In the middle ages, heraldry was a potent and respected form of state propaganda and individual projection of power. A man (and it was almost invariably a man) could proclaim his status, his wealth, influence and pedigree in a seemingly simple blend of colours, shapes, beasts and designs. Heraldry was taken so seriously that it could signal a claim to a kingdom, the start of a war, a declaration of peace or dynastic marriage. But what was its role in the opening phases of the Hundred Years’ War?
On 26 January 1340, Edward III gathered with his supporters in the marketplace of Ghent. One of the most powerful rulers in Europe, Edward was not only King of England but also boasted a clutch of other titles that together made up the Angevin Empire. Angevin control extended over a thousand miles, from as far north as Edinburgh to the Mediterranean territories of Toulouse.
Edward had summoned this host in Flanders in an audacious bid to extend his power and become the undisputed champion of Europe. He planned to augment his complicated collection of kingdoms, lordships, dukedoms, counties, principalities, fiefs, towns and castles with the most glittering prize of all: the Kingdom of France.
In the middle ages, heraldry was far more than a colourful decoration for shields, uniforms and banners. It was the visual projection of power and spoke in a rich and complex language of symbols, colours and history. On that wintery day in Ghent, Edward would unveil a new coat of arms and, in doing so, tip his kingdom into a deadly struggle with France lasting more than century.
Since the days of William the Conqueror, the royal arms of England had featured a golden lion against a bright red background (or, to use the language of heraldry, gules, lions passant guardant in pale or armed and langued azure). By the time of King Richard I, the design had settled to a familiar three golden lions on a red background.
Edward’s new coat of arms retained the traditional arms of England, but quartered them with the Royal Arms of France – golden fleurs-de-lis on a blue background. This was the visual manifestation of Edward’s claim to the throne of France. His heraldry now proclaimed to the world that he considered himself to be both King of England and France. Such a bold assertion would meet with immediate, ferocious and prolonged opposition from his Valois rivals.
The visual claim raised by Edward was met by a heraldic repost from King of France. He summoned his knights and vassals to the royal cathedral of Saint Denis and raised the Oriflamme. The Oriflamme took its name from the Latin aurea flamma meaning ‘golden flame’. It was a long, flowing banner of striking red silk flown from a golden lance. Some descriptions highlight a golden sun and fiery rays whilst others merely highlight its blood-red colour.
The significance of this act would not have been lost on the audience; the Oriflamme was displayed on the battlefield when no quarter was to be given. It was a symbol of French military power and pride and made it clear that the fight for France would be a struggle to the end.
And, despite setbacks that would see the Angevins control more of France than the King of France (including, at a particularly grave stage, the loss of Paris)
The French fleur-de-lis would remain long after England ceased to hold any territory on the continent. The Royal Arms of England and then the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom would carry this claim to the French Crown until 1801 when it was removed by George III.
By this stage the claim had become doubly preposterous – not only was it unthinkable that a King of the United Kingdom would become King of France, the Kingdom of France itself had disappeared in the aftermath of the French Revolution.