In Medieval times, the trappings of knighthood were carried in the funeral procession and afterward laid in the church near the grave of the deceased. In the Low Countries (Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg) a new practice arose in the 16th century whereby the actual pieces of armor, swords, gauntlets, helm, and tabard were replaced with painted reproductions, usually made of wood. These were grouped in a frame, together with the shields of the paternal and maternal grandparents. The background of the display was painted in mourning black. Such framed displays were known as cabinets d’armes or cabinets d’honor. This practice led to the use of Hatchments (a corruption of ‘achievement’), the diamond-shaped mourning boards, many of which are still found hanging in parish churches in England today. The hatchment was hung outside the home of the deceased for a period of mourning, perhaps as much as a year and a day, indicating to to visitors that a death had occurred in the family.
From the background of the funeral hatchment and the composition of the arms, it is possible to identify the sex and marital status of the deceased. For a single person (bachelor, spinster, widow, or widower) the background was all black. Where no marriage had existed, a shield for a man or a lozenge (diamond shape) for a woman bearing the patrimonial arms was shown. In the case of a bachelor the helm and crest also appeared. As the diamond-shaped lozenge is thought of as a plain shape a blue bow was sometimes added for decoration. Things became more complicated when a marriage was involved. When one of the couple survived the other, the background of the hatchment was divided vertically black and white, with black- as the color of mourning- behind the deceased’s half of the arms and white behind the survivor’s half. When a wife died before her husband, her hatchment bore a shield with no crest (sometimes a bow was substituted), and the right-hand half of the background was black. If the husband died first the whole achievement was shown, with black behind the left half. If the hatchment was for a widower, an all-black background was shown with shield, crest, and marital coat of arms. If it was for a widow, the marital coat of arms appeared on a lozenge. These are the simplest cases, and there were many hatchments whose composition taxes the onlooker and can be very difficult to interpret: in the case of a man who has married several times, for instance, the arms of all his wives may appear, with separate backing for each marriage.
Although a family motto often appeared on a man’s hatchment, it was just as likely to be replaced by a Latin phrase relating to death and resurrection such as Resurgam (“I shall rise again”), In coelo quis (“There is rest in heaven”), or Mors janua vitae ( “Death is the doorway to life”). While many English parish churches contain one or two hatchments to a lord of the manor, or previous vicar, some have great collections for a whole family: such as that of the Hulse family of Breamore, Hampshire, where the church displays a set of hatchments that date from the early 18th century.