Pilgrims and Heraldry 

by Duane L.C.M. Galles, OLJ Coat of Arms No. 145, Spring 1989.

Heraldry, like language, felt the effect of pilgrims. The pilgrim or palmer’s staff was adopted as a heraldic charge. In heraldry the palmer’s staff is a tapering stick, terminating in a ball at the top. Often it is accompanied by a palmer’s scrip or wallet. This is a kind of satchel, with tassels at each bottom corner, and a strap or sling attached to the top. If used with the palmer’s staff, the palmer’s scrip is drawn to appear hanging by its strap from the pommel of the staff.

These charges are often found as canting arms in the achievements of persons with the surname “Palmer” or its foreign equivalent, “Pellegrini”, “Pellerin”. The Palmers of Rahan, county Kildare, bore Azure, on a Fesse between three Palmer’s Scripts or, two Palm Branches in Saltire Vert. Palmer of London bore Gules, on a Fesse between in chief two Lions Rampant and in base a Palmer’s Scrip Or, three Trefoils Vert.

A less obvious example of pilgrim arms are the arms of the Burdon family, Gules, three Pilgrim Staves Argent. “Bourdon” is the French for “staff. In Continental heraldry, in fact, the charge is more frequently met with. The Norman annobli family of Bourdon de la Croix appropriately bore, “d’azure, à quatre bourdons d’or, appointés et posés en croix”.

Four centuries earlier the Breton chevalier, Oliver de la Bourdonnaye, who took the cross in 1248, bore “de gueles, à trois bourdons d’argent posés en pal deux et un”. The double canting arms of the Gascon family of Pelegry were, Azure, a Bourdon Argent between three Escallops of the same. A “roamer” being a pilgrim to Rome, the Saxon Römer family bore Gules, two Palmer’s Staves Argent crossed in Saltire.

Given its religious associations, it is not surprising that the pilgrim staff appears in ecclesiastical heraldry. Some religious houses, for example, used the charge on their shields. Two Gilbertine houses in fact used the palmer’s staff in rather similar fashion. The priory at Sempringham, Lincolnshire, bore, Barry of six, Argent and Gules, over all a Palmer’s Crutch in Bend Sinister Or. Malton Priory in Yorkshire bore the same arms but with the staff in bend.

More often, however, the staff was used, not on the shield as a charge, but behind it as an emblem of office. Certain secular clergy (like dignitaries of cathedral and collegiate churches) also made use of the burdon in heraldry. These dignitaries include priors, provosts, and precentors. The precentor was originally the music director of the church and actually once used a cantorial staff to give musical directions in choir. Appropriately he began ensigning his shield with this instrument and it became a badge of office. Boyer, in his ancien regime treatise, depicts the arms of Jacques Alain de Biron, D.D., precentor and canon of the cathedral of Notre Dame of Paris:  “Quarterly Or and Gules. Behind the shield to denote his dignity is a chanter’s staff in pale. Over the shield is his coronet and for supporters, two griffens proper.”

Beside the palmer’s staff and the palmer’s script, the palm was often used in heraldry to indicate a pilgrim connection or as canting arms for persons with the name of “Palmer”. We saw it earlier in the arms of the Palmers of Rahan. Similarly the olive branch might indicate pilgrimage or serve as canting arms. As armes parlantes it is to be seen in the arms of the great French composer Phillippe Rameau, ennobled in 1764. He bore “d’azure, à la colombe d’argent tenant en son bèc un rameau d’olivier d’or”.

Coquilles Saint Jacques are not only good eating but also good armory. Pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James of Compostela often stopped to gather as souvenirs the scallop shells on the Galician beaches. Hence, the shell became the emblem of pilgrims of Saint James (who was the patron saint of fishermen and travelers) and, by extension, of all pilgrims. Pilgrims developed the custom of sewing shells on their tunics and hats to identify them as pilgrims. The transition from use on garments to use on coats of arms came quickly. Fox-Davies thought the escallop one of the most widely used heraldic charges. Sir George Bellew some thirty years ago counted shells in some 900 coats of arms, some ninety crests, and some fifteen badges in England.

On crusade (considered an armed pilgrimage) with Prince Edward, Sir Richard de Villiers adopted a handsome “pilgrim” coat of arms to commemorate the event, Argent, on a Cross Gules, five Escallops Or. At the same time he relinquished his old arms, Sable, three Cinquefoils Argent. The shell can be found, in fact, in the earliest rolls of arms. In the Falkirk roll of 1298 we find listed the arms of Sir Robert de Scales: Gules, six Escallops Argent. The Walford Roll, dating to the thirteenth century also, includes the arms of Richard Fitz Nicholl: Azure, a Cinquefoil Or within an Orle of Escallops Argent.

Other feudal coats used the shell as well. At the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322, Sir Richard de Holland bore, Azure, semé of Escallops and a Lion Rampant, Argent. More famous is the coat of Lord Dacre, Gules, three Escallops Argent. Dugdale claimed that  this coat derived from an ancestor present at the battle of Acre in 1291.



The baronial family of Dacre and the arms of Mont St Michel

In some parts of France, viz., Normandy, Brittany and Poitou, the shell was associated, not with the Apostle James, but rather with the Archangel Michael. The shell thus appears prominently in the arms of the Norman abbey of Mont Saint Michel. Not surprisingly, families from those regions with the surname “Michel” made use of the escallop in armes parlantes. Thus, the Norman family of Michel de Cambernon bore, Azure, a Cross between four Escallops Or. Not surprisingly either, the shell was made use of by the French royal Order of Saint Michael the Archangel. Founded in 1469 by Louis XI, the collar of the Order was composed of shells linked by gold chains from which depended an image of the Archangel Michael battling the dragon.

Ecclesiastical heraldry was exceedingly fond of the shell. Buckingham Priory in Norfolk bore three black shells on a silver field. The Augustinian house at Northampton, which was dedicated to Saint James, bore per Pale, Argent and Gules, over all an Escallop Or. The Benedictine Abbey at Saffron Walden, Essex, was dedicated both to the Virgin and to Saint James. It bore, ‘Azure, on a bend Gules, cotised and between two Mullets Or, three Escallops Argent. Since one of the titles of the Virgin is “stella maris”, “star of the sea”, both of the abbey’s titulars were represented in this coat. By contrast, the great Benedictine Abbey at Reading, which was dedicated to Saint Mary, Saint John and Saint James, bore a simpler coat: Azure, three Escallops Or. Although the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII, interestingly its coat of arms lives on: It appears in the chief of the arms of Reading University. A conundrum, however, is the shell in the arms of the diocese of Rochester: Argent, on a Saltire Gules an Escallop Or. Saint Andrew (as the saltire might suggest) but not Saint James as well was the titular of the cathedral there. Woodward hypothesises the escallop may be a reference to the oyster fisheries of the diocese.

A number of coats of arms combine several “pilgrim” charges. The Romeos of Sicily used a trinity of pilgrim charges in their canting arms. They bore: Argent, a Palmer’s Staff or between in Dexter three Escallops of the same and in sinister a Palm Vert. The Rev. Samuel Reynolds Colby, A.K.C., likewise made use of several “pilgrim” charges. He bore, Azure, two Chevronels between two Escallops in chief and as many Palmer’s Staves saltirewise in base Or, a crescent for difference. “Pilgrim” charges also appeared in his crest: On a Wreath of the colours, between two Palm-branches, a dexter Arm embowed in Armour, the Hand in a Gauntlet grasping a broken Sword proper, suspended from a Palmer’s Script Or. Beautifully combining both the pilgrim shells and the pilgrim staff are the arms of Lord Palmer: Per Saltire, Azure and Gules, four Escallops between two Palmer’s Staves crossed in Saltire, Or.


The Order of St Michael the Archangel

Some chivalric orders still award to their members, who make a special pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a special decoration consisting of a pilgrim shell. The Order of the Holy Sepulchre is among these. The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre was revived and refashioned in 1847 by Pope Pius IX. Some years later Pope Leo XIII established for it, in grades of gold, silver and bronze, a pilgrim cross of honour as a mark of distinction to be bestowed on members who on pilgrimage had visited Jerusalem. Revenues from the oblations made by recipients went to support the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.

Somewhat in the same vein is the augmentation of honour granted to Sir John Hawkins about 1569 by Robert Cooke, Clarenceux King of Arms. It was to be “for a perpetuall memory” of the fact that Hawkins, the famous Elizabethan mariner and buccaneer,

“travaylinge to the West Indias in A° 1568 arryved at a towne caled Rio de la Hacha nere Capo de la Vele to thende to furnushe himself of suche necessaryes as he wanted viz. water and fuell where he was by Michell de Castilianos a Spanyard in warlyke wise resisted with 100 harkabushers, nevertheless the sayd John Hawkins with 200 men under his conduction and valiantnes entered the sayd towne and not only put the sayd captayne and his men to flight but also toke and brought his enseigne away.”

The augmented arms are blazoned: Sable, a Lion Passant Or between in chief three Bezants and in base a point wavy barry-wavy Argent and Azure; in augmentation, a canton of the second charged with an Escallop between two Palmer’s Staves Sable. Sir Anthony Wagner, sometime Garter King of Arms, adds: “The 1565 [original] Coat suggests the English lion bestriding the waves and bringing back treasure of bezants. The escallop and palmers’ staves are emblems of pilgrimage”.

A universal religious practice, pilgrimage as an institution has cast a broad shadow over the gamut of human experience. No aspect of human life has escaped its influence. This is certainly true of heraldry, which had been a natural object of its bounty.