Heraldry for Beginners

Heraldry has its own special language, and the keen heraldist (a person interested in heraldry), will find it both practical and linguistically delightful to have a working knowledge of its use and vocabulary.

The heraldic vocabulary is largely derived from the Anglo-Norman language that developed in England between the 11th and 15th centuries. Just to use it is to help conserve a unique part of the world’s linguistic heritage, so don’t be shy.

Blazon

Blazonry is the art of describing a coat of arms in heraldically-correct terms. "To blazon" is to follow some standard rules to describe a coat of arms so as to ensure anyone reading the blazon will understand what the arms look like.

Firstly, the field, or colour of the shield is stated and then the elements upon it are identified. For example, a white shield with a red heart would be blazoned argent, a heart gules

As the colours, charges and patterns become more complex, the value of blazoning compared to even the plainest English becomes clear. For example, the blazon “Argent, between a chevron gules three hurts” (7 words) would be rendered in English as something like “On a white or silver shield, three blue balls, two above and one below a red upside-down V shape” (20 words).

Shields and Their Divisions

A shield will often be divided into various compartments or sections. The lines defining these sections are called partition lines, and each as its own name. Some examples are:

  1. Embattled (like the battlements on top of a castle wall)
  2. Wavy (as the name suggests, a gently waving line like the surface of water)
  3. Nebuly (a line of opposing semi-circles, suggesting the tops of clouds)
  4. Raguly (a jagged line, like the teeth of a serrated blade)

Partition lines do not run in random directions, but according to geometric divisions of the shield surface, and these directions have their own names, such as:

  1. Per bend (diagonally, from top left to bottom right)
  2. Per saltire (a diagonal cross, from the top to bottom corners - like the Scottish flag)
  3. Per pale (a vertical line – like a fence paling)
  4. Per fess (a horizontal line)
  5. Barry (several bars or stacked horizontal lines – like stripes)

Colours and metals

Colours and textures have their own particular names in heraldry. Strictly speaking, there are only five colours (or ‘tints’) and two ‘metals’ (or metallic colours).

These tints are:

  1. Azure (blue)
  2. Gules (red)
  3. Purpure (purple)
  4. Sable (black)
  5. Vert (green)

The metals are:

  1. Argent (silver, often represented as white)
  2. Or (gold, often represented as yellow)

There are some additional colours that have come into use only in the last few centuries, of which the most commonly encountered are: ​

  1. Bleu celeste (sky blue or light blue)
  2. Brun (brown or chocolate colour)
  3. Carnation (pale pink ‘skin’ colour)
  4. Cendré (pale grey or ash colour)
  5. Sanguine (a crimson or magenta ‘blood’ colour)
  6. Tenné (an orangish or ochre colour)

There are some other colours, not often used, that can be found in any good heraldic text book. 

Of course, heraldry being heraldry, there are some intricacies that expand the range of colours and especially patterns such as the furs and other animal effects:

  1. Vair (like fur, of which there are several variations)
  2. Ermine (the coat of a small animal called an ermine, typically white with black tufts)
  3. Plumeté (like feathers)

There is also a rather ambiguous colour description called proper, which simply means coloured in its natural colours. For example, a black cat might be described as a cat sable, or as a black cat proper. The main difference is that a black cat proper will have black fur and other naturally coloured elements such as yellow eyes, whereas a cat sable will be coloured entirely black.

Charges

The various elements placed upon a shield are called charges. Most charges are identified by their common names, but in some cases there are specialised words. A few interesting examples are:

  • Pome (a green disc)
  • Mullet (a five-pointed star)
  • A sun in his splendour (a sun with a full face on it)
  • A moon in her complement (a crescent moon with a face in profile)

A serpent in gurges (a snake curled in a spiral pattern)

Further Reading

This is a just a hint of the complexities of heraldic language and design. If you are keen to increase your knowledge of the art and science of heraldry, some useful references (which should be available in any good library or available for purchase either directly or online from second-hand or print-on-demand retailers) are:

  • AC Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry, Dodge Publishing, New York 1909, with many subsequent reprints to the present day.
  • Rodney Dennys, The Heraldic Imagination, Barrie & Jenkins, London 1975.
  • Carl-Alexander von Volborth, The Art of Heraldry, Tiger, London 1987.
  • Ottfried Neubecker, JP Brooke-Little and Robert Tobler, Heraldry: Sources, Symbols and Meanings, Tiger, London 1988.
  • Kevin Greaves, A Canadian Heraldic Primer, Royal Heraldry Society of Canada, 2000.
  • Stephen Slater, The Illustrated Book of Heraldry, Hermes House, London 2002
  • Michael McCarthy, A Manual of Ecclesiastical Heraldry: Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Orthodox, Thylacine Press, Darlinghurst 2005
  • Some specifically Australian references are:
    • Charles Low, A Roll of Australian Arms, Rigby, Adelaide 1971.
    • AG Puttock, Heraldry in Australia, Child & Associates, Frenchs Forest 1988.
    • Michael McCarthy, An Armorial of the Hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Australia, Thylacine Press, Darlinghurst 1998.
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