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Heraldry is the knowledge and art of describing coats of arms, also referred to as achievements or armorial bearings. Its origins are in the need to distinguish participants in battles or jousts and to describe the various devices they carried or painted on their shields.

However it is important to note that a given coat of arms is defined by a written description (which is given in heraldic language, called "blazon"), not by a picture. A given coat of arms may be drawn in many different ways, all considered equivalent, just as the letter "A" may be printed in many different fonts while still being the same letter. For example, almost invariably the shape of the shield is immaterial and different artists can depict the same coat of arms on many different shapes of shield.

A description of a coat of arms is called a blazon. To draw it is to emblazon it. To ensure that the pictures people draw after reading the descriptions are accurate, and reasonably alike, blazons follow a set of rules. The first thing the blazon describes is the tincture (colour) of the field (background) (though in some cases of "landscape heraldry" all or part of the field is some sort of landscape), and then it describes the placement and tinctures of the different charges (objects) on the shield. The charges on a shield are described from the top to the base, from dexter to sinister. Dexter ("right" in Latin) is the left side of the shield, and sinister ("left") is the right, as seen by the viewer. The reason for this is that they refer to the shield-bearer's point of view, not the observer's.

There are no strict definitions of the shades of colours used in Heraldry.

The word "crest" is commonly used to refer to a coat of arms. However, in heraldry, a crest is just one component of a coat of arms. In a complete depiction of a coat of arms, the crest is a design affixed to the helmet. However, crests can also be used on their own; this is particularly useful when there is insufficient space to display the entire coat of arms.

Table of contents
1 Shield and lozenge
2 Tinctures
3 Divisions of the field
4 Charges
5 Blazons
6 Supporters and other additions
7 Besides the shield
8 Modern heraldry
9 See also
10 External links

Shield and lozenge

Traditionally, as women did not go to war they would not have a shield. Instead their coats of arms would be shown on a lozenge usually a square standing on one of its corners. As women may now serve in the armed forces in a number of countries, some armigerous women prefer to use a shield anyway. A parallel usage for noncombatant clergymen could be found sometimes on the European continent, with the occasional placement of arms on a cartouche (an oval-shaped vehicle for their display).

Very rarely and almost invariably in non-European contexts, such as the arms of Nunavut and of the former Republic of Bophuthatswana specific shapes of shield are specified in the blazon (and the specific type of shield is sometimes followed to the extent, as in the arms of Gauteng, that structures in the shield [in that case "shield thongs"] function as charges).

The arms of The Lady Thatcher and the late Sir Denis Thatcher, Bt
A lozenge, for "political battle"A shield, for "real" battle


The colours used in heraldry are referred to as tinctures. See Tincture (heraldry) for a full description.

Divisions of the field

The field can be divided into more than one colour. See Divisions of the field.


Charges can be animals, objects or geometric constructs (ordinaries).

Common animals are lions, leopards, martlets, eagles, gryphons, fish, boars or dolphins. There are dragons and unicorns as well, but they are not nearly as common as most people suppose. The default position of an animal is looking to the left. Animals are found in various different positions – a flying martlet is a martlet volant, a swimming dolphin is a dolphin naiant, and a walking lion is a lion passant. Other words for positions are rampant (on hind legs), salient (leaping), sejant (sitting) and gardant (looking at the viewer). There are humans as well, although they are unusual, like wild men or Saracens. If you show only the head of an animal, cut off at the neck, it is an 's head couped if the cut is straight, and erased if it looks as if the animal's head has been ripped off.

Common objects are escallops (shells), crosses, mullets (a conventional five-pointed star shape, as on the American flag, which in fact represent spurs), crescents, bugle-horns, water-bougets, gauntlets and different kinds of trees, flowers, leaves, and other plants. Circles are generally called roundels, but in England instead of being described a roundel vert, they have different names depending on colour: Bezants if they are golden, plates if silver, torteaux if red, hurts if blue, pellets or ogresses if black, pommes if green, oranges if orange (this should be distinguished from natural oranges) and guzes if sanguine. A roundel that is barry wavy argent and azure is called a fountain.

Ordinaries (sometimes called "honourable ordinaries") are almost like partitions, but are handled like objects. Though there is much debate as to exactly which geometrical charges consitute ordinaries, certain ones are agreed on by everyone.

A pale is a vertical charge starting from the top of the shield, ending at the bottom, and wide as a third of the shield's width. (The "Canadian pale", identical to the pale but taking up one-half the sheild's width, was invented in 1964 by Conrad Swan, retired Garter King of Arms)[1]; it can be seen in the arms of Rehder.[1]

A fess is the same thing, only horizontal.

There are also bends, saltires, flaunches and crosses, as well as chiefs, and chevrons.

A chief is a fess situated in the upper third of the shield. It can be associated with the fillet, a quite narrow horizontal band running along the bottom of the chief,[1] although it can be difficult if not impossible sometimes to distinguish between a fillet and a chief fimbriated, as the fimbriation of a chief occurs only along the lower line. The fillet is sometimes inaccurately described as a diminutive of the chief, but the chief has no diminutive. It is important to note that a chief "enhanced" (which gives it a narrower appearance), as in the arms of Martin F. J. Matthews[1], is not a diminutive.

Probert[1], Guillim[1] and others say that if one chief is "surmounted of another" (one chief is charged on another chief) it will have the appearance of a chief divided by a line running along the upper part of the "chief". The rare chief couped is a chief that falls short of reaching the dexter and sinister sides of the shield; the representation of Stonehenge in [the arms of Sir Cecil Chubb], "the Baronet who owned Stonehenge and gifted it to the nation", show an example.[1] Chiefs are more commonly seen, though not blazoned as, couped when within a tressure.[1]

A chevron looks like a saw's tooth, arching from the middle of the left side of the shield to the middle of the right.

A bordure is just that, a border around the shield. A bordure separated from the outside of the shield, which looks like a shield with another shield cut out of it, is an orle. Confusingly, when a number of charges (by default, eight) are arranged in the position a bordure (not an orle) would be in they are said to be "in orle".

A quarter is the top left (dexter chief in heraldry) quarter of the shield; this is the default position. The top right quarter is a sinister quarter. The pall is a Y-shaped charge throughout the field, common to Scotland.

There are diminutives of charges as well.

The diminutive of the pale is the pallet and the diminutive of the fess is the bar. (The diminutive of the bar is the barrulet; barrulets are never borne singly. Bars are likewise rarely if ever borne singly, though the arms of Scheffeld are amazingly blazoned as having one-and-a-half bars.[1]) Barry of means that the background is divided into that number of horizontal stripes. There are diminutives of most partitions, like bendy of or paly of. It should be noted that in order to be described as "barry" or "paly" there must be an even number of stripes, otherwise it is a field of x tincture and y pallets or bars. Thus the shield of the United States of America, though officially described as "Paly of thirteen argent and gules, a chief azure", is no such thing; it is "Argent, six pallets gules and a chief azure".

The diminutive of the bend sinister is the scarpe.

The diminutive of the chevron is the chevronel.

The diminutive of the quarter is the canton, a square occupying, in theory, the upper left third of the shield. In theory a canton is never an original part of the shield, but some form of later addition, but this is not true in practice. Another charge can be completely hidden by the canton (sometimes, if the charge is not part of a predictable pattern of like charges laid out elsewhere on the shield, making it impossible to correctly blazon the shield); the charge so hidden is then called "absconded". (A highly unusual example of a quarter absconding charges can be seen when Robert Stewart, Lord of Lorn marshalled his arms with those of Lorn: "Or a fess chequy of four tracts Azure and Argent between two buckles in chief and a garb in base of the Second; a sinister quarter Or bearing a lymphad Sable with sail set absconding one of the buckles and part of the fess; in the dexter base another quarter of the same absconding part of the fess".[1]) When a shield contains both a fess and canton they are always shown in their theoretical size, and with no dividing line between them; as they appear to be one continuous thing, blazoning a shield with a fess and canton can be confusing for the novice. The canton can be borne sinister (that is, on the upper right, and unless blazoned "a canton sinister" the canton is dexter), but this rarely happens.

A charge "in canton" is located in the position in which a canton would be.

The diminutive of the canton is the chequer of the chequy field (but this never occurs alone).

An escutcheon is a shield; it is usually shown in the shape of the larger shield it is on. An orle is a voided escutcheon.

If you put a mullet on a bend, the bend "is charged with" the mullet.

Any type of charge, but usually ordinaries and subordinaries, can be voided; without further description, this means that the charge has been "emptied" with a hole in the shape of the charge revealing the field behind it, and only a border has been left. It is possible, however, though highly unusual, that the voiding, the hole, is of a different tincture than the field behind the charge, which tincutre must then be specified; for example, "Argent, a mullet gules, voided or". It is also possible that the voiding is of a different shape than the voided charge, as in the arms of Newton Technical High School in South Africa: "Quarterly gules and sable; a lozenge or voided of a quatrefoil; at its centre a cog wheel argent; the whole within a border or".

Special charges known as differences may distinguish otherwise similar blazons; these often indicate "cadency", or what number son owns the shield, to distinguish him from other sons and the father.


Full descriptions of shields range in complexity. The well-known coat of Brittany, for example, is simply Ermine. More complex examples follow:

Argent, on a fess azure between in chief two anchors crossed in saltire sable and in base a lion passant gules a fleur-de-lis Or.

Sable, two swords crossed in saltire argent, between four fleurs-de-lis Or, all contained within a bordure purpure.

Party per fess argent and sable, in chief a falcon close vert, in base a plate charged with a fleur-de-lis vert.

There are, of course, more complicated designs:

Party per fess: The chief Argent, charged with five bezants, the centre bezant charged in chief with a latin cross of the field, on a canton in sinister base of the first, a bucket: The base party per pale Azure and Argent, the dexter side charged with three rings conjoined at their centres in pairle, the sinister side charged with a bend sinister Azure bearing three quatrefoil of the field. Behind the shield a pastoral staff. The shield contained within a cartouche and ensigned with an ecclesiastical hat supporting six tassels on either side of the shield.

Supporters and other additions

, with parts labelled]]

An armiger may be entitled, depending upon their rank to several other items.

Besides the shield

In addition to the shield, most coats of arms include a crest, placed above the shield, and a motto, usually placed below it.

Other items may be added to the coat, such as a helmet (decorated with mantling) in a variety of meaningful postures and designs; supporters on either side of the shield and the compartment on which they usually stand; and a variety of medals, ribbons, and other decorations. These items are often granted as special honours by the sovereign.

Modern heraldry

Heraldry is still practised today, especially in monarchies such as the United Kingdom. Institutions, companies, and members of the public may obtain officially recognized coats of arms from governmental heraldic authorities. This typically has the force of a registered trademark. The first corporate coat of arms was probably granted to the Drapers' Company of the City of London in 1438, see Coat of Arms of The Drapers Company

However, many modern "heraldic" designs are not registered with heraldic authorities, and do not follow the rules of heraldic design at all.

Some people who are interested in heraldry as a hobby participate in the Society for Creative Anachronism and other such medieval revivals, or in micronationalism. For many more people, heraldry is seen as a part of their national, and even personal, heritage, as well as being a manifestation of civic and national pride.

See also

External links



Heraldry Generating Software