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Self-Representation in Heraldry



The Field of a Shield and the Heraldic Tinctures

Common Terms and Conventions

A coat of arms must consist of at least one thing -- the "field." This is equivalent in ordinary words to the colour of the ground of the shield. There are many coats which have no charge, the distinctive device consisting of the partition of the shield in some recognised heraldic method into two or more divisions of different tinctures. The colour of the shield is termed the field when it consists of only one colour, and when it consists of more than one colour the two together compose the field.

Arms and the charges upon arms, have been divided into many fantastical divisions. The classification system has selected a certain number of charges, and has been pleased to term them ordinaries. One of the foremost rules is that an ordinary must contain the third part of the field.

  The bend is a broad band going from the dexter chief corner to the sinister base.

The pale is a broad perpendicular band passing from the top of the shield to the bottom.

The fess is a broad horizontal band crossing the shield in the centre.

The heraldic chevron is the same shape as a gable rafter.

The pile is a triangular wedge issuing from the upper party of the shield.

The saltire is also known as the Cross of St. Andrew.

The chief is a broad band across the top of the shield containing the uppermost third of the area of the field

A single quarter was drawn to contain the full fourth part of the shield.

The canton is supposed to occupy one-ninth of the field.

The inescutcheon is a shield appearing as a charge upon the coat of arms.

The bordure is simply a border round the shield.

The orle is a narrow bordure following the exact outline of the shield, but within it, showing the field between the outer edge of the orle and the edge of the shield.

The tressure is an orle divided into two narrow ones set closely together, the one inside the other.

The pall, pairle, or shakefork is considered to have a heraldic status of an ecclesiastical charge upon an official coat of arms.

The flaunches, for which the additional names of "flasks" and "voiders" are sometimes found, is the segment of a circle of large diameter projecting into the field from either side of the shield, of a different colour from the field.

There are nearly four hundred varieties of the heraldic cross known.

Other Components of the Coat of Arms

The Helmet

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the helmet was an essential component of a knight's equipment, the cylindrical barrel or great helm, with a flat or rounded top, eye slits (sights) and ventilation holes (breathes) was invariably used in seals and other forms of armorial display . From the end of the fourteenth century the great helm was superseded in England by the tilting helm. This had no visor and was permanently closed, with only a slit for the eyes. It was, therefore, effective only when leaning forward in the tilting position. Tilting helms carried the ornate tournament crests of the period and so were associated with chivalric superiority - both in the lists and in coats of arms.

The Crest

A crest is a three-dimensional device affixed to a helmet and is so depicted in the arms of male members of a family. Twelfth- and thirteenth-century crests were simple fan-like projections, the sides of which were painted with heraldic devices similar to those on the shield. The ornate tournament crests of the high Middle Ages were moulded in light materials (pasteboard, cloth or boiled leather over a wooden or wire framework or basketwork) and these were fastened to the helm by means of laces or rivets, the unsightly join concealed by a wreath or coronet or by the material of the crest itself, the lower edge of which formed a mantling, often in the form of a beast's fur or feathers. It would appear that, up to the late fifteenth century, crests were considered to be the prequisites of the knightly class - those who possessed both the rank and the resources which enabled them to participate in tournaments where crests were used.

In the Middle Ages crests were hereditary and could be transmitted through heiresses, but it was not possible for them to be marshalled for display in the manner of quarterings and consequently there are many instances of crests acquired through marriage, being adopted in preference to paternal ones, often to mark the acquisition of a superior seigniory. For this reason many medieval crests appear to be entirely unrelated to the devices depicted on the shield.

The Mantling

The mantling is a protective cloth affixed to the helmet and, in a coat of arms, is depicted as flowing from beneath the crest, sometimes terminating in tassels and scalloped or slashed in stylised form. Almost certainly, the mantling originated in the Holy Land where it was worn by crusading knights to absorb the sun's heat, thereby preventing the helmet from becoming unbearably hot.


Supporters are figures, usually beasts, chimerical creatures or of human form, placed on either side of the shield to support it. Unlike other elements in a coat of arms, supporters have no practical origin and cannot be traced with any certainty before the fifteenth century. Though similar devices may be found in early seals, where they occupy the space between the shield and the outer decorative border, their original purpose was almost certainly decorative. Others originated as personal devices which were also used in seals and later translated into badges and crests. In a coat of arms, the base on which the supporters are sometimes depicted is called a compartment.

The Motto or Slogan

A motto is an aphorism, the interpretation of which is often obscure but may allude to a charge in the arms, to the crest or to some event in a family's history. Mottoes, accompanying signatures, may be found in medieval documents and manuscripts and first appear in heraldry in the fourteenth century, though they were not in general use until the seventeenth century when coats of arms became stylised. It seems likely that some early mottoes were used, perhaps in abbreviated form, as cris-de-guerre, to rally troops in the field of battle. This appears to have been the practice in Scotland where the slogan is the battle cry of the chief of a clan or house. Significantly, mottoes also appear on standards, the great medieval flags at which military levies were mustered. In Scotland, the slogan is depicted on a scroll above the crest and on the belt and buckle of a crest badge, while English practice is to depict it beneath the shield. In England, though not in Ireland and Scotland, mottoes may be changed at will and are therefore unreliable, and provide only a tentative starting point for research.

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