A livery badge, or heraldic badge as it is also called, is a distinctive badge usually worn by retainers and household servants indicating their allegiance to a particular lord. The word “livery” derives from the old French “livrée” meaning an allowance or pay, and from the Latin “liberare” meaning to hand over. Originally, livery referred to the clothes that a lord gave his retinue to wear. Over time, a badge was given in place of an entire outfit. Typically, the badge was a personal device taken from the coat of arms of the lord that distributed it.
Badges were made out of a diverse range of materials, and manufactured by local craftsmen. The kind of badge an individual wore was an indicator of their economic standing, the economic standing of their lord, and their position within a lord’s household. For instance, a gold or silver badge inlaid with jewels was extremely expensive to produce, and would have only been worn by the sigil’s owner. If they could afford it, dukes and other lords would have plain gold badges distributed to immediate household members, and silver badges distributed to lesser household members. A plain gold livery badge meant that person was likely a member of the immediate household of a very rich and powerful lord, but this kind of opulence was rare. Most servants and retainers were given badges made out of inexpensive metals like pewter or lead. They were less expensive than gold or silver, but better and more expensive than cloth. Cloth badges were cheap to produce. They were made out of a simple piece of cut cloth with the device sewn into it. The badge could then be pinned onto an individual’s clothing. A lord could have many of them made, and then pass them out to his subjects. A cloth badge was not generally worn by servants or retainers, but was typically given by a lord to the peasants and craftsmen within his lands.
The use of the badge originated in the twelfth century during the reign of Edward III. The earliest surviving evidence of badges comes from the battle of Weardale in 1327. This could indicate that badges were a practical innovation prompted by war, and that they evolved out of the use of other heraldic devices such as banners, standards, and shields. The badges would have made it much easier for soldiers to recognize friend from foe on the battlefield.
From 1377 to 1485, the use of badges expanded beyond the battlefield. During the reign of Richard II, livery badges were widely distributed among the small, private armies of many lords and used as a reminder of the lord’s authority throughout his lands. Often, government officials and soldiers used the badge to intimidate peasants and craftsmen, to seize their possessions, and even to extract money from them. While the badge was not the cause or the sole manifestation of the corruption in government, it certainly facilitated the abuse of power. Badges could also be used as propaganda. For instance, Richard III had thousands of badges publically distributed to celebrate the birth of his son Edward as Prince of Wales, in an attempt to cultivate public support for his claim to the throne. Parliament repeatedly attempted to curb the use of livery badges, but was able to accomplish little without the cooperation of the lords. It was not until the reign of Henry VII that the use of livery badges was made more exclusive. Badges could no longer be mass-produced and distributed to peasants, craftsmen, or armies, but were restricted to the King, the aristocracy, and their immediate households.
This particular badge comes from the late medieval period. It represents Arthur, the Prince of Wales, who was the son of Henry VII and brother of Henry VIII. It depicts five arrows tied together by a belt. Two of the arrows are blunt, and three are pointed with barbed tips that were typical of medieval hunting arrows. This was a favorite symbol of hunters in the medieval period, and had previously been adopted by John of Gaunt, the son of Edward III and uncle of Richard II. It is 60 mm in length and made of lead. The badge is made of a fairly cheap material, indicating that it was probably worn by one of the Prince’s servants or retainers. It was excavated at Bull Wharf, Upper Thames Street in London, and is currently on display in the Museum of London.
- Mary-Kate Rame