King Arthur's Death

By Michael Smith

An epic poem of the fall of kings, vibrantly translated and stunningly illustrated with linocut prints by the author of Unbound’s Sir Gawain

Friday, 21 September 2018

Heraldry in King Arthur's Death

One of the fascinating features in the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death) is its detailed reflection of fourteenth century English politics, culture and, of course, warfare. This is particularly the case when it comes to the poem's accurate descriptions of the heraldry of Arthur's knights and his foes. But does the heraldry reveal coded secrets of its own - about the people for whom the poem was actually written?

Accurate knowledge of heraldry

In his depiction of heraldic devices, the poet of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (AMA), shows that he is no novice. While often his descriptions of armorial bearings are incomplete, he nonetheless follows the correct procedure in describing them. With the curious exceptions of gold and silver (heraldic Or and Argent), he uses heraldic tinctures to describe the colours (sable, azure, gules for example) and he uses heraldic terms, such as the "chief" to describe the top third of a shield. He also uses relatively sophisticated descriptions, such as his description of the arms of a certain "Pagan of Persia":

Then presses another,     all proudly arrayed

With bearings of purple     all paled with silver,

Boldly on a brown steed     boiling with rage.

He was a pagan from Persia     who pursued him then

Here, paled with silver reflects a division of colours around a "pale", the vertical division of the shield with different colours either side, described as “per pale”. The poet says the shield is purple (heraldic purpure), paled in silver and is technically describing a “paly”, a series of vertical stripes of the two colours as shown here:

On occasions, however, the poet describes the heraldic design but does not ascribe colours to them. A particular case concerns the Viscount of Valence:

He dressed in a bold shield     indented with sable

And with a dragon engorged     in most dreadful display,

Devouring a dolphin     with doleful looks,

As a sign that our sovereign     should be destroyed

The shield itself carries, perhaps, some hidden political messages (of which more later) but, apart from the sable (black) indenting, the rest of the description is unclear. However, if we lay the design on a white background and imagine the dolphin to somehow reflect the French Dauphin (applying the royal blue to the creature) and perhaps see the dragon as a reptilian green, we might see the final design as follows:

Symbolism of heraldry

In addition to the designs themselves, essential for battlefield recognition and for diplomatic initiatives, the poet also intends us to understand the symbolism of the heraldry. We might not understand it today, but its rules were clear to its contemporary audiences.

For example, at the end of the poem, Mordred disguises himself from Arthur by changing his shield, a move viewed as cowardly (although possibly a misinterpretation of a source document by the unknown poet). He replaces his shield with one closely resembling what we would now know as the lions of England although we are carefully told that:

He had certainly forsaken      the engrailed saltire

And was clad now in three lions     of shining silver

Passant on purple     with rich precious stones

The symbolism is clear: the English royal lions are gold on red; silver is secondary; Mordred is not only duplicitous, he is also a pretender to the crown. His heradlic sllver is base in comparison to Arthur's gold.

References to real people?

Finally, some historians in recent times have suggested that the heraldry shown in the AMA is so accurate that it is meant to be understood by contemporary audiences as references to known living people. Certainly, there is something about the poems of the Alliterative Revival which hints strongly at a subversive literary tradition abroad in the land, of people writing critically of society without necessarily being seen to do so.

The description of the Viscount of Valence puts us (slightly) in mind of the Visconti of Milan whose shield, a viper (biscioni) devouring a man, is still to be seen gracing Alfa Romeo cars to this day. As we saw above, Mordred's arms most certainly challenge the listener/reader to think of subversive pretenders to the throne (Bolingbroke for example?). One of the biggest mysteries surrounds the description of the shield of the curious and mythical Sir Priamus, who engages with Sir Gawain in battle so brutal that we wonder that either can survive:

He bore on a gold background     three greyhounds of sable

Wearing chokers and chains     of chalk-white silver;

A gem of changeable hues     was charged on its chief;

And a bold chief he was,     challenging all to attack him!

This passage has fascinated commentators because we are not told of the shield owner's name until later in the passage, hinting that the audience is being drawn in to a slow recognition of well-known contemporary magnate. It is not yet clear who this might be, although the carbuncle - perhaps a totem against poison - and the greyhounds, perhaps symbolic of loyalty, might suggest a wronged individual, maybe Richard II himself or Bolingbroke. Curiously Priamus, in the way of such romances, is shown as needing to convert to Christianity as a consequence of his near death experience with Gawain. 

It is worth noting that the description of the shield while referring to the "Chief" does not indicate its colour, a trait also of the poet's description of Arthur's flag (the shield design at the top of this article shows the design). In both the illustrations (Arthur and Priamus) I have taken some artistic license. Because Priamus fights Gawain, I have made his chief green (cheekily reflecting on his meeting with the Green Knight!).

in the case of Arthur, the chief is yellow to reflect the holiness of Our Lady (yellow - gold- and white - silver - are not permitted to lie together in heraldry except in the highest of connotations). Arthur's banner (incidentally, not a common depiction in mediaeval manuscripts) is described as follows:

He bears a broad banner     all bedecked in gules 

With crowns of clear gold     cleanly arrayed;

But on the chief was chosen     a chalk-white Maiden

And a Child in Her arms,      that is Chief of Heaven;

No challenge would change these,     that were the chief arms,

While he lived on earth     as King Arthur annointed

Heraldry, for the purest and most righteous, tells its own story. Duplicity then, as now, is an unacceptable trait.

Secure one of these UNIQUE original hand-drawn and painted images for yourself!

This article has been written for subscribers and patrons of my new illustrated translation of King Arthur's Death, a fabulous poem second only to  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the wonders of the Alliterative Revival of the fourteenth century. If you would like to pledge to be a patron of the book, have your name in the back and receive one of the limited de luxe collector's first editions of the book, please do pledge (see pledge options on your screen).

I am pleased to say that each of the ORIGINAL drawings shown in this article, hand drawn, hand-coloured (in egg-based inks) and signed by me, is also available as a special pledge option for a few lucky pledgers. There is only ONE OF EACH. If you would like one, please do pledge using the "Hand Painted ORIGINAL" pledge option.The letters on each of the photograph above relate to the indvidual pledge option:

  • A - Pagan of Persia
  • B - King Arthur
  • C - Mordred
  • D - Sir Priamus
  • E - Viscount of Valence

Thank you for supporting my work.

Michael Smith,

Translator, Author and Printmaker 

(the photo below shows the various shields drying out (with the Green Knight just visible in the background and a sculpture I once made of a friend's head!)





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