Introduction to heraldry

What is heraldry?

It is the art and science of devising, displaying, and granting armorial insignia and of tracing and recording genealogies – and it has a language of its own.

In Western Europe heraldic designs are found in general application from the second quarter of the 12th century.  The use of heraldic symbols as a means of identification spread throughout the European nobility in the 13th century.  These symbols, which originated as identification devices on flags and shields, are called armorial bearings.  Strictly defined, heraldry denotes that which pertains to the office and duty of a herald; that part of his work dealing with armorial bearings is properly termed armory.  But in general usage heraldry has come to mean the same as armory.

Heraldry originated when most people were illiterate but could easily recognize a bold, striking, and simple design. The use of heraldry in medieval warfare enabled combatants to distinguish one mail-clad knight from another and thus to distinguish between friend and foe. Thus, simplicity was the principal characteristic of medieval heraldry.  Somewhat ironic when one considers the complexity of some of today’s designs!

Armorial bearings are generally referred to more briefly as armsor as a coat of arms, a term derived from the surcoat of silk or linen worn over the armour to keep off the rays of the sun and to delay the formation of rust on the armour.  The surcoat was a waistcoat-like garment on which were shown the same heraldic insignia as on the shield.

Arms are hereditary; all male descendants of the first person to whom they were granted bear the arms.  There is no such thing as a 'coat of arms for a surname'.  Many people of the same surname will often be entitled to completely different coats of arms, and many of that surname will be entitled to no coat of arms.  Coats of arms belong to individuals.  For any person to have a right to a coat of arms they must either have had it granted to them or be descended in the legitimate male line from a person to whom arms were granted or confirmed in the past.

People can have two coats of arms.  Related kin have been known to register the same arms, but with an amendment to the charges or an alternative crest in order to differentiate their line.

In heraldics, any drawing corresponding to the definition is correct as long as a herald can recognise it.

The elements of full armorial achievement

The term achievement, properly armorial achievement, means the whole display.  The achievement for The O’Donoghue Mór is shown below.

The shield: The shield is the essential part of an armorial achievement; without it there can be no heraldic display. In the full armorial achievement, the shield is augmented by the helmet, crest, mantling, wreath, motto, (and sometimes crown, compartment (base) and supporters).

Every other object in a full heraldic achievement is dependent upon the shield. There can be, and quite often is, a coat of arms consisting solely of a shield without any other object, such as a crest.

The helmet: On top of the shield is placed the helmet, upon which the crest is fastened by a wreath, coronet, or chapeau (hat). Originally everything in heraldry was strictly utilitarian. As armorial bearings were used with armour, there had to be a helmet.  In later centuries rules for the depiction of the helmet were elaborated to show the rank of the bearer; some helmets were displayed in profile and some in full face, with different metals and accoutrements, to indicate status.  The shape of the helmet has varied greatly in heraldic representation.

The crest: A crest is the object placed on top of the helmet and bound to it by what is known as a ‘wreath of the colours’, a twist of cloth (part of the mantling) of the two principal colours of the arms.  

The mantling: From the helmet hangs the mantling, or lambrequin. When worn, this was made of linen or other cloth and performed the useful function of shielding the wearer from the sun’s rays; it also served to snare or deflect sword cuts. The mantling, or mantle, is painted with the principal colour of the arms, while its lining is of the principal metal.

The motto: Myths have grown around mottoes—time and again, a phrase or short sentence that began life as an inspiration or exhortation acquired a fantastic explanation.  Most of these can be dismissed.  Some mottoes are old war cries.  Others are puns on the owner’s name or title.   French and Latin are the most popular languages, but Gaelic and Greek also appear.

A motto was not a part of the arms traditionally, and can be varied in most countries at the owner’s pleasure.  It is, however, included in a modern grant of arms.  More than one motto may be used by the same family, and many mottoes are used by more than one family.  It appears beneath the shield and always on a scroll.

The language of heraldry

The language of heraldry looks strange and needs study.  Much heraldic terminology is a quasi-French, archaic language.  In the Middle Ages the French language was used by the ruling class in much of western Europe, so it was not unnatural that heraldic terms should be French.  In England by about 1400, English words usually were used in preference.  Much modern heraldic terminology, however, is so obscure that it seems purposely designed to puzzle the uninitiated.

The terms dexter and sinister mean merely ‘right’ and ‘left’.  A shield is understood to be as if held by a user whom the beholder is facing. Thus the side of the shield facing the beholder’s left is the dexter, or right-hand side, and that opposite it is the sinister, or left-hand side.

The blazon is the description of the arms in heraldic language.

The field

In a blazon of the arms, their field, or background, appears first.  It may be one of the metals or (gold) or argent (silver), one of the colours gules (red), azure (blue), vert (green), purpure (purple), or sable (black), or one of the furs ermine (a white field with black spots), ermines (a black field with white spots), erminois (gold field with black spots), pean (black field with gold spots), or vair (alternating blue and white figures mimicking the fur of a species of squirrel).  Gold and silver may be represented by yellow and white.

This background layer may be composed of a mixture of metals, colours, and furs. It may be divided by a line – straight, curved, or jagged – and have perhaps silver on one side of the line and red on the other or blue on one side and ermine on the other. A field of one tincture bearing a single charge of, for example, a lion rampant could be blazoned argent a lion rampant azure, meaning a silver field on which is placed a blue lion standing on one hind leg with its forepaws raised and its head in profile.

The charges – ordinaries

The field is said to be ‘charged’ with an object.  Heraldic objects are of a large and increasing variety; as more arms are devised, new objects appear as.  Charges have been divided into two classes: the honourable ordinaries and other geometric shapes that belong to their subdivision the subordinaries, and what might be described as the other charges.  It is best to recognize immediately that the distinction is not of much more than academic interest save in one respect – the ordinaries are the rectilinear figures that have precedence in blazon.  So, for example, if a blue shield has a thick golden horizontal strip across its centre and two silver stars above the strip and one below it, the blazon would read azure a fess or between three mullets argent and not azure three mullets argent 2 and 1 a fess or. The fess is an honourable ordinary; the adjective alludes to the ordinary’s precedence, the noun to its geometric simplicity.

The honourable ordinaries and subordinaries may be generally agreed as numbering about 20. Among them are: the chief, being the top third of the shield; the pale, a third of the shield, drawn perpendicularly through the centre; the bend, a third of the shield, drawn from the dexter chief to sinister base (when drawn from the dexter base to sinister chief, it is a bend sinister); the fess, a third drawn horizontally and taking up the centre of the shield; and the chevron, resembling an inverted stripe in the rank badge of a non-commissioned officer.

A field is said to be powdered or semé when strewn with other or minor charges; when charged with drops of liquid, it is gutté.  Partition lines divide the shield.  The most common ones are straight.  Impalement means the division of the shield into two equal parts by a straight line from the top to bottom. This method is used to show the arms of husband and wife, for example; the dexter half of the husband’s arms are placed to dexter and the sinister half of the wife’s arms are placed to sinister.  The shield is divided into four quarters when one coat of arms is quartered with another, as when the children of an heraldic heiress use their mother’s arms with their father’s.
Other divisions of a shield are: party per pale (or, simply, per pale), division of the field into two equal parts by a perpendicular line (this resembles the impalement just mentioned but does not serve the same purpose of combining arms); party per fess, division into two equal parts by a horizontal line; party per bend; party per chevron; party per saltire; and gyronny of eight. When the partition lines are not straight, they can be of several varieties.

Charges – the others

The scope for the other charges is large, comprising animals, birds, and monsters, human bodies and human parts, reptiles, and an unending list of inanimate objects.  These charges are symbolic and have meanings that define the characteristics the arms bearer might like to be seen to have.

Legalities (to the best of my knowledge and belief!)

The coat of arms definitions or blazons are public domains in almost all cases. This corresponds to a long standing tradition.  The fundamental reason is that definitions are not subject to intellectual property rights.

Some coat of arms definitions claim copyright, but this is very rare. Furthermore, there is little chance for such a claim to stand in court if the claim is indeed on the definition part ;whereas if the claim is made on the original representation, it is obviously.  This means that anybody can draw a new coat of arms from a definition without copyright constraints: the ‘derivative work’ notion simply does not apply in that case.

This also means that a coat of arms inspired from another (found on the net), with the same composition, but with a different interpretation, is not a ‘derivative work’: When a new coat of arms picture is made, it is a ‘derivative’ of the public domain description, not of the website's (copyrighted) image, hence the copyright regime is simply that of a self-made picture.

Saying that the coat of arms definition is public domain does not mean that a given representation is, nor that derivative works are not possible. Generally speaking, the author's right on a coat of arms is attached to the artist that draws a given representation, not to the coat of arms definition (the blazoning). Therefore, a coat of arms can be freely drawn after a model (without involving derivative rights), but a given picture ‘found on the internet’ cannot be uploaded: it must be redrawn.

Sources and acknowledgements:
Gillespie, Fergus – Chief Herald of Ireland

Specific research interests