Philosophy of Court Heraldry

by Hagar the Black

Have you ever sat in court and thought to yourself: "What's the big deal about being a court herald? It looks easy enough ? I'll bet I could do it, in fact, I'll bet almost anybody could walk up there and do it!". Well, you're right: almost anybody can walk in and be a court herald...about 90% of the time! Being able to handle what happens that other 10% of the time is what really makes a good court herald, and why it is the experienced heralds who are chosen to do court at major events, such as Twelfth Night.

This article will discuss some of the things that you should understand about the way that court works in the S.C.A., and the role of the herald in court, so that you will be better prepared to handle both the 90% and the 10%. Even if you have already done so, you should re-read the Court Heraldry Checklist article after you have read this one, and try and look at some of the things that are said there, and understand why they were said, in light of what you read in this article.

What is court? Court is the ceremonial part of what we do in the S.C.A. On a practical level, it is a time to conduct ceremonial business, to confer awards and titles upon people, and to allow people to make formal presentations and petitions to the royalty. However, court is much more than this. Court is the most splendor-filled thing that we do in the S.C.A. Like nothing else, it brings us closer to the feeling of pageantry that most of us associate with the times that we are attempting to emulate. Court is (or at least can be) one of the ultimate 'suspensions of reality' that this recreation of ours offers us. It is important that those involved in court, and especially the herald, understand this idea, for without it court merely becomes the long, boring, 'necessary evil' that so many people dread having to sit through.

Let us look at the role of the herald in court, and at what you as the herald can do to make court better for both the royalty and the populace, and perhaps even make it easier for ourself at the same time! The court herald serves two principal roles:

1. The Voice of the Crown -- Depending on the royalty, the herald may be called upon to make pronouncements, read greetings, etc., for them if they lack the voice (or the inclination) to do it themselves.
2. Master of Ceremonies (MC) -- The court herald collects and screens the business for court, and conducts the court itself, moving from each item to the next to keep the court flowing. It is this aspect of the court herald's job that we will concentrate on.

Court is theater, and the role of the court herald as MC is to direct that theater.* Most of the production is planned, though little of it is scripted, and parts are occasionally very impromptu. The way in which the herald conducts the court often does more to define the mood of the court than even the royalty (however, it is important to remember that it is the royalty who are the stars of the show, not the herald, or anyone else!). The pace, the tone of voice, and even the attitude that the herald has will affect the way in which the populace views court. People are very quick to notice if the herald is not interested in what is happening at court, and this will cause them to lose interest as well.

*(It has been compared with being the ring master of a circus...)

At the same time, the herald must be sensitive to the mood of the royalty, and reflect that mood. This is especially true if the herald is making a pronouncement on their behalf. The herald must be able to be the proud voice of congratulations, the urgent voice of motivation, and the stern voice of anger. Even when not speaking, the herald must make sure that his or her actions do not disrupt whatever else is happening in court at the time. Remember that you are very visible, and that any movement away from the center of attention (i.e. the royalty) will catch people's eye, especially in a bright green herald's tabard. This does not mean that you cannot turn to take a drink from your tankard, but pick a time when it will not be a distraction.

One of the hardest things to learn in becoming a court herald is where the fuzzy line is between pageantry and stuffiness. While we are trying to create an atmosphere of ceremony, there are people who are very put off by (what they see as) pretentiousness. You must learn to impart a certain amount of grandeur and importance to your words, without making them sound overblown. There is no set rule for how to do this, it is something that you must learn through observing other courts, and finding out what people do and do not like about them.

One thing that you can do that will help is to learn about how to deliver lines. This doesn't mean you have to go out and take acting lessons, but learn by observation. Look at movies, especially period costume dramas, or better yet go to see live theater. Watch how the actors deliver their lines to give the audience not only the meaning of the words themselves, but the feelings behind the words that they want to convey.

Another part of your delivery which is important is projection. Above all else, the court herald must be able to be heard in as much of the hall as possible. Work on your projection. Talk to other heralds who have good voices, or to someone who has studied acting. Different halls require different amounts of projection. A good trick is to pick someone at the back of the hall, and speak as if you were making the announcements to them. If you see that they and the people around them are straining to hear, or are losing interest (because they cannot hear), then you need to increase your volume and projection.

Also important is the wording that you use. Part of the job of the court herald (or any herald doing voice work, for that matter) is to phrase the announcements that they are making to add to the ambience of the occasion, without becoming too flowery. Here again, the best way to learn about doing this is to watch other court heralds at work, especially those whose style you admire. Listen for how things are phrased, rather than specific words or terms. For example, which sounds better: "Their Majesties give you leave to be seated", or "You can sit down now"?

Humorous side comments by the herald can occasionally be appropriate, but should be used sparingly, and with great restraint. No where in the job description of the court herald does it say anything about being a stand-up comedian or a court jester! However, a wisely placed humorous remark once in a while can make the court more enjoyable for the populace, and help to keep their interest, without detracting from the atmosphere of the court. Presentations and announcements are potentially good times for such things -- award ceremonies are not! You should be familiar with the royalty involved, and very sure that the remark will play well, or you shouldn't make it. Remember, most of the populace, and ALL of the royalty had better think that its both funny and appropriate, or you could be in trouble!

One of the most important rules of being a court herald is: Never surprise the royalty! This does not mean that things like the contents of a presentation cannot be a surprise, but you had better be sure that it is appropriate and that they will like whatever it is (see the Court Heraldry Checklist article for more details on this). This rule particularly applies to items of business on the court agenda. Every item of business should have been gone over with them before court, but if for some reason this was impossible (such as an important item being brought to you at the last minute, or even from the wings during court itself), find a convenient moment and lean over and quietly explain it to the monarchs to make sure that they understand what it is, and that they want to do it in court. By the way, it isn't a bad idea from time to time during court to lean over and let the royalty know what is coming up, and what their part is in it. This is especially true of new royalty who may be nervous and/or unfamiliar with court procedures.

On the other hand, it is to be hoped that the royalty will not do anything to surprise you, however, this is not always the case. Remember that no matter how carefully you have worked out the court agenda before hand, the royalty has the right to do whatever they want, including completely reordering court in the middle, and deleting or adding new items of business. All you can do if this happens is to try and adjust as best you can. Note the changes on the court agenda so that you will remember them. If an award is added, you may be called upon to read a 'scroll' for it which does not exist! For this reason, you should become familiar with the various types of award scroll texts, so that you will be able to create one 'on the fly', should you be called upon to do so.

Finally, the best way to learn, of course, is to practice; but the second best way is to observe. Study what other court heralds do, and try to find out why they do things the way that they do. If you want to learn more, ask a herald who you have seen do court to help you.

These are some collected thoughts on court in the S.C.A., and the herald's part in it. Along with the accompanying Court Heraldry Checklist article, they should provide you with a good background for learning to be a court herald, whether for your local baron and baroness, or for the king and queen.

© Richard Coleman. (Originally printed in the Atlantian Herald's Handbook)

Reprinted here with the gracious permission of the author.