The Use of the Wolf as an Emblem of Heraldry

Heraldry started centuries ago as a form of picture writing, which enabled one man to be distinguished from another. Over the years this picture writing developed into devices, which differentiated armed warriors both in tournament and during battle. This method of identity was essential in times when many people could neither read nor write. Nowadays modern heraldry is both symbolic and decorative. A modern herald has described "true heraldry" as the "systematic use of hereditary devices on a shield". 

The earliest known decorated shield which fits the above description is that given by Henry I of England (reigned AD 1100-1135) to his son-in-law, Geoffrey of Anjou, and dates from approximately AD 1127 when Geoffrey was knighted. 

Amongst the earliest records are the shields and banners painted on the margins of the manuscript "Historia Anglorum" by Matthew Paris, about AD 1253 and now in the British Museum (Royal Ms 14 c.vii). This Roll is closely followed by the written Glovers Roll, dating from about AD 1255 (Heralds College Ms.L.14). 

Probably the first written reference to the use of wolves in heraldry occurs in the Great Roll, written between 1308-1314, by an unknown author. This Roll mentions wolves as among the creatures which were in heraldic use and it further states that Adam Videlou and also John de Lou, used wolves' heads, or "testes de lou" on their shields. 

However, prior to this, two wolves' heads on a shield were attributed to one Hugh Lupus, created Earl of Chester, circa 1070. This title passed to the De Meschines family in the time of Henry I. Later the Abrinces, Earls of Chester, used "two azure wolf's heads erased" on their Arms, perhaps reflecting back to the days of Hugh Lupus. In the time of Edward III (1327-1377), a Sir Charles Lupus again used azure wolf's heads as part of his Arms. 

The Latin for wolf being "lupus" this use is a form of punning on a person's name when the play of words on a family name is translated into an actual device for display on a shield or banner. There are many examples in addition to that of the wolf, for instance, falcons for John de Fauconer, boars' heads for the Swynefords, roses for the Rossell family and so on. These are called "canring" or allusive arms. 

The oldest descriptions of Arms are those written in French, but in the reign of Edward IV (1461-1483), English began to be used to describe heraldic devices. It is interesting to note that Edward IV himself used as one of his badges a white wolf, which, along with a white lion, denoted his descent from the House of Mortimer. 

In its earliest representations the wolf at times has a less than wolf-like appearance. Usually this is due to poor draftsmanship or simply lack of knowledge. 

Wolves in heraldry may be shown in various positions, e.g. rampant passant, salient, statant, courant - see drawing:

Wolf Passant Wolf Statant Wolf Rampant
Wolf Salient Wolf Courant

 A wolf's head used as a crest may also be depicted in different positions. 

The wolf is used fairly frequently in English heraldry. Wolves are supporters for the Coats of Arms of Lords Welby and Rendell, and Viscount Wolseley. In addition, Viscount Wolseley's Arms have the wolf as a crest, another example of a "pun" or play of words on a name, and the Viscount's motto is "Homo Homini Lupus". 

The wolf is also depicted in the Arms of the Lovett family and the Low family. In feudal days one Robert Lovett is said to have borne "Argent (silver) three wolves passant in pale sable" on his Arms and Sir John Lowe of Buckinghamshire had Arms showing three wolves' heads. Nicholas le Low used "gules" (red) two wolves passant argent (silver)". An Essex knight by the name of Wolferston mentioned in Henry VI Roll (circa 1422-1461) included in his Arms gold wolves' heads couped. The term "couped" in heraldry means cut off in a straight line, probably in this case at the neck. 

The Lovell family used a wolf passant on their crest and the Lupton family of Thame in Oxfordshire and also their kinsmen in York had the wolf's head erased on their crest. "Erased" in this context means torn-off, leaving the head with a ragged edge. The Wilson family crest also shows a wolf, but depicted as a demi-wolf, meaning only half the animal is shown. 

A strange version of the wolf occurs in the Arms granted to John Fennor of Sussex on 10 November 1557. His Arms are described as: "Argent, chevron sable between three wolves marine passant sable finned ventred and dented argent langued and eyed gules". "Ventred" is an obscure term, which probably refers to abdominal fins. Depictions of this variety of sea-wolf appear more like those of a sea dog rather than a marine mammal, such as a sea lion. An interesting crest is that of the Wolfe family as it is connected with an actual historical incident. The crest shows a wolf grasping between its paws a Royal Crown. The Arms were granted to Mr. Francis Wolfe by King Charles II (reigned 1660-1685) in appreciation of the assistance given by Mr. Wolfe to the King, when, as Prince of Wales, he was in flight from his enemies following his defeat in the Battle of Worcester in September 1651 and when most of his army had been killed or captured. King Charles II also gave Mr. Wolfe a silver tankard, the lid of which bore a replica of the crest, showing the wolf with the Crown. 

In Scottish heraldry the most prominent use of the wolf occurs with the Arms of Struan Robertson and with all other members of Clan Robertson who can claim descent from or- a relationship to the House of Struan. As one author says:

"The Robertsons of Struan are unquestionably the oldest family of Scotland, being the sole remaining branch of the Royal House which occupied the Scottish throne in the 11th and 12th century."

     The lands of this clan were said at one time to cover an area from Rannoch Moor to the Gates of Perth, including holdings in Atholl. The Robertsons are known as Clann Donnachaidh (children of Duncan). The original Duncan was a descendant of one Cronan, who was Clan Chief in the early part of the 14th century. In 1451 the Barony of Struan was created for a grandson of Duncan named Robert. Many of the clan took their name from him - hence the name Struan-Robertson. Other members of the clan took different names, such as Duncanson, MacRobbie, MacRobert, Reid, and so on. 

Clan Skene, an earlier connection of Clann Donnachaidh have their origin in a legend connected with a wolf. The legend states that King Malcolm (Canmore) of Scotland was attacked by a large wolf, which one Thomas of Rannoch fended off by wrapping his arm in a plaid and using his knife to stab the wolf. The King, of course, offered his defender lands as a reward. Whatever lies behind the legend, the lands of Skene became a barony as early as 1318 by a charter granted by Robert the Bruce. The Achievement of Arms of Skene even today show three dirks (or Skenes) piercing three wolves' heads, referring to the legend of the rounding of the barony. However, one authority comments wryly on the legend that an Athollman would have been more likely to have stabbed King Malcolm and saved the wolf. 

The Reids also believed themselves part of Clann Donnachaidh through descent in the male line. Their Chieftain was Baron Reid of Strathloch, a barony held under the Earldom of Atholl. The Reids quartered the Clann Donnachaidh's wolf heads with a red eagle on their Arms. 

The wolf is found in heraldry originating on the Continent of Europe. Woodward, a noted authority on the subject and the author of a famous Treatise on Heraldry, states the wolf is frequently used in Spanish heraldry and often represented "ravissant", that is carrying the body of a lamb in its mouth or across its back. It is noteworthy that Spanish heraldry, along with English and Scottish heraldry, shares wide influence because in the Americas all countries from Mexico to Cape Horn (except Brazil) who were originally settled by the Spanish derive their heraldic usages from Spain. The Philippines and Cuba are also included in this group. 

The use of the wolf is quite common in German heraldry. The Arms of Passau in Bavaria show a red wolf rampant on a white shield. These arms have been used by the town since the early 15th century and may have originally belonged to the Bishop of Passau, who depicted a wolf as part of his arms. This device later became the trademark of a brand of steel goods made locally. 

In Saxony, the family of von Wolfersdorf used a black wolf rampant on a yellow shield. The crest is a sitting wolf surrounded by a coronet. This is probably another example of the use of "canting" arms. 

The arms of the Counts von Brandenstein-Zepplin depict a green wolf grasping a dead swan in its jaws on a yellow shield. The crest of the family's arms has the same device. 

The arms of Hans Wolf von Bibelspurg show a wolf facing to the left, but on his marriage to Catharina Waraus at Augsburg in 1507, their shields were placed side by side and the wolf was reversed so that the charges on the two shields "respect" each other. This practice is frequently met with in German heraldry.

Arms of Hans Wolf von Bibelspurg

Arms of Hans Wolf von Bibelspurg
after his marriage to Catherina Waraus in 1507

       Italian heraldry takes into consideration that many families derive their titles from the Holy Roman Empire. The old legend of Romulus and Remus brings the Capitoline wolf suckling the children into the picture and this depiction is said to be the arms of the legendary twins. In addition, there is a Milanese badge (no date given) allegedly in the Biblioteca Trivulziana, Milan, showing a lamb lying on its back with a wolf standing over it. 

In French heraldry, the Grand Wolf Hunter of France at the Royal Court had as his official insignia "on each side of a shield, a wolf's head caboshed". The term "caboshed" means that the head of the animal is shown affronty (i.e. facing the viewer) with no part of the neck visible. 

Although normally connected with France, the fleur-de-lis does occur in English heraldry and one somewhat odd depiction is connected with the arms of the Cantelupe family, where the charge is described as "leopard's face jessant-de-lis"

Leopard's Face

     One authority considers this charge may not be a leopard at all and is really that of a wolf, for, at certain periods in the past such decorative art was full of grotesque masks. The Cantelupe family used this device in the 13th century when Thomas de Cantelupe was Bishop of Hereford (1275-1282). However, the Arms of the See of Hereford were differenced from that of the family. The original name of the Cantelupe family was Cantelowe and it is suggested that a wolf's head may have been intended (possibly the original animal head was badly drawn), referring to the Latin lupus (wolf) from which the Lowe and Low families derive their arms. It is a possible explanation and the authority suggesting it is an eminent one. It does, however, remain something of a mystery. 

A curious use of the wolf in heraldry concerns "monsters" or imaginary creatures. Two such appear in British heraldry. The "Enfield" is an entirely imaginary creature, having a fox's head and ears, a wolf's body, hind legs and tail and an eagle's shanks and talons.

The "Enfield"

This creature is used as a crest by the Irish family of Kelly and is also used as a charge in a grant of arms to the Enfield District Council in Middlesex, England. 

The Calopus or Chatloup is another imaginary beast. A horned animal difficult-to describe but some variant of a wolf. At one time it appears to have been connected with the Foljambe family. It was also used by the Cathome family in a grant of arms given to one Thomas Cathome of Pembroke on 1 December 1553. 

From the foregoing brief survey, it is clear that the wolf was widely used in many forms as an heraldic symbol during the medieval period and the animal was considered noble and courageous. Therefore, from the earliest times of heraldic records the wolf can rightly be numbered amongst the honourable creatures of heraldry, along with the lion, leopard, eagle, horse and many others.



Notes supplied by Mr. Michael Spencer of Berowra, NSW, Australia. Member of the British Heraldry Society.

A Grammar of English Heraldry.
W.H. St. John Hope
Second Edition: Revised by Anthony Wagner, Richmond Herald.
Cambridge University Press, 1953.

Heralds and Heraldry in the Middle Ages.
Anthony Wagner, Richmond Herald.
Oxford University Press, 1956.

Boutrell's Heraldry - C.W. Scott-Giles OBE, Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary and J.P. Brooke-Little FSA, Bluemantle Pursuivant of Arms.
Frederick Warne & Co. London and New York. Revised Edition 1966.

A Complete Guide to Heraldry.
Arthur Charles Fox-Davies Revised and annotated by J.P. Brooke-Little Norrey and Ulster King of Arms.
First published 1909. 1985 Edition - Orbis Publishing, London.

Dictionary of Heraldry and Feudal Coats of Arms and Pedigrees.
Joseph Foster.
Original Edition 1908 - James Parker & Co. 1994 Edition - Studio Editions, London.

The Scottish Tartans.
Revised Edition by Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, Emeritus Lord Lyon King of Arms.
Johnson & Bacon, Stirling. Edition 1984.

International Heraldry - L.G. Pine
David & Charles, Newton Abbott, 1970.

Heraldry (Sources, Symbols and Meanings) - Ottfried Neubecker, Member Governing Body of International Academy of Heraldry. 1997 Edition - Tiger Books International plc, London.

A Dictionary of Heraldry and Related Subjects.
Col. A.G. Putrock.
Blaketon Hall, Exeter, 1983.

Fairbairns Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland.
James Fairbairn.
New Orchard Editions, Poole, Dorset, 1986.

Charles II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Ronald Hutton.
Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989.

The Highland Clans.
Sir Iain Moncrieffe of that Ilk, Albany Herald.
Barrie & Rockliff, London, 1967.

Scottish Clans and Tartans.
Nell Grant.
Hamlyn Publishing Group, London, 1987.

Dictionary of Heraldry.
Charles Norton Elvin (1839)
Published: Heraldry Today Edition, London, 1969 and 1977.

The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Sir Bernard Burke, CB, LLD.
Published: Harrison, 59, Pall Mall, London, 1884.