Heraldic Tabards and Surcoats

Pursuivant tabard

Today only English and Scottish Heraldic officers wear official ceremonial dress. On British state occasions, such as coronations, the officers of Arms wear their full heraldic regalia of tabard and knee breeches and carry their staffs of office, continuing a tradition that was begun 800 years ago. In most other European countries the tradition of wearing ceremonial garb ceased after World War I. In the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Herald acted as a messenger or envoy, he would have worn the lord’s own tabard, or short surcoat, as a mark of favour and acknowledgement of the special relationship between a lord and his herald. Wearing his Lord’s armorial tabard clearly indicated that he had his master’s favor and protection and indeed spoke with his master’s voice. The tabard of the time was constructed of several layers of cloth cut in the form of a “T”. The front and back panels and both sleeves were embroidered with the Coat of Arms of the master. Examples of surcoats and tabards emblazoned with Coats of Arms are found in illuminated manuscripts and tombs from as early as the 13th century. By the middle of the 14th century the surcoat had given way to the later period armorial jupon.

A pursuivant (junior heraldic officer) was singled out from officers of Arms of higher rank by wearing his tabard “athwart”: the shorter panels designed to fit over the arms were worn over the chest and back, with the longer panels over the arms 9image above ). In England this practice occurred from the 15th until the late 17th century; and it was customary for the tabard to be fitted in this way by the Earl Marshal when the pursuivant was admitted to the office. If the pursuivant was later promoted to the rank of Herald, the tabard was turned around to its more normal position.Heralds would wear the tabard of a lord other than their own on certain occasions, for example during funerals of the major nobility when they would wear tabards bearing the Coat of Arms of the deceased lord. Also at tournaments they would have their tabards decorated with shields of other knights and lords and judges who were present at the tournament. Beginning in the 16th century officers of Arms of different degrees- king of arms, herald, and pursuivant- each wore a tabard made from materials commensurate with their rank; in France each rank’s garment had a different name. This practice still occurs in England and Scotland where kings of arms wear velvet, heralds wear satin, and pursuivants wear silk damask tabards. The garments are very heavy and all officers need to be dressed by assistants for state occasions.


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