Hatchments & Heraldry

Grindon Church image courtesy Wikipedia

Hatchments are primarily a funeral escutcheon or shield, bearing a person’s coat-of-arms. As part of the burial process, these hatchments had multiple uses.

The word ‘hatchment’ is a corruption of the word ‘achievement’. Originally it was an escutcheon or shield granted for some act of distinction or achievement. In French the word went from atcheament through achement, hathement, to hatchment.

Upon a person’s death, a small one was attached over the entrance to the home. It remained there for the twelve months of official mourning.

Charles Cotton Hatchment image courtesy Karen Turner, Flicker

When removed from the home, the hatchment was taken to the church and mounted on a wall near the burial vault.

Nine Kirks Henry Bougham image courtesy Wikipedia

Sometimes a large one, over 5 feet tall, was carried in the funeral procession.

In Scotland, their removal from the church wall is illegal ~ though a few are on display outside of churches, as in the Wilton Lodge Museum in Roxburghshire, Hawick, England and the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Today there are over 50 known surviving hatchments in Scotland. The two largest collections are the Colquhoun of Luss family, located at Luss Parish Kirk in Argyll. The other is the Menzies clan at Weem Olk Kirk in Perthshire.

Though England adopted the rules and designs from France and Spain, Scotland followed the practices from the Low Countries of Belgium and the Netherlands.

Queen Mother image courtesy Wikipedia

The oldest known hatchment in Great Britain is dated 1629 and another is dated 1647. Into the 18th and 19th centuries their popularity grew.

Special artists who were held in high regard did hatchment painting. They followed the specific rules, which weren’t the same as heraldry rules. Many of the attachments were well done, with considerable artistic merit.

Painted on wood, the image was placed in a diamond, or lozenge, with a black and/or white background. A black wooden frame surrounded the image. In Scotland a border of dark velvet was often attached with small images and teardrops pinned on the surface.

Usually only the heraldic shield, a torso [torse], and a crest [if they had one] were included. Mantling and helms were not included, but a floral vignette or design around the border was not uncommon.

Wymondham Abbey image courtesy Wikipedia

Military emblems are sometimes placed behind the arms of military or naval officers.

After Charles VIII, King of France (1470–1498) died, his widow, Anne of Bretagne, created a new custom. Rather than give her ladies a military belt or collar, Anne gave a cordon of lace. She admonished them to live a chaste and devout life, mindful of the cords and bonds of Christ. As a reminder she encircled her shield of arms with a cordon.

Anne of Bretagne Shield

Anne Bretagne shield image courtesy James Parker

In this example, on the husband’s side it is white with a black bend, for Radcliffe. On the wife’s side it is black with a white saltire, for Aston

Within a standard blazon, their sex, marriage status, and family association are all there to be read.

Here’s the language of hatchments ~

  • The background was white and black, designating the marital status and sex of the deceased.

  • A spinster’s hatchment would be white. A lozenge would surround the crest, with a small bow on the top of her arms.

  • The background for a bachelor, widow, or widower had to be black.

  • The husband was designated on the left, the wife on the right.

  • For a man whose wife was still living, his half had a black background, her half was white.

    Image courtesy Wikipedia

    For a woman whose husband was still living, her half had a black background, his half had a white background.

    Image courtesy Wikipedia

  • There’s even rules for those who have been widowed and leave a remaining second spouse. If the husband dies, his left side is black, the upper right is black for his first wife, the lower right is white for his surviving spouse.

    Image courtesy Wikipedia

    If the wife dies, her half if black, the upper left is black for her first husband, while the lower left is white for her surviving spouse.

  • In Scottish hatchments, sometimes the arms of the father and mother of the deceased are also included, while as many as 16 genealogical escutcheons are placed along the margin.

Hatchments in the Netherlands

In the 18th century the frames and the heraldry became more elaborate. Batwings, skulls, hour-glasses and crying angels with torches were added, along with the names of up to 32 forebearers

In 1795, when the French Republic conquered the Netherlands, a decree banned all heraldic shields. Thousands of hatchments were chopped to pieces and burned.

In the 19th century, hatchments were almost forgotten and only a few noble families kept the tradition alive. In Flanders, the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church have kept the tradition of putting up hatchments alive to this day.

The obituary for a Belgian prince was published in a 2005 issue of the weekly magazine Point de Vue. It was reported that “liveried servants carried his finely painted funeral hatchment behind the coffin illustrating arms (Or a bend Gules), collar of the Golden Fleece, mantling and crown.” The order of service displayed the full hatchment in full color.

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