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• Symbols of Honor: Heraldry and Family History
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Badges, Mottoes, and Imprese

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Badges, Mottoes, and Imprese

Coats of arms were not the only form of heraldic identifier: badges, mottoes, and imprese could also depict the owner's identity. Simpler than coats of arms, badges usually consisted of a single image which appeared on anything from book bindings and seals to servants' clothing. Mottoes originated as war-cries shouted out to show support for a particular leader, but by the sixteenth century they had become hereditary to particular families. An impresa, from the Italian for badge or emblem, was a fashionable alternative to a coat of arms for an Elizabethan lady or gentleman. It was personal to its bearer, and was intended to be obscure in its meaning, understood only by friends.


The binding of this book (image top right), once owned by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is stamped with his badge: a bear and ragged staff with the motto Droit et loyal (Right and loyal). The badge was the ancient device of the Earls of Warwick, from whom Dudley claimed descent, and was first used by Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, in the fourteenth century.


Mottoes, which were often ambiguous in their meaning and could be translated in a variety of ways, posed as many questions of interpretation to contemporaries as they do today. In this collection of mottoes, translations have been attempted for most of the mottoes, and the names of families using them are also supplied. In the image second right, we see that Mihi Christi Trophaeum translates to "The badge of Christ for mee" or "Christ is my badge" and is used by "Mr. Walter Toock Awdyter." Tooke was auditor general of the Court of Wards and Liveries.


Camden's book of miscellaneous essays (image third right), his Remaines, devoted more pages to imprese than to traditional heraldry. He describes the two components of an impresa as the picture-body and the mottosoul. He was fascinated by names and phrases, and also included chapters on surnames, nicknames, anagrams, and rebuses, or "name-devises," such as a ram in the sea, from the seal of the abbot of Ramsey.


Dedicated to England's nobility and gentry, Thomas Blount's translation of a French work by Henri Estienne serves as a tantalizing source book for creating a personal device, or impresa (image bottom right). The author emphasizes that the device should capture all the rules of moral and civil life in a short motto and symbolic figure, and should be obscure enough so that it requires decoding by people who view it.

Bullinger. Bullæ papisticæ ante biennium contra sereniss. London, 1571

Book of mottoes. Manuscript, ca. 1600

Camden. Remaines concerning Britaine. London, 1614

Estienne. Art de faire des devises. London, 1646

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