An Heraldic Tree for Use in SCA Tournaments


by Lord Bartholomew Hightower of Canterbury
(Dan Watson)

This report documents the design and use of an heraldic tree for use in SCA tournaments – a shield tree.  I created this tree to help enhance the enjoyment of tournaments for both participants and spectators, and to improve our sense of heraldry as part of the proceedings.  In this report, I’ll address the historical basis for such a device, provide details for its construction, and illustrate its use.

1. Historical Basis

Don’t get your hopes up.  The way we run fighting tournaments isn’t very close to what actually transpired during tournaments in our period of interest, and our concept of fighting tournaments reflects what we tend to do now versus what was done then. 

  It’s a sad reality. 

  We like to play and we want there to be a clear winner – someone to gain the golden arrow as a bauble for the winner’s true love.  Furthermore, we’d like to be able to keep score and display the score so that we can all share in the suspense.

  Happily, all is not lost.  The idea of keeping score certainly isn’t new, and they did keep track of who was doing well out on the field.  As an example, a Sir John Tiptoft set out a series of ordinances in 1466 related to scoring within the joust, ‘reserving always to the queen and to the ladies present the attribution and gift of the prize, after the manner and form accustomed.’  As further example, jousting cheques were used to track the performance of each of the participants in the day’s activities, an example of which appears in figure 1, from the Field of Cloth and Gold joust between members of the English and French royalty in 1520.2

Figure 1: A (very nicely illuminated) cheque from a joust in 1520

As seen in the jousting record above, it seems natural to identify participants with their arms.  Indeed, that was the whole point of the heraldic exercise.   In fact, the concept was extended to the point that facsimiles of arms were used to identify the participants, to indicate where the combatants were lodging during the tournament, and to issue challenges to other combatants.3   Perhaps the best primary record of this in found in King René of Naples (later duke of Anjou)’s treatise,4  written about 1434, in which he describes a part of the festivities:

Immediately after a lord or baron arrives at the inn, he should display his coat of arms in the window. He should have the heralds and pursuivants put up a long board attached to the wall in front of his lodgings, on which is painted his blazon, that is to say his crest and shield, and those of his company who will take part in the tourney, knights and squires alike.

There is an accompanying illustration that I’ve included as Figure 2:


Figure 2: Display of arms of the participants in a 15th-century joust.2

Given that representations of shields were used to both communicate the identity of participants and to keep track of their martial prowess, it’s not too difficult to extend this idea to a display of arms specifically intended for the organization and scoring of an SCA tournament. 

Of course, it’s certainly possible that this same idea occurred long ago on some forgotten list field, but there seems little evidence to support the idea that a shield tree of this sort played a part in tournaments of the middle ages.


2. Motivation for Building the Tree

Now that we’ve dispelled any annoying illusions about the authentic nature of our undertaking, Let’s take a few moments to talk about why it is still a good idea for us.

Every year, our local group (Côte du Ciel, Artemisia) hosts a ‘Renaissance Faire’ for the benefit of the local community center, and to help pay our bills for the room we use there each week.  The faire is targeted at young schoolchildren perhaps 5 to 12 years in age with accompanying parents.  As part of the festivities we hold a medieval tournament with 8-10 heavy-suit fighters. 

The tournament always takes too long with too many pauses because whoever is running the list usually has to run in from whatever other job he/she is doing. Trying to get it all sorted out and written down just takes time.  Plus, it is difficult for the fighters to know with whom they are fighting next, and when.

Most regrettably, the audience loses interest, because there is no clear and concise way for them to know how the tournament is progressing, and when it will be over.

After our most recent faire, we as a shire commiserated together about our tournament woes and arrived after not too much debate at the following conclusions:

It’s not just the Renn Faire.  It’s all the demos we do.
And it’s not just the demos, it’s the tournaments, too.
In the scoring of list fields, it plain now to see
That what really is needed is a tournament tree.

Sorry; don’t know what came over me.  I’ll try not to let that happen again.

We collectively figured that a tournament tree of shields would help the Mistress of the Lists organize all the participants without having to laboriously write all the names down, without handing the names to the field herald, and without having to tell anybody how much longer it was all going to take.

We collectively figured that the people watching it might be a little more interested in what was going on if they knew what was coming up next, and where their favorite fighters stood in the overall standings. 

We collectively figured that it would motivate some of the fighters to decide on something resembling a shield device to associate with themselves.  You see, nobody wants to be the only fighter out there without their very own snazzy blazon.

We collectively figured all that, and then we collectively figured that I was just the guy to do it.


3. How I Did It

I wanted the tree to be fairly inexpensive and easy to build.  No emotional attachment here; this thing was going to get shoved into an out-of-the-way corner between events,  shoved into a van for transport, and set up outside during the tournaments.   It needed to be collapsible so that it would get dragged from one event to the next.  Finally, the shields needed to be easy to create, so that we could make a lot of them without too much fuss.

I settled on something that looks like a high school woodshop hat tree project gone really wrong.

Figure 3 shows a drawing of the shield tree that includes all the dimensions I've used for it.


Center Pole

For the center pole, I used an old piece of rough-sawn 2x6 stock cut down to about 2" by 5" in cross section.  There are some pretty major defects in the board (log edge showing on one side), but I think that enhances the overall sense of age.  I particularly wanted to avoid the finished 2x4 stud look.  To make it a bit more user-friendly, I rounded over all the edges with a 1/4" roundover router bit.



I sawed the legs out of some old 2x6s I had laying around with a band saw (see the templates page for the design), then rounded the edges with the 1/4" roundover bit.  I attached the legs to the center pole with some 4" long 3/8" lag bolts. 

It is important to pre-drill the holes before trying to crank the bolts into place, otherwise you will surely split the wood.  Also, you should drill the hole in the leg part larger –   enough to accommodate the bolt without screwing it in.  The hole in the center pole should be large enough only to serve as a pilot hole, so that you will have to tighten the bolts with a wrench as they go into the center pole. 

Don't worry about trying to get an exact positioning of the bolts; just drill the large holes in the legs in a comfortable spot, then mark through the holes to get the spot for the holes in the center pole.

After you get the legs on you should take them back off.  As you take each leg off, mark the part of the center pole that is covered by that leg with a letter (A, B, C, or D),  and then mark the part of the leg that rests against the center pole with the same letter.  That way, you can assemble it again without having to guess which leg goes where.

The first time I tried to use the tree, the wind blew it over.  True, it was a really big gust that toppled it, but I was still unhappy.  The next time around, I added a few holes drilled through the toe of the legs, and pounded a few large (12”) nails to act as hold-down stakes.  Problem solved.   



Figure 3: A simple shield tree design.


Cross Poles

After you get the legs off, it is time to drill the holes to accept the cross poles. I use a 1-1/4" hole saw for drilling the holes, which is just the right size for 1-1/4" wooden dowels to fit through (I use fir closet rods for the dowels).

I cannot overemphasize the importance of using a drill press to cut the holes, carefully adjusted so that the holes are orthogonal to the face of the center pole.  If you try to do it by hand, your cross poles will not be parallel to each other, and it will look bad (just like my first attempt).

Cut the first set of holes in exactly the positions you want them for the cross poles.  Then, cut another set of holes with the center about 1/2" from the top edge of the holes you've previously cut, so that the two holes overlap each other (this second hole is needed to help slide the cross poles into place without removing the hooks screwed into the cross poles).

Cut the cross poles to the correct length, and round over the tips of the poles with a router.  Position four pairs of hefty screw hooks onto the poles at the locations indicated in the drawing.  The location of each pair can move around to suit your taste, but the hooks that form a pair should be 5" from center to center to accommodate the shields.

After you get the poles finished, slide them into place by rotating the hooks to the top edge of the holes, sliding the pole through the lower hole in the cross piece so that holes pass though the upper hole, then rotating the hooks back down to the proper position.

You'll need to screw some 2" drywall screws through the back of the center pole and into each cross pole to keep it in place.  Mark the cross poles with letters and put matching letters on the back of the center pole.  It is also a good idea to mark the poles right next to the center pole to show exactly how they should line up each time.

Making the Blanks

Now that the tree is built, you’ll be wanting some little shields to hang on it. Your choices are to (1) have everyone who intends to participate make you a correctly sized, drilled, and painted version of their shield (which is not even remotely likely), or (2) do it yourself.

I did it myself by choosing a nice size for a little shield, and then cutting up a bunch of blanks (see figure 4) out of ¼” hardboard. I use one of the blanks as a template to draw all the rest, and it takes only a few moments to cut them with a band saw.  To cut the holes, I stack up 5 or 6, clamp them together, and use a 3/8” brad-point bit in a drill press to reduce tear-out.


Figure 4: Shield blank template (not actual size).

The blanks are 6“ in width, with 3/8” holes cut ½” from the top, and 5” inches apart.  To get the shape of the shield, form a rectangle 6” wide and 2” high. Then starting from a bottom corner of that box,  draw a 6” diameter arc downward.  If you draw a similar arc from the opposite lower corner of the rectangle, the two arcs will meet in the middle and you are assured of shield-blank happiness.


Adding the Devices

I was very worried about adding all the little devices for each member of our shire – it seemed a long and difficult task.  Instead of painting all of them, I opted instead for an easier approach.  For a couple of years now, I’ve been creating computer-generated images of each shire member’s device.  I’m at the point where I can create good-looking devices without too much difficulty (see the appendix for a short description of my methods). 

Because I used the same shape for the computer-generated versions as for the shield blanks, I needed only scale them to the appropriate size, print them out on photo paper, glue them to the blanks with some spray adhesive, and coat them with a spritz of clear lacquer to keep away any stray drops of rain.

I also painted a several shields with generic field divisions so that anyone wanting to play could choose a shield to represent them for the day.



Hey, that’s not what I saw at the last CdC Renn Fair!!

Correct-o-mundo.  Since I’ve started using it, the shield tree has become immensely popular with the shire.  We’ve used it for several tournaments, and as a static display at shire encampments.  The shire makes a point of asking me to bring it along to events, and I just couldn’t bring a 2x4-and-paper version to show off.

The current version of the shield tree uses a series of forged iron 15” plant hangers, available in many home-improvement warehouses.  I drilled holes at the same intervals shown in Figure 3, and installed 3/16” x 2-1/2” threaded hooks. The plant hangars are screwed onto the central core, which is held up with cast-iron patio umbrella stand. See Figure 5.


This is a more expensive proposition.  Plan on spending $150-$200, as opposed to the $30 I spent on the first version.


Clearly, most of the time on this project was spent painting the little shields.  I did it over a three-month period, just a little bit at a time.  Having all the devices on paper helped quite a bit, so that at any one time, no more than two or three shields were out of commission.  I’ve detailed in another appendix my method for painting the little shields, if you are interested.



Figure 5: A more expensive model.



4. Care and Use of the Shield Tree


Although the tree is my gift to the shire, I have kept possession of the tree and the shields.  There are too many parts to trust that all will be remembered when the time comes to use it.  I prefer to paint the shields for new designs so that they will all be cast into the same style.  Still, if someone wanted to paint his or her own, I would welcome it and use it.


Some of the shire members have asked me for their little shields, and I often make extras for them.  I haven’t painted any extras yet, but I think I will start giving them away to the “owners” as they leave the shire.


What about people that don’t have registered devices?

I say “poo poo” on that line of thought.  There is absolutely no restriction on the display of heraldic devices, registered or not, in our fair kingdom. 

There is a sumptuary custom in our kingdom that states: “gentles who have received Arms, by Award or Grant, may wear Mantles which depict their personal Arms, lined in colors which please them.”  

If you design a device that is glaringly un-heraldic in appearance, or uses a form that is restricted within the SCA, you might get a visit from a herald who might offer some friendly suggestions.

If you have a device that obviously conflicts with someone else’s registered device (especially if that someone is at the event), you may be asked to remove it as a courtesy to the other gentle.

Other than that, think it up, paint it, put it up, and enjoy.

I’ve found that having the shield tree has dramatically increased the interest in registering devices with the college of heralds.  When people display something that identifies them, they have a tendency to want to protect that identity, and often start the process of registering. 

Now, how can that be a bad thing?


5. Shield Tree Usage

Because I like to actually fight in tournaments, it is imperative that I teach someone else how to run it.  I’ve found that the best way to do this is with a set of PowerPoint presentations.  That way, I can usually email it to my victim, or let them see it with a web browser.  In extreme cases, I can print out a copy and bring it with me. 

This format seems to work fairly well as the Mistress or Master of the Lists usually doesn’t mind spending a little time learning about it, especially when they realize they can safely forego all the writing of names and announcing of future bouts. 

Indeed, things went so smoothly at our Shire Birthday celebration that the Mistress of the List was able to run both a Five-Weapon tournament for the heavies, and a Rapier Tournament for the mesh-heads at the same time and on the same tree!

Using the tree requires a little bit of creativity.  I often talk to the local knight marshal well in advance of the event to see what kind of tournament he or she wants to have.  Then I try to find a way to reflect that on the shield tree.  Sometimes it’s a close match, and other times I run the tournament slightly differently than if paper and pencil were used, so that it takes advantage of the visual aspects of the tree.

One thing that always demands attention is adding something in to “shake up” the order from time to time.  As an example, when I first devised the double elimination format, the one-time losers often faced each other again in rapid succession.  As a result, the current version incorporates a cyclic shift to keep combatants faced with new foes as long as possible.


6.  A Few Final Words

It is my hope that other groups in the kingdom and in the known world start projects similar to this.  The sense of pride and of belonging is something that I completely underestimated when I started this.  Some shire members have taken to calling it “the gossip tree,” because whenever I set it up, there are always a few people in front of it engaged in conversation.

If you are interested in starting one of these for your group, please feel free to change the designs in any way that suits you, but for one:  Make your shield blanks 6” wide, with holes on 5” centers, ½” from the top.  If we adopt this as a standard, when people from other groups visit your event, they might even bring little shields with them.   In my opinion, that would be most wonderful indeed.

Lastly, I’ve found that a good way to get other groups interested in a shield-tree projects is to make lots and lots of extra shield blanks, then give them away to anyone who will take them.  At our last Feast of Saint Pyres, we made a number of single-color blanks available, along with colored construction paper and glue.  A little scissors and paste-up work was all that was required to get two trees full of shields!


Copies of this document, along with the PowerPoint presentations, are available on my website: .



1  Sir John Tiptoft, `Ordinances, Statutes, and Rules’ in  F. H. Cripps-Day, The History of the Tournament in England (London 1918) xxvii ff.

2  appearing in R. Barber and J. Barker, Tournaments, Weidenfeld & Nicholson (New Yourk, 1889).

3 R. Barber, The Knight and Chivalry, Longman Group Ltd., (Great Britain, 1970).-

4 René D’Anjou, Oeuvres completes du roi René, ed. Comte de Quatrebarbes, Anger 1845.  English translation by Elizabeth Bennet.