By the fifteenth century, the use and abuse of coats of arms was becoming widespread in England . One of the duties conferred on William Bruges (or Brydges ), the first Garter Principal King of Arms was to survey and record the armorial bearings and pedigrees of those using coats of arms and correct irregularities. Officers of arms had made occasional tours of various parts of the kingdom to enquire about armorial matters during the fifteenth century, [ 1 ] however, it was not until the sixteenth century that the process began in earnest.
The first provincial visitations were carried out under warrant granted by Henry VIII to Thomas Benolt , Clarenceux King of Arms [ 2 ] dated 6 April 1530. [ 3 ] He was commissioned to travel throughout his province (i.e. south of the Trent ) with authority to enter all homes and churches. Upon entering these premises, he was authorized to "put down or otherwise deface at his discretion... those arms unlawfully used". [ 4 ] He was also required to enquire into all those using the titles of knight , esquire , or gentleman and decided if they were being lawfully used.
By this writ , Henry VIII also compelled the sheriffs and mayors of each county or city visited by the officers of arms to give aid and assistance in gathering the needed information. When a King of Arms , or Herald, visited a county, his presence was proclaimed by presenting the Royal Commission and the local gentry and nobility which required them to provide evidence of their right to bear arms . The Sheriff would collect from the bailiff of each hundred within his county a list of all people using titles or arms. In the early days, the visiting herald would tour the homes of the gentry and nobility, but from the late 1560s these persons were summoned to attend a central "place of sitting" – usually an inn – at a particular time. [ 5 ] They were to bring their arms, and proof of their right to use them, most often by way of detailing their ancestral right to them, which would also be recorded. Where an official grant of arms had been made, this was also recorded. Other ancient arms, many of which predated the establishment of the College of Arms , were confirmed. The officer would record the information clearly and make detailed notes that could be entered into the records of the College of Arms when the party returned to London . These volumes now make up the collection of Visitation Books at the College, which contain a wealth of information about all armigerous people from the period. [ 6 ] If the officers of arms were not presented with sufficient proof of the right to use a coat of arms, they were also empowered to deface monuments which bore these arms and to force persons bearing such arms to sign a disclaimer that they would cease using them. The visitations were not always popular with members of the landed gentry, who were required to present proof of their gentility.
Following the accession of William III in 1689, no further commissions to carry out visitations were commanded. The reasons behind this cessation of the programme have been a matter of debate among historians. Philip Styles, for example, related it to a declining willingness of members of the gentry to attend visitations, which he traced to a growing proportion of " newly risen " families, who lacked long pedigrees and were therefore apathetic about registering them. [ 7 ] However, Janet Verasano has challenged this interpretation, finding that (in Staffordshire, at least) gentry enthusiasm for coats of arms as an enhancement to social standing persisted to the end of the 17th century. [ 8 ] The end of the visitations did not have much effect on those counties far removed from London, some of which had only been rarely visited over the entire period of the visitations. [ citation needed ]
There was never a systematic visitation of Wales. There were four visitations in the principality, and on 9 June 1551, Fulk ap Hywel, Lancaster Herald of Arms in Ordinary was given a commission to visit all of Wales. This was not carried out, however, as he was degraded and executed for counterfeiting the seal of Clarenceux King of Arms . This is regrettable, since no visitation of all Wales was ever made by the officers of arms. [ 9 ]
In a number of visitations the Needham's feature :
- Stephen Friar, Ed. A Dictionary of Heraldry . (Harmony Books, New York: 1987). 2
- Julian Franklyn. Shield and Crest: An Account of the Art and Science of Heraldry . (MacGibbon & Kee, London: 1960), 386. 4
- J.L. Vivian, Ed. The Visitations of Cornwall, Comprising the Heralds' Visitations of 1530, 1573, &1620 . (William Pollard and Co., Exeter: 1887), 248.
- Ailes 2009, p. 18.
- Wagner 1952, p. 24.
- Styles 1953.
- Verasano 2001.
- Michael Powell Siddons . Visitations by the Heralds in Wales . (The Harleian Society, London: 1996), v.