About Heraldry

Defending Sovereign, Church, and Country from the Forces of Darkness

Heraldry is the system for creating, granting, and governing armorial designs. These began as artwork displayed by armored warriors on shields, surcoats, tabards, and banners to identify themselves on the field of combat. They were personal designs unique to each person, and usually created by that person. If anyone else tried to use them, it was considered a crime called usurpation and treated like identity theft would be today; in essence, the usurper would be trying to impersonate another warrior.

The purpose of heraldry is to produce coats of arms, also known as armorial bearings, armorial devices, heraldic devices, or simply arms. A coat of arms is a heraldic design placed on an escutcheon or shield. The shield can in turn form the central part of a full heraldic achievement along with supporters, a crest, and a motto, which is what many people think is a coat of arms.

Traditionally, the right to bear arms was granted to individual persons, not families; such a person was called an armiger. After all, it would defeat the original purpose of having arms if everyone in the same family used the same design, so instead each person would have his own unique heraldic device. That's why a family name can have more than one coat of arms associated with it. In time, however, the martial nature of heraldic designs gave way to them becoming a form of corporate identity, at which point they became part of the inheritable property of the warrior, along with his lands and titles. While still used for identification, they became more like family logos. At that time, authoritative governing bodies arose to regulate heraldic designs and settle disputes over ownership, such as the College of Arms for England and Wales. Those bodies took for themselves the power to grant designs so as to better control their use. After that, no one could display a design without permission from one of these bodies.

However, the right to bear arms was not granted to just anyone. Arms were, and still are, only granted for significant service or achievement, or upon being knighted or elevated to the peerage. Arms can also be granted if a person can show he is descended from an armiger. Also, arms were only granted to men, since traditionally only men were warriors. With the exception of monarchs, women were granted arms only under the most extraordinary circumstances, though this has changed somewhat in more modern times.

When arms became inheritable, the regulating bodies allowed an armiger to let the members of his immediate family use his arms rather than require they all have unique designs, which simplified matters considerably. This included his wife, daughters, and granddaughters as well as his sons and grandsons, since women could bear their husbands' or fathers' arms. However, the women couldn't display their arms on a shield; they had to use a lozenge, a cartouche, a rhombus, or an oval. Nor could they use all of the features of a heraldic achievement (see below). As well, all of the other family members had to make a small change to their arms to distinguish them from those of the armiger, usually a small design element known as a mark of cadency. These marks were standardized so that their presence would indicate whether the child was the eldest son or the third daughter or whatever.

This may have led to the modern misconception that a coat of arms belongs to the entire family, such that anyone with the same last name can use the arms as his or her own. This is not true. There is no such thing as a family coat of arms. Even after they became hereditary, arms were still considered to be personal rather than family property. The distinction that needs to be made is, only the direct descendents of the original armiger may display the arms as their own, and even then, only the descendents through the male lines. Despite the fact that an armiger's daughters can bear his arms, only his sons can pass those arms to their children; the daughters have no such right. The only exception to this is when an armiger has no sons or they all die without issue. In that case his daughters become heraldic heiresses and they may pass their father's arms on to their children, but only if their husbands have arms of their own, and only by being combined with their husbands bearings.

In any event, in countries where heraldry is regulated, the bearing of arms by someone who is is not entitled to do so is still a crime. Though it is seldom enforced, it can be punishable by a fine or even imprisonment.

Also, technically only one person in each generation can bear the unaltered arms of the original armiger. All the others can only bear arms that have been changed in some small way through cadency. As such, the design of the arms would evolve in different ways for each line of descent, leading to a great deal of variations over time. However, this is no longer strictly enforced, even in countries that still regulate heraldry.

These are the elements of a coat of arms:

  • The design of the shape of the shield is at the discretion of the heraldic artist, however, the choice of shape is often dictated by tradition, for example:
    • a shield for men
    • a lozenge for women
    • a cartouche or oval for clergy
    • a roundel for indigenous peoples
  • The cardinal points are labeled Chief (top), Base (bottom), Dexter (right), and Sinister (left); all other points, with three exceptions, are labeled in relation to these points
  • Field; the background of the device, composed of one or more tinctures (colours and metals) or furs; it can be divided or consist of a variegated pattern
  • Ordinary; a geometric shape that extends from one side of the field to the other, such as a cross, pale fess, bend, or chevron; subordinaries are smaller ordinaries that are placed in specific locations on the field
  • Charge; an emblem or device placed on the field; these can be literally anything, from simple shapes to images of animals, plants, and people; their design is generally stylized and they usually have some symbolic meaning, but the meanings of charges can change over time

The placement of dexter and sinister may seem backward, but it isn't. The reason is because the designation of left and right is determined by how a shield is held. When a warrior holds his shield in combat, the design painted on it is facing his opponent. As such, the right side of the design in this orientation looks like it's on the left side of the shield as the opponent sees it. This can be confusing, but essentially it is a traditional convention, so it doesn't really matter how the shield is oriented; dexter will always be on the left of the design as it is being viewed and sinister will always be on the right.

These are the elements of a full heraldic achievement:

  • Shield; the central feature, bearing the coat of arms; the design is unique to each armiger, but the shield shape is left to the artist's discretion
  • Helm; the helmet of an armored warrior; originally, there were different designs for each level of society, but anymore the design is left to the artist's discretion [not granted to women]
  • Mantling; a representation of the drape covering an armored warrior's helmet to protect him from the elements; the design is left to the artist's discretion but the colors used are the primary tinctures of the arms [not granted to women]
  • Coronet; a crown indicating the armiger is a Peer or nobleman; a different design is used for each title [granted only to Peers]
  • Torse; a twisted roll of fabric from which the mantling hangs; the colors used are the primary tinctures of the arms [not granted to women]
  • Crest; a representation of the ornament often worn by a knight attached to the top of his helmet; the design is unique to each armiger [not granted to women]
  • Supporters; elements that stand on either side of the shield and hold it up; the design is unique for each achievement, but hereditary supporters can be used with multiple shield designs [granted only to Peers, Knights of the Garter or Thistle, and Knights Grand Cross of the Bath, St. Michael and St. George, the Royal Victorian Order, and the British Empire]
  • Compartment; the base on which the supporters stand; this may or may not be described in the grant of arms; if it isn't, then the design is left to the artist's discretion
  • Order; a visual image of the badge of the armiger's order of chivalry or merit, if he has been awarded one
  • Motto; the personal slogan of the armiger; the design of the scroll is left to the artist's discretion

Only the shield, supporters, crest, and motto are required to achieve a heraldic achievement, and are generally the only items described in a grant of arms. The remaining elements are included at the discretion of the artist designing the achievement, but he or she will generally follow tradition. If any of them require a specific design, a description will be included in the grant.

The visual image of a coat of arms is called an emblazon, while the written description is called a blazon. A blazon needs to be very specific and must use a special vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, but the emblazon can show a great deal of latitude in style and design, as long as the elements in the blazon are still present. Depending upon the complexity of the arms, a blazon can be as simple as a single word or as complex as a whole paragraph describing multiple arms in a single escutcheon.

Heraldic devices are not limited to arms. They can include:

  • Crests; a design based on the crest of a heraldic achievement, used to indicate ownership by, allegiance to, or association with an armiger; they can also be used as a form of signature, calling card, or logo
  • Badges; similar to crests, but often using no elements from the arms at all, or using different forms of those elements; they can be used for the same purposes as crests, but they can also used as a livery badge or as part of special collars
  • Flags; these come in four basic forms:
    • Pennons; essentially a pennant charged with a heraldic crest or badge; usually very simple in design
    • Banners; square or oblong, bearing the full coat of arms as it would appear on the shield
    • Gonfalones; essentially a banner that is hung vertically rather than flown horizontally
    • Standards; a long, tapering flag, either pointed or swallow-tailed, charged with a crest or badge; usually very ornate
  • Seals; devices used to create impressions in wax or paper for authentification or signature

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