Lions, Tinctures and Bearings: Oh My!

Are you entitled to a coat of arms? By Jeff Chapman.

COATS OF ARMS are so colorful, decorative, and dignified that thousands of people have adopted them without permission or a clear understanding of their significance.
         The practice of stealing or creating one's own coat of arms dates back to the 12th century and still riles heraldic organizations and others who govern their use. In some countries, such as Scotland, the bearing of false arms is equivalent to signing a fraudulent signature and is punishable by law!

Distinctive and Complex Symbols
As intriguing and beautiful as they are, coats of arms are distinctive and complex symbols. The art of using these designs in hereditary identification is called heraldry, devised by medieval knights who used the brightly colored symbols to mark their armor, shields, and coats in order to be easily identified when wearing thick helmets in battle or while jousting. The term "coat of arms" originates from the display of a knight's heraldic symbols on his surcoat.
         Just as the knights were allowed to adopt their own coats of arms without interference from heralds or rulers, in most countries today an individual can create and display his own arms (providing they don't infringe on trademarks). Only in Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, and South Africa is registration of coats of arms required.

The Right to Bear Arms
Most people, however, do not have any legal right to bear arms. Unscrupulous vendors who offer "family coats of arms" taken from computer databases cannot know a person's "family coat of arms" without an extensive knowledge of the individual's family tree. Coats of arms are granted to specific individuals and their direct descendants, not to all persons sharing a surname. Displaying arms purchased from such vendors is not only misleading but potentially insulting to one's ancestors. For permission to utilize what he believes to be his family coat of arms, a person must prove he is descended from a recognized holder of the arms. Obtaining official recognition is usually costly and time consuming.
         There is much more to heraldry than a decorated shield, of course. Though they vary considerably from country to country and from age to age, a full coat of arms (sometimes called an "achievement") usually includes a shield, a helmet above the shield, mantling hanging from the helmet, a torse of twisted cloth around the helmet, a crest atop the torse, supporters on either side of the shield, a compartment for the supporters to stand on, any symbols of office to which the bearer is entitled, and any mottos, badges, or war cries.

Symbolic Shields
People are often eager to know the significance of their coats of arms and others are equally eager to tell them the meanings of each feature. This analysis, though, can be no more precise than a psychoanalyst's interpretation of a dream. There is simply no way to know what meaning the symbols on a shield had to the person who designed the coat of arms. They may be strictly decorative with no significance at all.
         Still, it is often challenging to try to decipher the meaning of one's arms, which may even hold a few clues for those constructing family histories. One can learn something simply by studying the overall design of the shield and its divisions. A shield is said to be marshalled when multiple arms are combined to show matrimonial and other alliances. Marriage is usually shown by impalement, in which the shield is divided vertically, with the husband's arms in the dexter (our left) half and the wife's in the sinister (our right). Their children might use both sets of arms on a quartered shield, with the arms repeated diagonally.
         Further clues are found in the charges pictured on the shield. Some symbols are easily decipherable: for example, a lion represents courage and a sword represents martial skill. Some symbols are more complex, such as the bee, which symbolizes industriousness; the baton, which indicates illegitimate birth; or the cockle-shell, which often symbolized pilgrimages, as it was the symbol of James, patron saint of pilgrims. Some symbols are used as marks of cadency, which symbolize birth order. For example a martlet may represent a fourth son, a ring a fifth son, and so on. Often a coat's charges allude to the original bearer's trade, such as fish for fishermen or a bugle for a bugler. Other symbols may be taken from one's city or country of origin, or adopted from one's feudal overlord.

Canting Arms
Canting arms are more directly symbolic, being essentially rebus puzzles of the bearer's surname. Such arms vary in complexity. The Tremain shield features three hands; the arms of the Borough of Congleton display a golden lion on a tun between two silver conger eels, which decodes to Conger-Leo-Tun. In some cases, this process has worked in reverse, causing people to be named after their heraldic emblems. This process is shown, for example, in the Danish names Rosencrantz (named for a wreath of roses surmounting the helmet) and Gyldenstjerne (named for a gold star featured in its arms).

Blazon Trails
One of the most complex aspects of heraldry is the textual rendering of a coat of arms. An unusual heraldic jargon, called blazon, evolved over the centuries and is rooted in the period following the Norman conquest of England, when Norman French was widely spoken among the English aristocracy.
         The purpose of this highly technical language is to help heralds describe even the most complex coats of arms concisely and unambiguously. Blazon is the sheet music of heraldry - expert blazoners can speak to one another in blazon and have a clear picture of what they're discussing without ever resorting to pen and paper. Blazon should not be regarded as a mere technical branch of heraldry, for blazon constitutes half a herald's practice. The pictorial rendering of a coat of arms is properly called emblazon, and is merely the more decorative and popular counterpart to blazon.
         It is simple enough to understand basic blazoning. One describes the background color of the shield followed by any basic patterns and their colors; a description of all groups of charges (plants, creatures or other items) in the pattern number, type, color, adjectives; followed by their locations and descriptions of the achievement's helmet, mantling, supporters, crests, and so on, each in their own section.
         For example, to describe a fairly basic shield in English, one would say, "On a blue background, a silver slash running from the top left hand corner to the lower right hand corner, in the middle of the silver slash two standing red lions looking to the right." To describe the same shield in blazon, one would say, "Azure, a bend argent charged with two lions gules rampant reguardent." To describe a more complex arrangement, we might say, "Shield divided into four quarters. In both the upper left quarter and the lower right quarter, on a yellow background, a centered blue fleur-de-lis; in both the upper right quarter and the lower left quarter, on a red background a white chevron with black symbols running through it surrounded by ten white Prussian crosses." The same mouthful rendered in blazon: "Quarterly, 1 and 4, Or, a fleur-de-lis azure; 2 and 3, Gules, a chevron ermine between ten crosses paty argent." As the coats described become increasingly complex, the usefulness of blazon among heralds becomes increasingly apparent.

Follow the Rules
Heralds in dozens of countries have been working for hundreds of years to ensure that the rules of heraldry are too complex and varied for people to ever do away with their services. There are hundreds of rules of heraldry, and at least as many exceptions. The rules begin by defining the tools of the trade. The colors used in heraldry are called tinctures. There are seven basic tinctures, five of which are known as colors and two of which are known as metals. The colors traditionally consist of gules (red), azure (blue), vert (green), purpure (purple) and sable (black). The metals are always or (gold) and argent (silver), though it is acceptable to substitute yellow for or and white for argent. Another category of tincture is fur, which are patterns based on animal fur. The furs consist of: ermine (argent with tails sable), ermines (sable with tails argent), erminois (or with tails sable), pean (sable with tails or), vair (interlocking bells alternately argent and azure) and potent (interlocking T's alternately argent and azure). These furs, together with the colors and metals, represent only the standard, traditional tinctures.

The Rule of Tincture
The first, basic, inviolable rule of heraldry is known as the rule of tincture. It states that a color must not be placed atop a color and that a metal cannot be placed atop a metal. There are exceptions, of course - the best known being the or and argent arms of Jerusalem. In fact this rule is totally disregarded in some countries.
         Within the shield, one can design as he pleases as long as he obeys the rule of tincture. Certain symbols, such as the papacy's keys and the cross of the Knights of Malta, have special meanings and may only be used by permission. In some countries, multiple individuals cannot share an identical shield, even if they belong to the same family. In such a case, marks of cadence must be added to make each shield unique. A special set of rules must be obeyed with regards to the quartering (dividing into four sections) of shields. There are a few dozen special rules for the design and shape of a woman's shield, which vary based upon her social and marital status. Whatever design is created must be able to be blazoned; that is, one cannot draw a detailed landscape but rather something simple such as a castle on a blue background, resting atop a green bar.
         The rules regarding the articles placed outside the shield vary drastically from country to country. Some countries allow relative freedom in the placement of the helmet; others have specific rules as to how many helmets each person may use, of what type the helmets must be, the direction in which they must face, where they must be in relation to the shield and even the number of bars in the visors of the helmets. An entirely different set of rules exists for crowns and coronets. A further set of rules exists for the mantling, another for supporters, and so on. In fact, if your country has a solid set of heraldic laws and traditions, it's quite difficult to design a coat of arms without breaking some of the rules.

Acquiring Arms
To learn about acquiring an official set of arms, the English King of Heralds' jurisdiction covers all countries where the English queen is sovereign, except Scotland and Canada where Lord Lyon King of Arms and Canada Herald, respectively, have jurisdiction. The English King of Heralds also handles applications from citizens of the United States. The College of Heralds, with its vast resources and experience, can assist persons with any necessary genealogical research. If consent for a coat of arms is granted, the heralds will help to create a unique design, which will be rendered on vellum by artists using colors and gold.
         What attracts some people to the idea of adopting arms is the sense of their tradition and significance. They are souvenirs of medieval European chivalry, and, like a good name, are a permanent asset to a family.

view subscription information   |   return to main menu