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Heraldry is the profession, study, or art of creating, granting, and blazoning arms and ruling on questions of rank or protocol, as exercised by an officer of arms. Heraldry comes from Anglo-Norman herald, from the Germanic compound harja-waldaz, "army commander". The word, in its most general sense, encompasses all matters relating to the duties and responsibilities of officers of arms. To most, though, heraldry is the practice of designing, displaying, describing, and recording coats of arms and heraldic badges.
Historically, it has been variously described as "the shorthand of history" and "the floral border in the garden of history". The origins of heraldry lie in the need to distinguish participants in combat when their faces were hidden by iron and steel helmets. Eventually a formal system of rules developed into ever more complex forms of heraldry.
Though the practice of heraldry is nearly 900 years old, it is still very much in use. Many cities and towns in Europe and around the world still make use of arms. Personal heraldry, both legally protected and lawfully assumed, has continued to be used around the world. Heraldic societies exist to promote education and understanding about the subject.
To "blazon" arms means to describe them using the formal language of heraldry. This language has its own vocabulary and syntax, or rules governing word order, which becomes essential for comprehension when blazoning a complex coat of arms. The verb comes from the Middle English blasoun, itself a derivative of the French blason meaning "shield". The system of blazoning arms used in English-speaking countries today was developed by heraldic officers in the Middle Ages. The blazon includes a description of the arms contained within the escutcheon or shield, the crest, supporters where present, motto and other insignia. Complex rules, such as the rule of tincture, apply to the physical and artistic form of newly created arms, and a thorough understanding of these rules is essential to the art of heraldry. Though heraldic forms initially were broadly similar across Europe, several national styles had developed by the end of the Middle Ages, and artistic and blazoning styles today range from the very simple to extraordinarily complex.
There are various conjectures as to the origins of heraldic arms. As early as predynastic Egypt c. 3100 BC, an emblem known as a serekh was used to indicate the extent of influence of a particular regime, sometimes carved on ivory labels attached to trade goods, but also used to identify military allegiances and in a variety of other ways. It led to the development of the earliest hieroglyphs. This practice seems to have grown out of the use of animal mascots, whose pelts or bodies were literally affixed to staves or standards, as depicted on the earliest cosmetic palettes of the period. Some of the oldest serekhs consist of a striped or cross-hatched box, representing a palace or city, with a crane, scorpion, or other animal drawn standing on top. Before long, a falcon representing Horus became the norm as the animal on top, with the individual Pharaoh's symbol usually appearing in the box beneath the falcon, and above the stripes representing the palace.
And the children of Israel shall pitch their tents, every man by his own camp, and every man by his own standard, throughout their hosts. (Numbers i. 2, 18, 52). Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of their fathers house (Numbers ii. 2). And the children of Israel did according to all that the Lord commanded to Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers. (Numbers ii. 34)
Army units of the Roman Empire were identified by the distinctive markings on their shields. These were not heraldic in the medieval and modern sense, as they were associated with units, not individuals or families.
At the time of the Norman conquest of England, heraldry in its essential sense of an inheritable emblem had not yet been developed. The knights in the Bayeux Tapestry carry shields, but there appears to have been no system of hereditary coats of arms. The seeds of heraldic structure in personal identification can be detected in the account in a contemporary chronicle of Henry I of England, on the occasion of his knighting his son-in-law Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou, in 1127. He placed to hang around his neck a shield painted with golden lions. The funerary enamel of Geoffrey (died 1151), dressed in blue and gold and bearing his blue shield emblazoned with gold lions, is the first recorded depiction of a coat of arms.
By the middle of the 12th century, coats of arms were being inherited by the children of armigers (persons entitled to use a coat of arms) across Europe. Between 1135 and 1155, seals representing the generalized figure of the owner attest to the general adoption of heraldic devices in England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. By the end of the century, heraldry appears as the sole device on seals. In England, the practice of using marks of cadency arose to distinguish one son from another: the conventions became standardized in about 1500, and are traditionally supposed to have been devised by John Writhe.
Three soldiers on the Bayeux Tapestry (11th century) bearing pre-heraldic shields.
In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, heraldry became a highly developed discipline, regulated by professional officers of arms. As its use in jousting became obsolete, coats of arms remained popular for visually identifying a person in other ways – impressed in sealing wax on documents, carved on family tombs, and flown as a banner on country homes. The first work of heraldic jurisprudence, De Insigniis et Armis, was written in the 1350s by Bartolus de Saxoferrato, a professor of law at the University of Padua.
From the beginning of heraldry, coats of arms have been executed in a wide variety of media, including on paper, painted wood, embroidery, enamel, stonework and stained glass. For the purpose of quick identification in all of these, heraldry distinguishes only seven basic colors and makes no fine distinctions in the precise size or placement of charges on the field. Coats of arms and their accessories are described in a concise jargon called blazon. This technical description of a coat of arms is the standard that is adhered to no matter what artistic interpretations may be made in a particular depiction of the arms.
The specific meaning of each element of a coat of arms is subjective. Though the original armiger may have placed particular meaning on a charge, these meanings are not necessarily retained from generation to generation. Unless canting arms incorporate an obvious pun on the bearer's name, it may be difficult to find meaning in them. As changes in military technology and tactics made plate armour obsolete, heraldry became detached from its original function. This brought about the development of "paper heraldry" under the Tudors. Designs and shields became more elaborate at the expense of clarity.
During the 19th century, especially in Germany, many coats of arms were designed to depict a natural landscape, including several charges tinctured "proper" (i.e. the way they appear in nature). This form has been termed "Landscape heraldry". The 20th century's taste for stark iconic emblems made the simple styles of early heraldry fashionable again.
The focus of modern heraldry is the armorial achievement, or the coat of arms, the central element of which is the escutcheon or shield. In general, the shape of the shield employed in a coat of arms is irrelevant, because the fashion for the shield-shapes employed in heraldic art has changed through the centuries. Sometimes a blazon specifies a particular shape of shield. These specifications mostly occur in non-European contexts – such as the coat of arms of Nunavut and the former Republic of Bophuthatswana, with the arms of North Dakota (as distinguished from its seal) providing an even more unusual example, while the State of Connecticut specifies a "rococo" shield – but not completely, as the Scottish Public Register records an escutcheon of oval form for the Lanarkshire Master Plumbers' and Domestic Engineers' (Employers') Association, and a shield of square form for the Anglo Leasing organisation.
Traditionally, as women did not go to war, they did not bear a shield. Instead, women's coats of arms were shown on a lozenge – a rhombus standing on one of its acute corners, an oval or a cartouche. This remains true in much of the world, though some heraldic authorities, such as Scotland's, with its ovals for women's arms, make exceptions. In Canada the restriction against women's bearing arms on a shield was eliminated. In Scotland and Ireland, women may, under certain circumstances, be permitted to display their arms on a shield. Non-combatant clergy also have used the lozenge and the cartouche – an oval – for their display.
Tinctures are the colors, metals, and furs used in heraldry, though the depiction of charges in their natural colors or "proper" are also regarded as tinctures, the latter distinct from any color that such a depiction might approximate. Heraldry is essentially a system of identification, so the most important convention of heraldry is the rule of tincture. To provide for contrast and visibility, metals (generally lighter tinctures) must never be placed on metals, and colors (generally darker tinctures) must never be placed on colors. Where a charge overlies a partition of the field, the rule does not apply. There are other exceptions – the most famous being the arms of the kingdom of Jerusalem, consisting of gold crosses on a silver field.
The names used in English blazon for the colors and metals come mainly from French and include Or (gold), argent (silver), azure (blue), gules (red), sable (black), vert (green), and purpure (purple). A number of other colors (such as bleu-celeste and the stains sanguine, tenné and murrey) are occasionally found, typically for special purposes.
Certain patterns called furs can appear in a coat of arms, though they are (rather arbitrarily) defined as tinctures, not patterns. The two common furs are ermine and vair. Ermine represents the winter coat of the stoat, which is white with a black tail. Vair represents a kind of squirrel with a blue-gray back and white belly. Sewn together, it forms a pattern of alternating blue and white shapes.
Heraldic charges can be displayed in their natural colors. Many natural items such as plants and animals are described as proper in this case. Proper charges are very frequent as crests and supporters. Overuse of the tincture "proper" is viewed as decadent or bad practice.
The field of a shield, or less often a charge or crest, is sometimes made up of a pattern of colors, or variation. A pattern of horizontal (barwise) stripes, for example, is called barry, while a pattern of vertical (palewise) stripes is called paly. A pattern of diagonal stripes may be called bendy or bendy sinister, depending on the direction of the stripes. Other variations include chevrony, gyronny and chequy. Wave shaped stripes are termed undy. For further variations, these are sometimes combined to produce patterns of barry-bendy, paly-bendy, lozengy and fusilly. Semés, or patterns of repeated charges, are also considered variations of the field. The Rule of tincture applies to all semés and variations of the field.
The field of a shield in heraldry can be divided into more than one tincture, as can the various heraldic charges. Many coats of arms consist simply of a division of the field into two contrasting tinctures. These are considered divisions of a shield, so the rule of tincture can be ignored. For example, a shield divided azure and gules would be perfectly acceptable. A line of partition may be straight or it may be varied. The variations of partition lines can be wavy, indented, embattled, engrailed, nebuly, or made into myriad other forms; see Line (heraldry).
In the early days of heraldry, very simple bold rectilinear shapes were painted on shields. These could be easily recognized at a long distance and could be easily remembered. They therefore served the main purpose of heraldry: identification. As more complicated shields came into use, these bold shapes were set apart in a separate class as the "honorable ordinaries". They act as charges and are always written first in blazon. Unless otherwise specified they extend to the edges of the field. Though ordinaries are not easily defined, they are generally described as including the cross, the fess, the pale, the bend, the chevron, the saltire, and the pall.
There is a separate class of charges called sub-ordinaries which are of a geometrical shape subordinate to the ordinary. According to Friar, they are distinguished by their order in blazon. The sub-ordinaries include the inescutcheon, the orle, the tressure, the double tressure, the bordure, the chief, the canton, the label, and flaunches.
Ordinaries may appear in parallel series, in which case blazons in English give them different names such as pallets, bars, bendlets, and chevronels. French blazon makes no such distinction between these diminutives and the ordinaries when borne singly. Unless otherwise specified an ordinary is drawn with straight lines, but each may be indented, embattled, wavy, engrailed, or otherwise have their lines varied.
A charge is any object or figure placed on a heraldic shield or on any other object of an armorial composition. Any object found in nature or technology may appear as a heraldic charge in armory. Charges can be animals, objects, or geometric shapes. Apart from the ordinaries, the most frequent charges are the cross – with its hundreds of variations – and the lion and eagle. Other common animals are stags, Wild Boars, martlets, and fish. Dragons, bats, unicorns, griffins, and more exotic monsters appear as charges and as supporters.
Animals are found in various stereotyped positions or attitudes. Quadrupeds can often be found rampant (standing on the left hind foot). Another frequent position is passant, or walking, like the lions of the coat of arms of England. Eagles are almost always shown with their wings spread, or displayed. A pair of wings conjoined is called a vol.
In English heraldry the crescent, mullet, martlet, annulet, fleur-de-lis, and rose may be added to a shield to distinguish cadet branches of a family from the senior line. These cadency marks are usually shown smaller than normal charges, but it still does not follow that a shield containing such a charge belongs to a cadet branch. All of these charges occur frequently in basic undifferenced coats of arms.
To marshal two or more coats of arms is to combine them in one shield, to express inheritance, claims to property, or the occupation of an office. This can be done in a number of ways, of which the simplest is impalement: dividing the field per pale and putting one whole coat in each half. Impalement replaced the earlier dimidiation – combining the dexter half of one coat with the sinister half of another – because dimidiation can create ambiguity between, for example, a bend and a chevron. "Dexter" (from Latin dextra, right) means to the right from the viewpoint of the bearer of the arms and "sinister" (from Latin sinistra, left) means to the left. The dexter side is considered the side of greatest honour (see also Dexter and sinister).
A more versatile method is quartering, division of the field by both vertical and horizontal lines. This practice originated in Spain after the 13th century. As the name implies, the usual number of divisions is four, but the principle has been extended to very large numbers of "quarters".
Quarters are numbered from the dexter chief (the corner nearest to the right shoulder of a man standing behind the shield), proceeding across the top row, and then across the next row and so on. When three coats are quartered, the first is repeated as the fourth; when only two coats are quartered, the second is also repeated as the third. The quarters of a personal coat of arms correspond to the ancestors from whom the bearer has inherited arms, normally in the same sequence as if the pedigree were laid out with the father's father's ... father (to as many generations as necessary) on the extreme left and the mother's mother's...mother on the extreme right. A few lineages have accumulated hundreds of quarters, though such a number is usually displayed only in documentary contexts. The Scottish and Spanish traditions resist allowing more than four quarters, preferring to subdivide one or more "grand quarters" into sub-quarters as needed.
The third common mode of marshalling is with an inescutcheon, a small shield placed in front of the main shield. In Britain this is most often an "escutcheon of pretence" indicating, in the arms of a married couple, that the wife is an heraldic heiress (i.e., she inherits a coat of arms because she has no brothers). In continental Europe an inescutcheon (sometimes called a "heart shield") usually carries the ancestral arms of a monarch or noble whose domains are represented by the quarters of the main shield.
In English the word "crest" is commonly (but erroneously) used to refer to an entire heraldic achievement of armorial bearings. The technical use of the heraldic term crest refers to just one component of a complete achievement. The crest rests on top of a helmet which itself rests on the most important part of the achievement: the shield.
The modern crest has grown out of the three-dimensional figure placed on the top of the mounted knights' helms as a further means of identification. In most heraldic traditions, a woman does not display a crest, though this tradition is being relaxed in some heraldic jurisdictions, and the stall plate of Lady Marion Fraser in the Thistle Chapel in St Giles, Edinburgh, shows her coat on a lozenge but with helmet, crest, and motto.
The crest is usually found on a wreath of twisted cloth and sometimes within a coronet. Crest-coronets are generally simpler than coronets of rank, but several specialized forms exist; for example, in Canada, descendants of the United Empire Loyalists are entitled to use a Loyalist military coronet (for descendants of members of Loyalist regiments) or Loyalist civil coronet (for others).
When the helm and crest are shown, they are usually accompanied by a mantling. This was originally a cloth worn over the back of the helmet as partial protection against heating by sunlight. Today it takes the form of a stylized cloak hanging from the helmet. Typically in British heraldry, the outer surface of the mantling is of the principal color in the shield and the inner surface is of the principal metal, though peers in the United Kingdom use standard colourings (Gules doubled Argent - Red/White) regardless of rank or the colourings of their arms. The mantling is sometimes conventionally depicted with a ragged edge, as if damaged in combat, though the edges of most are simply decorated at the emblazoner's discretion.
Clergy often refrain from displaying a helm or crest in their heraldic achievements. Members of the clergy may display appropriate headwear. This often takes the form of a small crowned, wide brimmed hat called a galero with the colors and tassels denoting rank; or, in the case of Papal coats of arms until the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, an elaborate triple crown known as a tiara. Benedict broke with tradition to substitute a mitre in his arms. Orthodox and Presbyterian clergy do sometimes adopt other forms of head gear to ensign their shields. In the Anglican tradition, clergy members may pass crests on to their offspring, but rarely display them on their own shields.
An armorial motto is a phrase or collection of words intended to describe the motivation or intention of the armigerous person or corporation. This can form a pun on the family name as in Thomas Nevile's motto "Ne vile velis". Mottoes are generally changed at will and do not make up an integral part of the armorial achievement. Mottoes can typically be found on a scroll under the shield. In Scottish heraldry where the motto is granted as part of the blazon, it is usually shown on a scroll above the crest, and may not be changed at will. A motto may be in any language.
Supporters are human or animal figures or, very rarely, inanimate objects, usually placed on either side of a coat of arms as though supporting it. In many traditions, these have acquired strict guidelines for use by certain social classes. On the European continent, there are often fewer restrictions on the use of supporters. In the United Kingdom, only peers of the realm, a few baronets, senior members of orders of knighthood, and some corporate bodies are granted supporters. Often, these can have local significance or a historical link to the armiger.
If the armiger has the title of baron, hereditary knight, or higher, he may display a coronet of rank above the shield. In the United Kingdom, this is shown between the shield and helmet, though it is often above the crest in Continental heraldry.
Another addition that can be made to a coat of arms is the insignia of a baronet or of an order of knighthood. This is usually represented by a collar or similar band surrounding the shield. When the arms of a knight and his wife are shown in one achievement, the insignia of knighthood surround the husband's arms only, and the wife's arms are customarily surrounded by a meaningless ornamental garland of leaves for visual balance.
Since arms pass from parents to offspring, and there is frequently more than one child per couple, it is necessary to distinguish the arms of siblings and extended family members from the original arms as passed on from eldest son to eldest son. Over time several schemes have been used.
The emergence of heraldry occurred across western Europe almost simultaneously in the various countries. Originally, heraldic style was very similar from country to country. Over time, heraldic tradition diverged into four broad styles: German-Nordic, Gallo-British, Latin, and Eastern. In addition it can be argued that newer national heraldic traditions, such as South African and Canadian, have emerged in the 20th century.
Coats of arms in Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Estonia, Latvia, Czech lands and northern Switzerland generally change very little over time. Marks of difference are very rare in this tradition as are heraldic furs. One of the most striking characteristics of German-Nordic heraldry is the treatment of the crest. Often, the same design is repeated in the shield and the crest. The use of multiple crests is also common. The crest is rarely used separately as in British heraldry, but can sometimes serve as a mark of difference between different branches of a family. Torse is optional. Heraldic courtoisie is observed: that is, charges in a composite shield (or two shields displayed together) usually turn to face the centre.
Coats consisting only of a divided field are somewhat more frequent in Germany than elsewhere.
Ancient Greeks were among the first civilizations to use symbols consistently in order to identify a warrior, clan or a state. The first record of a shield blazon is illustrated in Aeschylus' tragedy Seven Against Thebes. The Greek Heraldry Society is a useful source of information on Hellenic Heraldry and Byzantine etiquette.
The Low Countries were great centres of heraldry in medieval times. One of the famous armorials is the Gelre Armorial or Wapenboek, written between 1370 and 1414. Coats of arms in the Netherlands were not controlled by an official heraldic system like the two in the United Kingdom, nor were they used solely by noble families. Any person could develop and use a coat of arms if they wished to do so, provided they did not usurp someone else's arms, and historically, this right was enshrined in Roman Dutch law. As a result, many merchant families had coats of arms even though they were not members of the nobility. These are sometimes referred to as burgher arms, and it is thought that most arms of this type were adopted while the Netherlands was a republic (1581–1806). This heraldic tradition was also exported to the erstwhile Dutch colonies.
Dutch heraldry is characterised by its simple and rather sober style, and in this sense, is closer to its medieval origins than the elaborate styles which developed in other heraldic traditions.
The use of cadency marks to difference arms within the same family and the use of semy fields are distinctive features of Gallo-British heraldry (in Scotland the most significant mark of cadency being the bordure, the small brisures playing a very minor role). It is common to see heraldic furs used. In the United Kingdom, the style is notably still controlled by royal officers of arms. French heraldry experienced a period of strict rules of construction under the Emperor Napoleon. English and Scots heraldries make greater use of supporters than other European countries.
Furs, chevrons and five-pointed stars are more frequent in France and Britain than elsewhere.
The heraldry of southern France, Andorra, Portugal, Spain, and Italy is characterized by a lack of crests, and uniquely shaped shields. Portuguese and Spanish heraldry occasionally introduce words to the shield of arms, a practice disallowed in British heraldry. Latin heraldry is known for extensive use of quartering, because of armorial inheritance via the male and the female lines. Moreover, Italian heraldry is dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, featuring many shields and achievements, most bearing some reference to the Church.
Trees are frequent charges in Latin arms. Charged bordures, including bordures inscribed with words, are seen often in Spain.
Eastern European heraldry is in the traditions developed in Belarus, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. Eastern coats of arms are characterized by a pronounced, territorial, clan system – often, entire villages or military groups were granted the same coat of arms irrespective of family relationships. In Poland, nearly six hundred unrelated families are known to bear the same Jastrzębiec coat of arms. Marks of cadency are almost unknown, and shields are generally very simple, with only one charge. Many heraldic shields derive from ancient house marks. At the least, fifteen per cent of all Hungarian personal arms bear a severed Turk's head, referring to their wars against the Ottoman Empire.
Heraldry flourishes in the modern world; institutions, companies, and private persons continue using coats of arms as their pictorial identification. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the English Kings of Arms, Scotland's Lord Lyon King of Arms, and the Chief Herald of Ireland continue making grants of arms. There are heraldic authorities in Canada, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden that grant or register coats of arms. In South Africa, the right to armorial bearings is also determined by Roman Dutch law, due to its origins as a 17th-century colony of the Netherlands.
Heraldic societies abound in Africa, Asia, Australasia, the Americas and Europe. Heraldry aficionados participate in the Society for Creative Anachronism, medieval revivals, micronationalism, et cetera. People see heraldry as a part of their national and personal heritages, and as a manifestation of civic and national pride. Today, heraldry is not a worldly expression of aristocracy, merely a form of identification.
Military heraldry continues developing, incorporating blazons unknown in the medieval world. Nations and their subdivisions – provinces, states, counties, cities, etc. – continue to build on the traditions of civic heraldry. The Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, and other Churches maintain the tradition of ecclesiastical heraldry for their high-rank prelates, religious orders, universities, and schools.
Heraldry in many countries with heraldic authorities are governed by certain laws, granting rights and possession to bear arms as well as protection against misuse by others. Other countries without heraldic authorities to grant arms usually treat coat of arms in much the same way as logos and such could be protected under copyright laws if registered appropriately.
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