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A 20th-century English herald's tabard Pursuivant tabard.jpg
A 20th-century English herald's tabard

A tabard is a type of short coat that was commonly worn by men during the late Middle Ages and early modern period in Europe. Generally worn outdoors, the coat was either sleeveless or had short sleeves or shoulder pieces. In its more developed form it was open at the sides, and it could be worn with or without a belt. Though most were ordinary garments, often work clothes, tabards might be emblazoned on the front and back with a coat of arms (livery), and in this form they survive as the distinctive garment of officers of arms.


In modern British usage, the term has been revived for what is known in American English as a cobbler apron: a lightweight open-sided upper overgarment, of similar design to its medieval and heraldic counterpart, worn in particular by workers in the catering, cleaning and healthcare industries as protective clothing, or outdoors by those requiring high-visibility clothing. Tabards may also be worn by percussionists in marching bands in order to protect their uniforms from the straps and rigging used to support the instruments.

Middle Ages

The Waterseller of Seville by Diego Velazquez, c.1620, depicting a functional workman's tabard The waterseller walters.jpg
The Waterseller of Seville by Diego Velázquez, c.1620, depicting a functional workman's tabard

A tabard (from the French tabarde) was originally a humble outer garment of tunic form, generally without sleeves, worn by peasants, monks and foot-soldiers. In this sense, the earliest citation recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from c.1300. [1]

By the second half of the 15th century, tabards, now open at the sides and so usually belted, were also being worn by knights in military contexts over their armour, and were usually emblazoned with their arms (though sometimes worn plain). The Oxford English Dictionary first records this use of the word in English in 1450. [1] Tabards were apparently distinguished from surcoats by being open-sided, and by being shorter.[ citation needed ] In its later form, a tabard normally comprised four textile panels – two large panels hanging down the wearer's front and back, and two smaller panels hanging over his arms as shoulder-pieces or open "sleeves" – each emblazoned with the same coat of arms. Tabards became an important means of battlefield identification with the development of plate armour as the use of shields declined. They are frequently represented on tomb effigies and monumental brasses of the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

A very expensive, but plain, garment described as a tabard is worn by Giovanni Arnolfini in the Arnolfini Portrait of 1434 (National Gallery, London). This may be made of silk and or velvet, and is trimmed and fully lined with fur, possibly sable. [2]

At The Queen's College, Oxford, the scholars on the foundation were called tabarders, from the tabard (not in this case an emblazoned garment) which they wore. [3]

A surviving garment similar to the medieval tabard is the monastic scapular. This is a wide strip of fabric worn front back of the body, with an opening for the head and no sleeves. It may have a hood, and may be worn under or over a belt.

British heraldry

Thomas Hawley, Clarenceux King of Arms, depicted in his tabard on a grant of arms of 1556 Thomas Hawley Clarenceux King of Arms.jpg
Thomas Hawley, Clarenceux King of Arms, depicted in his tabard on a grant of arms of 1556

By the end of the 16th century, the tabard was particularly associated with officers of arms. The shift in emphasis was reported by John Stow in 1598, when he described a tabard as:

a Jacquit, or sleevelesse coat, whole before, open on both sides, with a square collor, winged at the shoulders: a stately garment of olde time, commonly worne of Noble men and others, both at home and abroade in the Warres, but then (to witte in the warres) theyr Armes embrodered, or otherwise depicte uppon them, that every man by his Coate of Armes might bee knowne from others: but now these Tabardes are onely worne by the Heraults, and bee called their coates of Armes in service. [4]

In the case of Royal officers of arms, the tabard is emblazoned with the coat of arms of the sovereign. Private officers of arms, such as still exist in Scotland, make use of tabards emblazoned with the coat of arms of the person who employs them. In the United Kingdom the different ranks of officers of arms can be distinguished by the fabric from which their tabards are made. The tabard of a king of arms is made of velvet, the tabard of a herald of arms of satin, and that of a pursuivant of arms of damask silk. [5] The oldest surviving English herald's tabard is that of Sir William Dugdale as Garter King of Arms (1677–1686). [6]

It was at one time the custom for English pursuivants to wear their tabards "athwart", that is to say with the smaller ("shoulder") panels at the front and back, and the larger panels over the arms; but this practice was ended during the reign of James II and VII. [5] [7]

The derisive Scots nickname of "Toom Tabard" for John Balliol (c. 1249 – 1314) may originate from either an alleged incident where his arms were stripped from his tabard in public, [8] or a reference to the Balliol arms which are a plain shield with an orle, also known as an inescutcheon voided. [9]

Canadian heraldry

In the Diamond Jubilee year of the Queen of Canada, the Governor General unveiled a new tabard for the use of the Chief Herald of Canada. This new royal blue tabard, for exclusively Canadian use and of uniquely Canadian design, is a modern take on the traditional look. The tabard differs from others of more traditional design in that the Canadian royal arms appear on the sleeves, while the front and back of the tabard are covered with Native Canadian-inspired emblematic representations of the raven-polar bears of the Canadian Heraldic Authority's coat of arms.

Cultural allusions

A tabard was the inn sign of the Tabard Inn in Southwark, London, established in 1307 and remembered as the starting point for Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims on their journey to Canterbury in The Canterbury Tales , dating from about the 1380s.

In E. C. Bentley's short story "The Genuine Tabard", published in his collection Trent Intervenes in 1938, a wealthy American couple purchase an antique heraldic tabard, having been told that it was worn in 1783 by Sir Rowland Verey, Garter King of Arms, when proclaiming the Peace of Versailles from the steps of St James's Palace. The amateur detective Philip Trent is able to point out that it in fact bears the post-1837 royal arms. [10]

Tabards, while not mentioned by name, feature prominently in the Touhou Project video game series, being worn by at least seven characters, ranging from minor enemies to end game bosses. The design of the characters that wear them revolves around the tabard, usually with little additional detail.[ citation needed ]

See also

Related Research Articles

Heraldry Profession, study, or art of creating, granting and blazoning arms and ruling on questions of rank or protocol

Heraldry is a discipline relating to the design, display and study of armorial bearings, as well as related disciplines, such as vexillology, together with the study of ceremony, rank and pedigree. Armory, the best-known branch of heraldry, concerns the design and transmission of the heraldic achievement. The achievement, or armorial bearings usually includes a coat of arms on a shield, helmet and crest, together with any accompanying devices, such as supporters, badges, heraldic banners and mottoes.

Coat of arms Heraldic design on a shield, surcoat or tabard

A coat of arms is a heraldic visual design on an escutcheon, surcoat, or tabard. The coat of arms on an escutcheon forms the central element of the full heraldic achievement, which in its whole consists of a shield, supporters, a crest, and a motto. A coat of arms is traditionally unique to an individual person, family, state, organization, school or corporation.

Surcoat Outer garment commonly worn in the Middle Ages in Western Europe

A surcoat or surcote is an outer garment that was commonly worn in the Middle Ages by both men and women in Western Europe. It can either refer to a coat worn over other clothes or the outermost garment itself. The name derives from French meaning "over the coat", a long, loose, often sleeveless coat reaching down to the feet.

Royal arms of England Royal arms of England

The royal arms of England are the arms first adopted in a fixed form at the start of the age of heraldry as personal arms by the Plantagenet kings who ruled England from 1154. In the popular mind they have come to symbolise the nation of England, although according to heraldic usage nations do not bear arms, only persons and corporations do. The blazon of the arms of Plantagenet is: Gules, three lions passant guardant in pale or armed and langued azure, signifying three identical gold lions with blue tongues and claws, walking past but facing the observer, arranged in a column on a red background. Although the tincture azure of tongue and claws is not cited in many blazons, they are historically a distinguishing feature of the arms of England. This coat, designed in the High Middle Ages, has been variously combined with those of the Kings of France, Scotland, a symbol of Ireland, the House of Nassau and the Kingdom of Hanover, according to dynastic and other political changes occurring in England, but has not altered since it took a fixed form in the reign of Richard I of England (1189–1199), the second Plantagenet king.

Lord Lyon King of Arms

The Right Honourable the Lord Lyon King of Arms, the head of Lyon Court, is the most junior of the Great Officers of State in Scotland and is the Scottish official with responsibility for regulating heraldry in that country, issuing new grants of arms, and serving as the judge of the Court of the Lord Lyon, the oldest heraldic court in the world that is still in daily operation.

College of Arms Corporation responsible for heraldry in England and Wales

The College of Arms, or Heralds' College, is a royal corporation consisting of professional officers of arms, with jurisdiction over England, Wales, Northern Ireland and some Commonwealth realms. The heralds are appointed by the British Sovereign and are delegated authority to act on behalf of the Crown in all matters of heraldry, the granting of new coats of arms, genealogical research and the recording of pedigrees. The College is also the official body responsible for matters relating to the flying of flags on land, and it maintains the official registers of flags and other national symbols. Though a part of the Royal Household of the United Kingdom, the College is self-financed, unsupported by any public funds.

Officer of arms State officer for heraldic, armorial or ceremonial duties

An officer of arms is a person appointed by a sovereign or state with authority to perform one or more of the following functions:


A chimere is a garment worn by Anglican bishops in choir dress, and, formally as part of academic dress.

Pinafore Sleeveless apron like garments which have a skirt and a bodice portion and which cover the front, sides, and a portion of the back

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Smock-frock Traditional rural mans outer garment

A smock-frock or smock is an outer garment traditionally worn by rural workers, especially shepherds and waggoners, in parts of England and Wales throughout the 18th century. Today, the word smock refers to a loose overgarment worn to protect one's clothing, for instance by a painter.

New Zealand Herald Extraordinary

New Zealand Herald of Arms Extraordinary is the officer of arms responsible for the regulation of heraldry in New Zealand. Although affiliated with the College of Arms in London, the New Zealand Herald lives and works in New Zealand, and is not a member of the College Chapter. The current New Zealand Herald of Arms Extraordinary is Phillip Patrick O’Shea.

Herald Historical profession

A herald, or a herald of arms, is an officer of arms, ranking between pursuivant and king of arms. The title is commonly applied more broadly to all officers of arms.

Private officer of arms

A private officer of arms is one of the heralds and pursuivants appointed by great noble houses to handle all heraldic and genealogical questions.

John Brooke-Little British heraldic writer (1927–2006); Clarenceux King of Arms

John Philip Brook Brooke-Little was an English writer on heraldic subjects, and a long-serving herald at the College of Arms in London. In 1947, while still a student, Brooke-Little founded the Society of Heraldic Antiquaries, now known as the Heraldry Society and recognised as one of the leading learned societies in its field. He served as the society's chairman for 50 years and then as its President from 1997 until his death in 2006.

Crown (heraldry)

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John Guillim

John Guillim of Minsterworth, Gloucestershire, was an antiquarian and officer of arms at the College of Arms in London. He is best remembered for his monumental work on heraldry, A Display of Heraldry, first published in London in 1610.

English heraldry

English heraldry is the form of coats of arms and other heraldic bearings and insignia used in England. It lies within the so-called Gallo-British tradition. Coats of arms in England are regulated and granted to individuals by the English kings of arms of the College of Arms. An individual's arms may also be borne ‘by courtesy' by members of the holder's nuclear family, subject to a system of cadency marks, to differentiate those displays from the arms of the original holder. The English heraldic style is exemplified in the arms of British royalty, and is reflected in the civic arms of cities and towns, as well as the noble arms of individuals in England. Royal orders in England, such as the Order of the Garter, also maintain notable heraldic bearings.

Achievement (heraldry) Full display of coat of arms

An achievement, armorial achievement or heraldic achievement in heraldry is a full display or depiction of all the heraldic components to which the bearer of a coat of arms is entitled. An achievement comprises not only the arms displayed on the escutcheon, the central element, but also the following elements surrounding it:

Court of the Lord Lyon Court which regulates heraldry in Scotland

The Court of the Lord Lyon is a standing court of law which regulates heraldry in Scotland. The Lyon Court maintains the register of grants of arms, known as the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland, as well as records of genealogies.

History of heraldry

Heraldry is the system of visual identification of rank and pedigree which developed in the European High Middle Ages, closely associated with the courtly culture of chivalry, Latin Christianity, the Crusades, feudal aristocracy, and monarchy of the time. Heraldic tradition fully developed in the 13th century, and it flourished and developed further during the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Originally limited to nobility, heraldry is adopted by wealthy commoners in the Late Middle Ages. Specific traditions of Ecclesiastical heraldry also develop in the late medieval period. Coats of arms of noble families, often after their extinction, becomes attached to the territories they used to own, giving rise to municipal coats of arms by the 16th century.


  1. 1 2 "tabard, n." . Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. Campbell, Lorne (1998). The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Schools. National Gallery Catalogues. London: National Gallery. ISBN   185709171X.
  3. Farmer, John Stephen (1903). Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: A Dictionary, Historical and Comparative, of the Heterodox Speech of All Classes of Society for More Than Three Hundred Years : with Synonyms in English, French, German, Italian, Etc. Unknown. p. 54.
  4. Stow, John (1598). A Survay of London. London. p. 338.
  5. 1 2 Eirìkr Mjoksiglandi Sigurdharson (December 31, 2003). "A Review of the Historical Regalia of Officers of Arms". Retrieved 8 June 2012.
  6. Marks, Richard; Payne, Ann, eds. (1978). British Heraldry: from its origins to c.1800. London: British Museum. p. 51, plate.
  7. Fox-Davies, A. C. (1969). Brooke-Little, J. P. (ed.). A Complete Guide to Heraldry . London: Nelson. pp.  31–2.
  8. Young, Alan (2010). In the Footsteps of William Wallace: In Scotland and Northern England. The History Press. p. 74. ISBN   9780750951432 . Retrieved 2 December 2018.
  9. Hodgson, John; Hodgson-Hinde, John (1832). A History of Northumberland, in three parts. Printed by E. Walker. p. 124. Retrieved 2 December 2018.
  10. Bentley, E. C. (1953) [1938]. "The genuine tabard". Trent Intervenes. London: Penguin. pp. 7–24.