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coats of arms
Some of the crests in the pedigree
of the Morgans of Tredegar.

Pedigrees and
Coats of Arms
in Wales.

Why was the pedigree so important?

The Welsh have long been well known for their interest in pedigrees and many reasons have been advanced to explain this. Wales was never a "kingdom" in the normal sense. Power lay in the hands of a variable number of princes, the scions of ancient families which had won power over areas large and small, by force of arms. To judge by the written evidence which survives from soon after the Norman French conquest of England in 1066 and the attempted subjugation of Wales, these Welsh princes were bold and ferocious adversaries. The records show that violence and sudden death were their constant companions. Duke William of Normandy had invaded in the belief that his own ancestry entitled him to the English crown and the Welsh invoked their pedigrees in the constant struggle for power in their own lands. For some years after the invasion and the imposition of the Marcher Lords the Welsh princes were just as likely to be fighting their cousins as their Norman enemies. Their bards (the poets of the princes) had the duty of reciting pedigrees and were qualified for this task by their rigorous and extended training. Dr. Michael Siddons (Wales Herald Extraordinary) has observed that the the bards added heraldry to their repertoire in the 15th. century and retained this duty until the work was taken over by gentlemen-antiquarians in the early 17th. century.

Also important in this context is the fact that for most of recorded time, the Welsh did not subscribe to the notion of primogeniture (the inheritance of a father's estate by his oldest child). In Wales, land would be shared between surviving children (gavelkind). This custom encouraged dispute and the pedigree took its place with the sword and the spear in the armoury of the ambitious. Even as late as the eighteenth century the English were prone to joke about the reverence the Welsh gentry class showed for their pedigrees. No doubt the point of the joke was often that the Welshman, however long his pedigree, would be relatively poor by English standards. The Welsh, on the other hand, could afford to adopt a slightly supercilious air since they tended to see their English equivalents as mere upstarts. After all, most of the grand families of England could be regarded as of Norman French or at best of Anglo Saxon origin whereas the Welsh traced their own roots back to the ancients who inhabited Britain at the time of the Roman invasion, around 2000 years ago. 

Coats of Arms.

The Norman French knights who invaded England in 1066 carried devices on their shields. Examples of these can be seen in the Bayeaux Tapestry which was made soon after the invasion. The drawing shows "Duke William's messengers" from the tapestry - notice that the shield in the foreground carries the device of the dragon (in its early serpentine form).  

Heraldic bearings that became hereditary began to appear in the second half of the 12th century. The first great seal of King Richard I (reigned 1189 - 1199) show him mounted and carrying a shield emblazoned with a symbol of valour, the rampant lion. In his second seal, the shield carries a depiction of the three lions (passant gardant) which were to remain in the royal arms. 

In time, heraldic symbols came to be painted on the sleeveless surcoats worn over armour and the term "coat of arms" appeared. Early records of the arms associated with particular families include the seals of the hundred barons who signed and sealed a letter to Pope Boniface VIII in 1301, and the documents called Rolls of Arms which commemorate knights attending battles and tournaments at around the same time.  

Welsh examples. 

In the St. George Roll, Howell ap Rees (sic) bore, gules, a chevron between three spur-rowells argent. Sir Uryan (sic) de St. Pierre bore, at the first Dunstable tournament 1308, argent, a bend sable, a label (3) gules - of five points.

Arms of Howell ap MeredithHowell ap Meredith (H. III Roll) bore, paly (6) or and azure on a fess gules three mullets argent. (Mullet seems to be from the French "Molette", meaning the rowell of a spur.)

Lord Rhys, who had become the King's Justiciar of south Wales in 1171 bore, gules, a lion rampant and a bordure engrailed or a crescent for difference.

In time, and as heraldry developed, those entitled to bear arms were proud to display "achievements". These took the form of a shield shape sometimes bearing dozens of pictures of the arms of families related to them by marriage (see our note on a Morgan pedigree of 1612).

 

 

 John Weston, 2001

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