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Richard III, The Tudors, and The Enduring Legacy of the College of Arms


The College of Arms, a 500-year-old institution that grants coats of arms and traces family lineages, is one of the most fascinating and little-understood aspects of English history. Founded by Richard III in 1484, the College has played a crucial role in state ceremonies, aristocratic disputes, and documenting genealogies through the centuries. Its richly attired heralds are a visible link to England‘s medieval past in an age of smartphones and social media. But far from being a mere historical curiosity, the College of Arms remains an important center of heraldic authority and keeper of traditions in the 21st century.

This article will explore the origins of the College of Arms under Richard III and how it evolved under the tumultuous Tudor dynasty. We‘ll examine the heralds‘ wide-ranging responsibilities, their expertise in coats of arms, and their role in upholding social hierarchy. Notable disputes and ceremonies from history will illustrate the College‘s enduring importance as a source of heraldic and ancestral knowledge.

Richard III and the Establishment of the College of Arms

Richard III, the last king of the House of York, had a keen understanding of the importance of chivalric display and heraldic legitimacy. Amidst the political turmoil of the Wars of the Roses, Richard sought to strengthen his claim to the throne and consolidate Yorkist rule. In 1484, he founded the College of Arms, giving the royal heralds an official headquarters at Coldharbour in London and appointing the Duke of Norfolk as Earl Marshal to oversee the body.

Richard‘s patronage of the heralds was politically astute. By formalizing their role and providing them with official status, Richard sought to harness their expertise in genealogy and heraldry to legitimize his own reign. As historian P.R. Cavill notes, "Through the College, Richard created a valuable tool for the promulgation of royal power…The heralds were experts in ceremony and visual display, and thus could be powerful allies in the presentation of his monarchy."

The College of Arms was a revolutionary development in English heraldry. For the first time, the heralds had a permanent institutional base and could systematically record arms and lineages. This marked a shift toward greater central control and regulation of arms. Richard‘s own coat of arms – the royal arms of England quartered with the De Burgh cross and the Mortimer escutcheon – exemplified the Yorkist claim, bolstered by the authority of the new College.

Though Richard III‘s reign lasted only two years before his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field, his heraldic legacy endured. The College of Arms would survive the upheaval of the Tudor period to become a bastion of heraldic traditions and genealogical records for centuries to come.

Heralds and Heraldry in Tudor England

Under the Tudors, the College of Arms expanded its influence as heraldry and pageantry assumed a central role in projecting royal authority. Henry VII quickly recognized the importance of the College, reappointing the Duke of Norfolk as Earl Marshal. Though he turned Coldharbour over to his mother Margaret Beaufort, Henry allowed the heralds to continue storing their records there, ensuring an element of continuity.

It was during Henry VIII‘s reign that the College of Arms truly flourished. Henry was enamored with chivalric romance and saw himself as a modern King Arthur. He embraced ostentatious displays of wealth and power, with heraldry as an essential component. The heralds organized lavish tournaments and ceremonies like the famous Field of Cloth of Gold. As Thomas Hawley, Clarenceux King of Arms, proclaimed in 1520:

"The high and mighty Prince Henry…hath commanded his officers of arms to devise in their imagination some fair new acts for his noble achievement, at jousts royal, tournaments, and other feats of arms, to the intent that his said nobles should be encouraged by ensample of his Grace to furnish themselves of fresh and lusty courage."

Henry VIII granted augmentations to the arms of his favorites and added heraldic embellishments for each of his wives, tying their fates directly to his own armorial legacy. Some contemporaries criticized these grants as "swelling the pride of unworthy men." But the heralds understood that their livelihoods depended on royal patronage in an era when a coat of arms was still seen as a tangible mark of power and prestige.

The English Reformation brought new challenges for the heralds. Many traditional ceremonies, like masses for the deceased, were swept away, and the abolition of the monasteries eliminated a key source of genealogical proofs. During the brief reign of Edward VI, reformist zeal led to more stripping of "idolatrous" images from heraldry. Yet the heralds rode out this iconoclasm and reasserted their authority under Mary I, playing a highly visible role in the ceremony restoring Catholicism.

The College of Arms faced its share of internal disputes during this period as well. As offices became valuable sources of fees, there was infighting over appointments and visitation rights. Tensions came to a head under Elizabeth I, when a power struggle between Garter and Clarenceux Kings of Arms had to be settled by the Queen herself in 1568. But despite these internal divisions, the heralds continued to provide their expertise to the Tudor monarchs, using genealogy and heraldry to uphold the social and political order.

Heraldic Controversies and Historical Disputes

Throughout its long history, the College of Arms has often found itself at the center of aristocratic disputes over the right to bear arms. In a hierarchical society where coats of arms were jealously guarded symbols of rank and heritage, such disagreements carried real stakes. The heralds were called upon to settle contentious claims and at times their decisions could make or break dreams of social advancement.

One of the most famous heraldic controversies was the Scrope-Grosvenor case in the late 14th century. In 1385, Richard Lord Scrope of Bolton complained that Sir Robert Grosvenor was using his family‘s coat of arms – a shield with a golden bend on blue – without authorization. The case was brought before a military court and dragged on for five years, with several hundred witnesses giving evidence. It was finally settled in Scrope‘s favor, but the case highlighted just how tangled the lines of heraldic inheritance could be in the medieval period.

Centuries later, the College of Arms found itself embroiled in a very different kind of dispute. In 1954, the writer Ian Fleming published a new James Bond novel, "On Her Majesty‘s Secret Service", in which he described Bond‘s coat of arms. The College took issue with this imaginary heraldry, feeling that it diminished the dignity of real arms. As a conciliatory gesture, Fleming altered the description in later editions and even had Bond‘s new coat of arms painted by the College.

Such episodes may seem quaint today, but they reflect the never-ending challenge facing the heralds: how to preserve the dignity and integrity of coats of arms in a changing world. The College has had to strike a balance between upholding tradition and adapting to new social realities. In recent years, for example, it has granted arms to individuals who have made notable achievements in fields like sports, entertainment, and philanthropy – a far cry from the days of jousting knights.

Ceremonies and Records: The Historical Importance of the College of Arms

For all the arcane details of heraldic etiquette, the College of Arms‘ most important role has perhaps been in documenting English history and ancestry. From the grandiose to the humble, the College‘s records provide an unparalleled glimpse into centuries of social change.

The heralds have been present at countless state ceremonies over the years, meticulously recording the proceedings for posterity. At Elizabeth I‘s funeral in 1603, for example, they marched in the procession bearing the Queen‘s coat of arms and later published an official account of the obsequies. More recently, at the funeral of Elizabeth II in 2022, the heralds proclaimed the styles and titles of the late Queen according to ancient tradition. Such solemn ceremonies are a reminder of the continuity of heraldic custom even as the world changes around it.

But the College‘s records are not just a record of pomp and power. Its archives also contain a wealth of information on ordinary families who have borne arms or had pedigrees recorded over the centuries. For historians and genealogists, these records are an invaluable resource. As Dr Paul A Fox from the University of York explains:

"The College of Arms holds the official registers of grants of arms from 1673, along with other ancient records, manuscripts and pedigrees relating to English and Welsh heraldry and genealogy. These are crucial sources for understanding the social fabric of England through time, how individuals and families rose and fell, and how they chose to represent themselves."

The College‘s archives have been used to settle legal disputes, verify titles and estates, and uncover long-lost ancestors. In an age of mass digitization and DNA testing, the heralds‘ expertise in interpreting complex lineages and armorial bearings remains as relevant as ever.

Conclusion: Heraldry and History Intertwined

From its origins under Richard III to its place in the modern royal household, the College of Arms has been a guardian of tradition and a witness to history for over five centuries. Its heralds, resplendent in their tabards, are a tangible link to the age of chivalry and a reminder of the deep roots of heraldic custom in English culture.

The College‘s survival is a testament to the enduring power of symbols and ceremony, even in an age of rapid change. For those granted a coat of arms, it remains a cherished mark of recognition, a sign of having "arrived" in society. And for historians, the College‘s meticulous records of arms and genealogies are an unrivaled source of insight into England‘s social past.

At the same time, the College of Arms is not just a fusty relic of bygone days. It has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and stay relevant, whether by granting arms to modern-day achievers or using the latest technology to preserve its records. As long as the British monarchy endures and people care about their ancestral roots, it seems likely that the heralds will continue to play a role in English society.

In the words of Thomas Woodcock, current Garter Principal King of Arms, "The College of Arms is a unique survival of the medieval world, a living tradition which still has meaning and importance today. It is a reminder that history is not just about the past, but about how we understand ourselves in the present and future."

The story of the College of Arms, from Richard III to the Tudors and beyond, is ultimately a story of how heraldry and history are intertwined. It is a story of ancient traditions finding new meanings, and of the past living on in the present through symbols and ceremonies. As long as there are coats of arms, the heralds will be there to interpret and preserve them, keeping alive a fascinating chapter in England‘s cultural heritage.