Friday, August 26, 2011


This one’s for all my Anglophiles: a beginner’s guide to heraldry.

In 12th century England, men would commonly adopt a Coat of Arms: a shield-shaped household-specific emblem to identify his family in battle. Today, arms are still displayed on shields or escutcheons; heraldry is the study of Coats of Arms, the rules governing their design, and blazoning – the specific vocabulary and syntax of their description.

British heraldry accepts few tinctures on coats of arms; these tinctures divide into three groups: colours include Azure (blue), Gules (red), Purpure (purple), Sable (black), and Vert (green); furs, Ermine  (after ermine pelt) and Vair (squirrel skins); and metals, Or (gold/yellow) and Argent (silver/white). The rule of tincture forbids metals or colours to directly touch – exceptions include fur patterns and when an animal or object appears proper (with real life coloring).

The escutcheon’s field might feature patterns called variations; for example, a shield with diagonal gold and green stripes is bendy or and vert. Other variations include barry (horizontal stripes), paly (vertical stripes), chevronny (chevron stripes), chequy (checked), and lozengy (diamond checked). Similar, shield’s fields may be divided up; for example, a shield divided in fourths by a diagonal cross is party per saltire. Other divisions include party per fess (horizontal halves), pale (vertical halves), bend (diagonal halves), chief (a separated top third), cross (quarters), and pall (thirds). Lines of division need not be straight, and may be wavy, engrailed, dovetailed, or dancetty (zigzagged).

 Sometimes divisions appear on as shapes called ordinaries; for example, a red horizontal bar across a silver shield is argent, a fess gules. There are also several subordinaries. Fixed subordinaries always appear on the same spot of a shield; cantons and quarters appear in the upper corner, and bordures, orles, and tressures border the field. Mobile subordinaries are common shapes that can appear anywhere on the field: escutcheons, rondels (circles), and lozenges (rectangles) are a few examples.

As arms became prevalent, houses would adopt distinguishing symbols called charges, such as mullets (stars), annulets (rings), crescents, crosses, martlets (birds), roses, and fleur-de-lis. Often, charges are animals like lions, eagles, and griffins. Animal charges have distinct attitudes (or positions). Perhaps the most famous is a lion rampant (standing on its hind legs with claws raised), but quadrupeds might also be passant (on all fours), sejant (sitting), couchant (lying down), or dormant (sleeping). Likewise, a bird’s wings are often displayed (spread facing the viewer) and elevated (tips pointing up).

Although the escutcheon is most important, there are additional decorative features to coats of arms. Atop the shield, they’ll often be a coronet (crown) and helm decorated with mantling (colorful leaves), and atop the helm a torse (a twisted fabric band) and crest (a simplified symbol of the house).  Supporters (animals or humans) flank the shield, with a motto positioned above or below. Heraldry may seem like a lot of pointless words and work, but – when it comes to not being forgotten – people are willing to make the effort.  

 Source: 1, 2