Heraldry is the science and art of describing of coats-of-arms, also referred to as achievements or armorial bearings. Its origins are in the need to distinguish participants in battles or jousts and to describe the various devices they carried or painted on their shields.
However it is important to note that a given coat-of-arms is defined by a written description, 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) (though in some cases of "landscape heraldry" all or part of the field is some sort of landscape), 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, as seen by the viewer. The reason for this is that they refer to the shield-bearer's point of view, not the observer's.
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.1 For example, almost always the shape of the shield is immaterial and different artists can depict the same coat of arms on many different shapes of shield.
There are no strict definitions of the shades of colours used in heraldry, but the usual practice is to use bold, vivid colours rather than pastel shades.
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, so using the word to refer to the entire coat is in fact incorrect. In a complete depiction of a coat-of-arms, the crest is a design affixed to the helmet. Crests can also be used on their own; this is particularly useful when there is insufficient space to display the entire coat-of-arms, and this practice may be the origin of the popular usage.
Shield and lozenge
Traditionally, as women did not go to war, they would not have a shield. Instead, their coats-of-arms would be shown on a lozenge, usually a square standing on one of its corners. As women may now serve in the armed forces in a number of countries, some armigerous women prefer to use a shield anyway. A parallel usage for noncombatant clergymen could be found sometimes on the European continent, with the occasional placement of arms on a cartouche (an oval-shaped vehicle for their display).
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 (and the specific type of shield is sometimes followed to the extent, as in the arms of Gauteng (http://www.polity.org.za/html/govdocs/misc/gaucoat.html), that structures in the shield (in that case "shield thongs") function as charges).
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 <animal>'s head couped if the cut is straight, and erased if it looks as if the animal's head has been ripped off.
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, "pommes" if green, "oranges" if orange, and "guzes" if sanguine. 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 shield's width, was invented in 1964 by Conrad Swan, retired Garter King of Arms)  (http://www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/Square/3238/Page2Innovat.html); it can be seen in the arms of Rehder.  (http://www.hsc.ca/Roll/Rollx.htm) A fess is the same thing as a pale, only horizontal.
There are also bends, saltires, flaunches 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,  (http://www.btinternet.com/~paul.j.grant/guillim/s2/gu_s2c4.htm) although it can be difficult if not impossible sometimes to distinguish between a fillet and a chief fimbriated, as the fimbriation of a chief occurs only along the lower line. The fillet is sometimes inaccurately described as a diminutive of the chief, but the chief has no diminutive. It is important to note that a chief "enhanced" (which gives it a narrower appearance), as in the arms of Martin F. J. Matthews  (http://www.heraldry-scotland.co.uk/Homepage.htm), is not a diminutive.
Probert  (http://www.probertencyclopaedia.com/U1.HTM), Guillim  (http://www.btinternet.com/~paul.j.grant/guillim/s2/gu_s2c4.htm) 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. (http://www.baronage.co.uk/nl/nl-02-07.htm) Chiefs are more commonly seen, though not blazoned as, couped when within a tressure. (http://uk.geocities.com/skildsoom/founders/GrahamE.html)
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 that 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. (http://www02.so-net.ne.jp/~saitou/cgi-bin/more.cgi?input=Bar)) "Barry of <number>" 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". (A highly unusual example of a quarter absconding charges can be seen when Robert Stewart, Lord of Lorn, marshalled his arms with those of Lorn: "Or a fess chequy of four tracts Azure and Argent between two buckles in chief and a garb in base of the Second; a sinister quarter Or bearing a lymphad Sable with sail set absconding one of the buckles and part of the fess; in the dexter base another quarter of the same absconding part of the fess".  (http://www.baronage.co.uk/jag-ht/jag013.html)) 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 (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 (http://www.geocities.com/wapenskild/skole/NewtonE.html) 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:
- "Ermine" (the arms of Brittany)
- "Azure, a bend Or" (over which the families of Scrope and Grosvenor fought a famous legal battle)
- "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"
- "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."
- "Quarterly, I three lions' heads affront s crowned Or; II chequy Gules and Argent; III Azure, a river in fess Gules bordered Argent, thereupon a marten proper, beneath a six-pointed star Or; IV per fess Azure and Or, overall a bar Gules, in the chief a demi-eagle Sable displayed addextr of the sun in splendour, and senestr of a crescent Argent, in the base seven towers three and four, of the third; ent en point Gules, a double-headed eagle Proper on a peninsula Vert, holding a vase pouring water into the sea Argent, beneath a crown Proper with bands Azure; overall an escutcheon barry of eight Gules and Argent impaling Gules, on a mount Vert a crown Or, issuant therefrom a double cross Argent; overall an escutcheon tierced in pale a lion rampant Gules crowned Or, Gules a fess Argent and Or on a bend Gules three allerions Argent."
Supporters and other additions
An armiger may be entitled, depending upon their rank to several other items.
- Supporters. Peers of the realm, senior members of British orders of knighthood and some corporate bodies have supporters on either side of the shield. Often these can have local significance (such as the Fisherman and the Tin miner granted to Cornwall County Council) or a historical link (such as the lion of England and unicorn of Scotland on the two variations of the Royal Arms in Great Britain).
- A coronet of a design appropriate to a peer's rank would be placed on top of the shield.
- Helm. All coats of arms may be displayed with a helm or helmet, which sits over the shield and carries the crest (see below). The form of the helmet may vary with the rank of the armiger.
- The crest rests above coronet (if applicable) and helm, usually on a 'wreath' of twisted cloth in the two principal colours of the coat of arms. Often but not exclusively an animal, crests were used to identify a knight at the joust and were, therefore, at first, a sign of the superior rank expected of participants in medieval tournaments. Since Tudor times, however, crests have been granted with all English coats of arms. The City of Sunderland's crest is a wild boar, a remembrance of the parish of Hetton-le-Hole, which became part of the City in 1974. A woman does not display a crest (just as no woman would have fought in a medieval tournament). The crest rests on the helm, as it would have done in real life, or it may be illustrated directly above the shield without a helm (as in the illustration of the arms of Sir Denis Thatcher). His wife, Lady Thatcher, as a woman, displays no crest but her coronet as a baroness is placed above her arms.
- Clergy, like women, and for the same reason (their non-participation in combat), traditionally do not display a helm or crest. Higher clergy, such as bishops or abbots, may display appropriate headwear (the mitre) above the shield, similar to the display by peers of their coronets. Lower clergy often use clerical hats with tassells appropriate to their seniority: this practice began in the Roman Catholic church but was subsequently adopted by some Anglican clergy. The Chief Herald of Ireland has granted Father William Richardson the crest A dexter hand couped at the wrist Gules holding a crown of thorns Proper., but this is often shown next to the shield, the only item above the shield being the historical tasselled hat of a priest.
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.
Heraldry continues to flourish today. 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. The first recorded corporate coat of arms was granted to the Drapers' Company of the City of London in 1438 (see Coat of Arms of The Drapers Company). However, many users of modern "heraldic" designs do not register with heraldic authorities, and some designers do not follow the rules of heraldic design at all.
Some people who have interests in heraldry as a hobby participate in the Society for Creative Anachronism and other such medieval revivals, or in micronationalism. Many more people see heraldry as a part of their national, and even personal, heritage, as well as as a manifestation of civic and national pride.
- Canadian Heraldic Authority (http://www.gg.ca/heraldry/index_e.asp)
- College of Arms (http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/) for England, Wales, Northern Ireland
- Court of the Lord Lyon (http://www.lyon-court.com) of Scotland
- Office of the Chief Herald (http://www.nli.ie/fr_offi.htm) of Ireland
- U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry (http://www.tioh.hqda.pentagon.mil/)
- The Heraldry Society (http://www.theheraldrysociety.com/)
- The Heraldry Society of Scotland (http://www.heraldry-scotland.co.uk/)
- The Royal Heraldry Society of Canada (http://www.hsc.ca/)
- A Heraldic Primer (Society for Creative Anachronism) (http://www.sca.org/heraldry/primer/)
- Blazon (non commercial) (http://petebarrett.members.beeb.net/blazon.htm)
- Rietstap's Armorial General - over 130,000 fully searchable names and blazons (http://www.kuruvinda.com/armorial.php)
- Heraldica (http://www.heraldica.org)
- Committee on Heraldry of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (http://makepeace.ca/nehgs/)
- Scotscourts.gov.uk (http://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/admin/scadmin_2.htm#seven)
- Page on the Flemish Heraldic Council (http://makepeace.ca/vhr/)
- Page on the Lyon Court (http://www.heraldry-scotland.co.uk/Lyoncourt.htm)
- Page on the Lyon Court (http://www.electricscotland.com/webclans/lord_lyon.htm)
- Page on the South African Bureau of Heraldry (http://freepages.history.rootsweb.com/~amateurheralds/page_sa_boh.html)
- Maltese Heraldry (http://www.maltagenealogy.com/malteseheraldry/maltaheraldry.htm/)
- Information on the customs and practices of Heraldry and contemporary Heraldry (http://www.heraldry.ws/)
- 1 possible exception might be the arms of the University of Northern British Columbia. (http://www.unbc.ca/coatofarms/)