip) of a tree for Abbot Islip in Westminster Abbey. Another device used by the latter was a man falling from a tree ("I slip!")

We are back to fish with the attractive rebus of William Pickering, the nineteenth century publisher (a pike with a ring and a scroll bearing his Christian name); a final example is Kruger Gray's elaborate rebus for the late Lieutenant Colonel George Babington Croft Lyons, which includes St. George, a babe in a tun and two lions in a croft! The Colonel was a notable antiquary who died in 1926, leaving money for an ambitious new dictionary of British arms, of which I am one of the editors.

Canting Arms or Canting Names
By T Rylance
Coat of Arms No. 114, Summer 1980

It is customary to write about 'canting arms' from the earliest days of heraldry, but when it is recalled that the rise of armory preceded the adoption of surnames it might be considered whether originally the reverse must have been the case. The first surnames in England appear among the Norman land-owners well into the twelfth century, but the progress was slow and three generations later was by no means universal. We have a considerable number of seals showing arms from the 1140's, which argues an earlier date for their first appearance on shields, but many knights were still using their Norman 'of names' — de Warenne de Bellomonte, etc., and continued to change when they acquired a new manor. So Sir John of Audley when granted Stanley, Staffs, was named Sir John of Stanley. It is not generally appreciated that many English places received their names from their lords and not vice versa — e.g. Dunham Massy from its barons, de Massy, from Mascy in Normandy.

It will be noted that many important leaders in the twelfth century had a nickname or epithet which must have come from the charge on their shields. The seal of Henry the Lion of Saxony bears a lion on a shield; Albert the Bear of Anhalt used arms of a bear passant on a wall embattled in bend; Richard Coeur-de-Lion possibly received his name from his shield with the rampant lion, borne by him from taking over his mother's duchy of Aquitaine (most of his feudatories in Guyenne also bore the lion) and retained on his first Great Seal as King of England.

The Scaglieri of Verona must have received the name 'della Scala' from the ladder on their arms. It is likely that the Pays-Bas family des Hamaides acquired the name from the three hamaides on their shield. Though the counts of Falkenburg later bore a lion rampant, their early seals depict hawks perched on a castle, which apparently gave them their name.

In COA vol. 4, p. 239, Mr. Colin Cole wrote a witty verse on the shield of a knight named Apledrefeld (temp. Hen. III) who adopted an ermine field — 'apuldré field' (powdered); he, at that date, was more likely on the track of a canting name taken from the arms. Certainly as the landholders rarely knew English, canting had to be in Norman, but in this case 'apledre' would not have produced any canting in English, because no cultivated apples reached England until the reign of Edward I and the wild variety growing here was then called the crabtree! Similarly arms bearing three or more eagles or crosses produced names like Eglefield and Crossfield.

About 1300, or slightly earlier in some places, there was apparently an increase in that 'pawky' type of humour that produces canting, and it resulted not only in new families searching for such charges, but, regrettably, in many of the old armigerous houses abandoning their former shields of honour to take instead some facetious resemblance to the surname they had acquired by this date. A typical English example is the Montague family, who jettisoned their splendid azure shield with the griffin segreant Or for argent three fusils in fess gules — per fess, in chief Or a double eagle issuant sable, in base checky gules and argent; in 1237 count Poppo VII took instead — Or, on a driberg gules a hen sable, combed and wattled gules. He had doubtless a poor sense of humour!

As a general guide, it can be taken that if the punning is in the English language the canting coat is of comparatively late origin; whereas should the 'armes parlantes' be based on Norman French, then it is a possibility they originated at an early date — e.g. the fretty of Mal-travers will be older than the three calves of Met-calf.