Heraldry - A Brief Guide

The object of heraldry is primarily to distinguish a person by means of clearly recognisable symbols.  Originally it fulfilled this function in both war and peace.  In the military system founded by William the Conqueror, and continued throughout the Middle Ages, based on feudal tenure, it was essential that every leader should be clearly recognisable by his retainers.  As steel armour developed, some outward symbol of his identity became indispensable.  It was also necessary that this should be easily distinguished at a distance.  Hence the necessity arose for the heraldic convention that colour must not be placed on colour, nor metal on metal. Seals also carried the heraldic insignia.

ShieldsIn times of peace, apart from its use in the tournaments then so commonly held, early heraldry was invaluable to identify the signatory to a deed or document.  It was no doubt simpler in those days to affix your seal to a document than to sign it.

The earliest arms were, as might be expected, simple coats and consist largely of what are called “Ordinaries” - the bend, fess, pale, chevron, cross, saltire, pile and chief - or of a plain shield with some simple charge upon it.

Almost any object may be used as a charge in heraldry, but those charges which portrayed power and ferocity, and the various attributes of skill and endurance to which the bearers of arms aspired, were early favourites.  Thus the lion, the king of beasts, and the eagle, the greatest bird of prey, figure largely.  Fabulous monsters also, such as the griffin, the dragon, were early inhabitants of the heraldic menagerie.

The colours employed in heraldry are few in number, and are colours easily distinguished at a distance.  The language of heraldry was adopted at a time when Norman French was in general use.  In terms of heraldry the colours are gules (red), azure (blue), sable (black), vert (green) and purpure (purple).  The metals are or (gold) and argent (silver), and the furs, ermine (white with black spots), ermines (the reverse of ermine), erminois (gold with black spots), pean (black with gold spots) and vair (small bell-like shapes of alternating blue and white).

As the science and practice of heraldry developed, it soon came to be realised that more than one coat could be incorporated in the same shield.  It was natural that a man should desire to display the arms of his wife as well as his own, and about the end of the thirteenth century you find this effected by dividing the shield into two halves by a vertical line down the middle (“per pale”) and placing on the left - or dexter side - the arms of the husband and on the right - or sinister side - the arms of the wife.  The quartering of arms has an origin of about the same date as impalement.

CadencyThe original object of heraldry being to distinguish one person from another, it was obviously necessary that no two persons should bear the same arms, even if they were of the same family.  From early times junior members of a family may be found differencing their arms by some change, whether merely of tinctures, or by the addition of ordinaries or charges to their paternal coat.  These marks of cadency are shown on the right in order of birth.

Crests and supporters are accessories to a coat of arms.  The crest was worn on the helmet of the knight and should properly be shown on a helmet, to which it is attached by a wreath, originally probably of twisted silk, now generally composed of two colours, the principal metal and colour of the arms.

Supporters probably had their origin in the figures of animals introduced by the engravers of seals into the vacant spaces between the shield and its circular setting.  Supporters can now be borne only by Peers and Knights of the first class of the several Orders unless by the special permission of the Sovereign.

Designed and hosted by Canterbury Web Services Limited