Heraldry: Definitions And Terms

A brief look at the terms used in Heraldry and their meanings.

The design of a coat of arms consists of several parts, including the following: the escutcheon, or shield; the helm, or helmet; the crest; the motto; the mantle; the supporters; and the torse, or wreath""all discussed below, in the context of English usage. Of these parts, the escutcheon is the most important. The complete design ensemble is called an achievement of arms. The proper description of a coat of arms involves precise use of a special, colorful heraldic vocabulary that has survived, in English, from about the 13th century.

The term escutcheon is derived from the French écusson, which signified a shield with arms portrayed on it, as distinguished from a plain shield. The escutcheon is usually in the shape of a conventional shield, except for the oval-shaped arms of churchmen and the lozenge-shaped arms of ladies. To facilitate description, heralds divided the shield from top to bottom into three areas""chief, fess, and base""and from right to left (of the wearer) into dexter, middle or pale, and sinister. The shield bears various charges, or figures, represented in different colors, or tinctures.

The term tincture includes the representation of metals, colors, and furs. The two metals in common use are: or (gold) and argent (silver). Gold is shown by yellow, silver is shown by white; in black-and-white drawings or engravings, gold is represented by white stippled with fine black dots, and silver by plain white. The principal colors are gules (red), azure (blue), sable (black), vert (green), and purpure (purple). A charge emblazoned, or depicted, in the natural color of the object represented is said to be proper. The furs are ermine and vair (squirrel). Colors and furs are represented in drawings by conventional hatchings and figures.

Charges are the figures depicted on an escutcheon classified by heralds as honorable ordinaries, subordinaries, and common charges. The field, or background, of an escutcheon may be of two or more tinctures, divided by one or more partition lines. A shield divided vertically is parted, or party per pale; and a shield divided vertically and horizontally is called party per cross, or quarterly. If one of the divisions is also quartered, the original division is called a grand quarter. A shield parted per saltire (divided into four parts by two crossed diagonal lines) and per cross is called a gyronny of eight, and each segment is called a gyron. When the shield is completely divided into a number of equal parts by a pale, bend, bar, or chevron (see below), it is said to be paly, bendy, barry, or chevrony, and the number of divisions is specified, as, for example, a paly of six or and sable. A field divided by vertical and horizontal lines is called checky, and one divided by intersecting diagonal lines is called lozengy or fusilly (see below). A field strewed with an indefinite number of small charges so as to produce a pattern is said to be semé of that charge. Fretty describes a field covered with an open network of diagonal interlaced ribbons.

Honorable Ordinaries are simple geometrical figures delineated by straight lines or by partition lines of irregular forms. The straight lines include the pale, a perpendicular stripe; the fess, a horizontal bar across the middle of the escutcheon; the bar, a horizontal line; the bend, a diagonal band; and the chevron, two diagonal stripes meeting at an angle with the point up. Various crosses are important honorable ordinaries. The irregular partition lines have specific patterns, known as engrailed, invected, wavy or undy, nebuly, indented, dancetty, raguly, dovetailed, embattled or crenélé, and potented.

Subordinaries consists of the bordure, or border of the shield, is often considered as an honorable ordinary. It consists of a band encircling the shield and often bears small charges. The orle is a narrower border that does not touch the edges of the shield. The diminutive of the orle is the treasure, which is usually double and is often embellished with fleurs-de-lis.

The quarter consists of the dexter chief quarter of the shield. If the figure occupies less than a full fourth of the shield, it is called a canton; and if quarter or canton is parted per bend (diagonally), each triangle is called a gyron.

Flanches consist of the dexter and sinister flanks of the shield, cut off by curved lines. The diminutives are flasques and voiders.

The lozenge is a diamond-shaped figure with four equal sides. When a lozenge is voided, that is, represented only in outline with the tincture of the field showing inside, it is called a mascle; when it is pierced with a round opening it is called a rustre. A charge similar to the lozenge, but much narrower in relation to its height, is known as a fusil.

A small shield charged on the escutcheon is called inescutcheon; it may be charged or plain. A billet is a small rectangular charge that is about twice as high as it is wide.

Among the charges considered by some to be subordinaries and by others to be common charges are the pall and roundle. Palls are Y-shaped charges, representing the insignia conferred by the pope on the archbishops. Roundles are circular charges, distinguished by different names according to their tinctures: When of gold, they are called bezants; of silver, plates; of red, torteaux; of blue, hurts; of purple, golps; of green, pommes; and of black, pellets or ogresses. A voided roundle is an annulet.

Common charges are conventional representations of familiar objects that sometimes portray the history or character of the individual or family. They are a pun on the family name; these are known as canting arms. One of the most important of such charges is the lion. An early armorial representation of the lion is on the seal (circa 1164) of Philip I, duke of Flanders. Later it was adopted by the rulers of England, Scotland, and other European states. The earliest position of the heraldic lion was rampant, that is, erect and facing right and with only one foot on the ground. Salient is similar to rampant, except that both hind feet are on the ground. A beast of prey walking to the right is passant, and a beast of the chase, as a stag, is trippant. A crouching beast is couchant if the head is raised, and dormant if the head is resting on the forepaws. When looking toward the observer the beast is called gardant, and when looking backward, regardant. Two lions rampant placed face to face are called combatant, and back to back, addossé. Lions, as well as other animals, are often crowned or gorged (collared) with a torse or coronet.

Other animals used as heraldic charges include the bear, bull, boar, deer, goat, dog, fox, horse, and hedgehog, and occasionally the elephant, camel, mole, ape, cat, and mouse. Common birds are the eagle and the falcon. Representations of mythical beasts such as the griffin, unicorn, dragon, and basilisk are also used.

Many charges represent articles connected with the occupation or position of the individual, such as swords, bows and arrows, helmets, battle-axes, and lance heads for knights; and miters and crosiers for bishops and abbots. The sun surrounded by rays is said to be "in his splendor" and is usually depicted as having a human face. The moon is represented by a crescent with cusps pointing upward; if the cusps point toward dexter, it is called an increscent, if toward sinister, a decrescent. The five-pointed star is seldom used; the conventional star, the estoile, is shown with six wavy rays.

An example of an external ornament is the helm, the natural accompaniment of the shield in representing a warrior, was added to arms before the beginning of the 14th century. After the end of the 16th century, its form and position were modified in English heraldry to indicate the rank of the bearer; thus, helmets of knights and princes are portrayed full faced, and those of peers and gentlemen, in profile.

The crest is the most ancient of armorial bearings. It was worn by the warrior chiefs of Greek and Roman antiquity, and served not only as a mark of rank but also as a conspicuous emblem in battle, around which soldiers might rally. In heraldry the crest is represented attached to the top of the helmet; its base is surrounded by a wreath, a circlet of twisted ribbons tinctured of the principal metal and colors of the shield.

The motto, originally the war cry of the bearer, is now a phrase or sentence alluding to the family, the arms, or the crest. It is placed in a scroll above the crest or below the shield.

The mantle originally was a representation of the piece of cloth that protected the helmet from the heat of the sun. It became more decorative and was usually shown in the principal colors of the shield.

The supporters are figures, usually people or animals, placed on each side of the shield. They were originally mere decoration but later came to indicate the head of a distinguished family.

The wreath, coronet, and miter are adjuncts of the arms of persons entitled to wear them. Any collar or badge of an order to which the bearer may have a right is also properly portrayed in the achievement. The collar surrounds the shield; badges hang from it.

In tournaments during the Middle Ages, whenever an unknown knight arrived, it was the duty of the herald to blasen (M.E., "blow") a trumpet for attention, and then describes to the assemblage the bearings on the escutcheon of the knight. From this practice the term blazonry came to designate the accurate and specific description of a coat of arms.

In describing an achievement of arms, the name of the person, domain, or institution bearing the arms is given first. The blazoning of the escutcheon is then given, describing the field first, with specification of its tinctures and the shape and direction of its partition lines. The description of the charges follows, starting with the principal charge, which is assumed to be in the center of the shield unless otherwise specified. In general, ordinaries are given first. For example, the coat of arms of France is described as ancient, azure, semé of fleurs-de-lis, or; and that of the Erskine family as argent, a pale, sable.

When two identical charges are mentioned, they are placed in pale, that is, in a vertical line, unless otherwise specified; three are placed in pile, two above and one below. An ordinary may debruise (overlie and partly hide) a charge of the field; in such case the charge is mentioned first. By heraldic convention, repetition is avoided: When a tincture recurs in a description, the phrase "of the first" or "of the second" (tincture mentioned) or "of the field" is substituted; to avoid repetition of a number, the phrase "as many" is used. Examples are as follows: Anglesey, sable, on a cross engrailed between four eagles displayed, argent, five lions passant gardant, of the field; Leith, or, a cross crosslet fitchy, sable, between three crescents in chief (in the upper part of the field), and as many lozenges in base, gules.

Differencing From the earliest days of heraldry, only the head of a family has the right to inherit unchanged the entire paternal arms; junior branches of the family difference their arms by changing certain tinctures, or by substituting charges, as three mullets for three billets.

Marshaling of Arms is the proper arrangement of arms in an escutcheon is called marshaling of arms. In early heraldry it was the practice to display no more than one coat of arms on an escutcheon. If, however, the wife were an heiress (that is, without brothers and therefore entitled to inherit the paternal arms), the arms of husband and wife were sometimes displayed side by side on separate escutcheons. This practice was followed by dimidiation, in which both shields were parted per pale, and the dexter half of one was joined to the sinister half of the other. Dimidiation was followed, in turn, by impaling, in which both coats were shown entire in the halves of a shield parted per pale.

The blazoning of different coats on a shield divided both horizontally and vertically is called quartering; the first quartering known is that of the domains of Castile and León about 1270. The divisions of the shield are called quarters and are numbered horizontally from dexter chief to sinister base. Sovereigns quarter their shields to show dominion, sometimes showing more than 20 coats in a single escutcheon. The commonest reason for quartering, however, is to indicate descent from heiresses who have married into the family. In the case of a single quartering, the paternal arms are shown in the first and fourth quarters, and the maternal arms in the second and third. The third and fourth quarters may, after several generations, be occupied by the arms of a second and third heiress. When the coat of the heiress is already quartered, it is placed entire in the appropriate quarter, which is then called a grand quarter. Although the arms of some European families have up to 30 coats marshaled into an escutcheon, the practice in British heraldry is to select only the most important.

A shield begins first with its base material. Generally gold or silver. It is not uncommon today for gold paint to be used. These two colors are represented by yellow and white. The terms for gold and silver came from French words--or (gold) and argent (silver). After these base colors we have five other colors: gules (red), azure (blue), sable (black), vert (green), and purpure (purple).

Next are the objects which can be of any color, but still subject to some rules. Then the furs, which are mainly: ermine, and vair with certain variations on each. Next, come the charges, then other miscellaneous objects.

Dexter is the left-hand side of a shield, unless you are carrying the shield, and then it is the right-hand side. Chief is an ordinary (bars, bands, stipes, etc.) covering the top third of the shield.Canton is as section of the shield usually within the dexter chief.Sinister means left & would be the left-hand side as you are carrying the shield or the right-hand side as you look at it. Flank is the right or left side of anything. Base is the bottom part of the shield. Honor point is a point virtually in the center of the chief point and center point. Navel point is a point virtually in the center of the base point and sinister point. Fesse is a wide horizontal stripe going across the center of the shield. Pole is a vertical stripe going top to bottom in the center of the shield and Tierce is a third.






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