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A heraldic badge is an emblem or personal device worn as a badge to indicate allegiance to or the property of an individual or family.

Medieval forms are usually called a livery badge, and also a cognizance. They are para-heraldic, not necessarily using elements from the coat of arms of the person or family they represent, though many do, often taking the crest or supporters. Their use was more flexible than that of arms proper, and it has been suggested that escape from the increasing rigidity of heraldic regulation was a major reason for their popularity.

Badges worn on clothing were common in the late Middle Ages, particularly in England. They could be made of base metal, cloth or other materials and worn on the clothing of the followers of the person in question; grander forms would be worn by important persons, with the Dunstable Swan Jewel in enamelled gold a rare survivor of the most splendid sort.

Livery collars were also given to important persons, often with the badge as a pendant. The badge would also be embroidered or appliqued on standards, horse trappings, livery uniforms, and other belongings. Many medieval badges survive in English pub names.

In the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, well-known badges were borne by the followers, retainers, dependants, and partisans of famous and powerful personages and houses, precisely because they were known and understood. (In contrast, the coat of arms was used exclusively by the individual to whom it belonged.)

Badges are occasionally taken from a charge in the bearer's coat of arms, or they have a more or less direct reference to those charges. More often, badges commemorated some remarkable exploit, illustrated a family or feudal alliance, or indicated some territorial rights or pretensions. Some badges are rebuses, making a pun or play-on-words of the owner's name. It was not uncommon for the same personage or family to use more than one badge; and, on the other hand, two or more badges were often borne in combination, to form a single compound device.

The Heraldic Badge

The Dunstable Swan Jewel, a livery badge of about 1400, perhaps of Henry V as Prince of Wales.

Standard of Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, about 1475, features the Stafford Note and Bohun swan badges.

Livery badges were especially common in England from the mid-fourteenth century until about the end of the fifteenth century, a period of intense factional conflict which saw the deposition of Richard II and the War of the Roses.

A lavish badge like the Dunstable Swan Jewel (above) would only have been worn by the person whose device was represented, members of his family or important supporters, and possibly servants who were in regular very close contact with him.

However the jewel lacks the ultimate luxury of being set with gems, for example having ruby eyes, like the lion pendants worn by Sir John Donne and his wife and several examples listed on the 1397 treasure roll of King Richard II.

In the Wilton Diptych, Richard's own badge has pearls on the antler tips, which the angels' badges lack. The white hart in the badge on the Treasury Roll, which the painted one may have copied, had pearls and sat on a grass bed made of emeralds and a hart badge of Richard's inventoried in the possession of Duke Phillip the Good of Burgundy in 1435 was set with 22 pearls, two spinels, two sapphires, a ruby and a huge diamond.

Cheaper forms of badge were more widely distributed, sometimes very freely indeed, rather as modern political campaign buttons and tee-shirts are, though as in some modern countries wearing the wrong badge in the wrong place could lead to personal danger.

In 1483 King Richard III ordered 13,000 badges in fustian cloth with his emblem of a white boar for the investiture of his son Edward as Prince of Wales, a huge number given the population at the time. Other grades of boar badges that have survived are in lead, silver and gilded copper relief, the last found at Richard's home of Middleham Castle in Yorkshire, and very likely worn by one of his household when he was Duke of York.

The British Museum also has a swan badge in flat lead, typical of the cheap metal badges which were similar to the pilgrim badges that were also common in the period.

The Livery Badge

In 1377, during a period when the young Richard's uncle John of Gaunt as Regent was highly unpopular in London, one of his more than 200 retainers, Sir John Swinton, unwisely rode through London wearing Gaunt's badge on a livery collar (an innovation of Gaunt's, probably the Collar of Esses).

The mob attacked him, pulling him off his horse and the badge off him, and he had to be rescued by the major from suffering serious harm.

Over twenty years later, after Gaunt's son Henry IV had deposed Richard, one of Richard's servants was imprisoned by Henry for continuing to wear Richard's livery badge. Many of the large number of badges of various liveries recovered from the Thames in London were perhaps discarded hurriedly by retainers who found themselves impoliticly dressed at various times.

Apparently beginning relatively harmlessly under Edard III in a context of tournaments and courtly celebrations, by the reign of his successor Richard II the badges had become seen as a social menace, and were "one of the most protracted controversies of Richard's reign", as they were used to denote the small private armies of retainers kept by lords, largely for the purpose of enforcing their lord's will on the less powerful in his area.

Though they were surely a symptom rather than a cause of both local baronial bullying and the disputes between the king and his uncles and other lords, Parliament repeatedly tried to curb the use of livery badges. The issuing of badges by lords was attacked in the Parliament of 1384, and in 1388 they made the startling request that "all liveries called badges [signes], as well of our lord the king as of other lords ... shall be abolished", because "those who wear them are flown with such insolent arrogance that they do not shrink from practising with reckless effrontery various kinds of extortion in the surrounding countryside ... and it is certainly the boldness inspired by these badges that makes them unafraid to do these things".

Richard offered to give up his own badges, to the delight of the House of Commons of England,  but the House of Lords refused to give up theirs, and the matter was put off. In 1390 it was ordered that no one below the rank of bannaret should issue badges, and no one below the rank of esquire wear them. The issue was apparently quiet for a few years, but from 1397 Richard issued increasingly large numbers of badges to retainers who misbehaved (his "Cheshire archers" being especially notorious), and in the Parliament of 1399, after his deposition, several of his leading supporters were forbidden from issuing "badges of signes" again, and a statute was passed allowing only the king (now Henry IV) to issue badges, and only to those ranking as esquires and above, who were only to wear them in his presence.

In the end it took a determined campaign by Henry VII to largely stamp out the use of livery badges by others than the king, and reduce them to things normally worn only by household servants in the case of the aristocracy.

Livery badges issues by guilds and corporations, and mayors, were exempt, and these continued in use until the 19th century in some cases. A particular concern in all the legislation was to forbid the issuing of liveries to those without a permanent contract with the lord; these groups assembled for a particular purpose were believed to be the most dangerous.

The Statute of Liveries of 1506 finally forbad entirely the issuing of liveries to those of higher rank; they had to be domestic servants or persons experienced in the law, unless covered by a specific royal license.

A well-known story, first told by Francis Bacon but unsupported in the remaining records, has Henry visiting his principal military commander John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford at Hedingham Castle, who at his departure lined the kings exit route with liveried retainers, for which Henry fined him 15,000 marks.

In fact modern historical analysis of the court records shows few prosecutions, but by the end of Henry's reign liveried retainers do seem to have ceased to be a major problem.

While the badges of the nobility were carefully restricted, the royal badges of the Tudors, most famously the Tudor rose that signified the union of the Lancastrian and Yorkist dynasties, were used more widely than ever before, for example being added freely to Kings College Chapel, Cambridge when the Tudors completed Henry VI's unfinished building. The Collar of Esses became in effect a badge of office, though of course still denoting allegiance to the monarch.

The Wilton Dipwitch (c. 1395–99), showing Richard II and the angels wearing livery badges

The Tudor Rose badge of the House of Tudor.

Famous English Badges

Royal Badges of English Monarchs

Modern badge of the House of Windsor.