Heraldry is the knowledge and art of describing coats of arms, also referred to as achievements or armorial bearings.

However it is important to note that a given coat of arms is defined by a written description (which is given in heraldic language, sometimes 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, though 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. There are also no strict definition of the shades of colours used in Heraldry.

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), 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. The reason for this is that they refer to the shield-bearer's point of view, not the observer's.

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 Tinctures
2 Divisions of the field
3 Charges
4 Blazons
5 Besides the shield
6 Modern heraldry
7 See also:
8 External links


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.

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 and pommes if green. 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]

A fess is the same thing, only horizontal.

There are also bends, saltires 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. The fillet is sometimes inaccurately described as a diminutive of the chief, but the chief has no 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." 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.

Coat of Arms of Saskatchewan, with parts labelled

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 practiced 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.

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

There are also many people who are interested in heraldry as a hobby; many of them participate in the Society for Creative Anachronism and other such medieval revivals, not to mention micronationalism.

See also:

External links



Heraldry Generating Software