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Although the distinctive tunic or surcoat worn over a knight's armor may have evolved as a practical means of distinguishing him in battle, it is more likely that the coat of arms was popularized by the pageantry of medieval tournaments and jousts. By the mid-twelfth century, heraldry had emerged in both England and Europe, and by the second half of the thirteenth century, coats of arms were being recorded by heralds in rolls of arms. As these heraldic arms became more elaborate, their description or blazon came to acquire its own rules, arcane vocabulary, and concise syntax. It is this aspect of heraldry that very briefly is reviewed here.
The shield, itself, (the field) is divided into points, which serve as references for the position of whatever is placed there. The top of the shield is termed the chief, its bottom the base; the right side (from the knight's perspective), dexter; the left, sinister. The center of the shield is its fess point, so named from the horizontal band (Latin fascia) that runs across the middle. In early descriptions of the shield, one would speak, therefore, of chief and base, dexter and sinister chief, and fess point.
At its most simple, a coat of arms is no more than color, itself, although such plain arms were not often borne, at least by historical figures. In Arthurian romance, however, they were a favorite device to disguise a knight or connote, like the Black or Green Knight, a mysterious adversary. In the Middle Ages, the following tinctures were used: Azure (blue), Gules (red), Sable (black), Vert (green), and Purpure (purple). The names are French because the Angevin kings (Henry II, Richard I, and John) ruled England as heraldry became established there. Aside from these five colors, there also were two metals, Or (gold) and Argent (silver), as well as the pattern of two furs, Ermine and Vair, which is meant to represent squirrel skin. (Interestingly, in the French fairy tale Cinderella, her slipper of animal skin, vair, was confused for verre, glass.)
Every object on the field is termed a charge. The simplest charges are geometrical shapes, which became so common that they are referred to as ordinaries (or honorable ordinaries). The cross, one of the first charges, admits to scores of variations, including the cross bottony, cross paty, cross flory, cross crosslet, cross moline, and Maltese cross. Some ordinaries have diminutive forms, usually half the width: pallet (pale), cotise (bend), bar (fess), and chevronel (chevron).
If the field is divided, it is said to be parted or party and the angle of the partitioning line to be per that ordinary. For example, a shield divided by a fess (fesswise) is party per fess, or simply per fess. The tinctures of the parted field then are indicated, per pale Argent and Gules.
Fields also can be equally divided into three or more parts: palewise lines producing paly and fesswise lines, barry. These varied fields become more complicated still when they are combined, for example, paly and bendy to produce checky, or bendy and barry to produce barry-bendy.
There also are subordinaries (or plain ordinaries), secondary charges that include the bordure and tressure (solid or outlined borders), escutcheon (which can be solid or voided, which then is an orle), quarter and canton (larger and smaller rectangles in the dexter chief), roundel (a small round device, differently named according to its tincture), lozenge (a mascle when voided, a fusil when narrowed). Whether a particular charge is considered an ordinary or subordinary varies according to the authority.
The lines of partition that divide the field need not be plain but can be ornamental, although in early heraldry, there were fewer lines of partition and their meaning was less exact; indented, for example, a version with three indentations called dancetty, and undy or wavy all were regarded as the same. These examples all are chief, such as a chief embattled.
In blazon, the position of the line on the field must be indicated, as well as its type. Fields also can be counterchanged (as in the fifth example), or divided into gyrons.
per Bend Embattled
per Pale Barry
Aside from these geometrical ordinaries and subordinaries and the lines that partition them, there are a variety of common charges or devices that include virtually anything that can be depicted, although some, like the lion (here shown rampant), have a distinctive heraldic character. Such charges, all of which are taken from Fox-Davies, include the eagle, stag or hart, boar or hound; fabulous creatures such as the dragon or wyvern, unicorn, and griffin; plants such as the fleur-de-lis, heraldic rose, and thistle; and objects such as ship and anchor, arrow and axe, castle and tower, water bougets and maunchs (a lady's long sleeve).
When tinctures are considered, one begins to appreciate the variety made possible by the use of plain and ornamental lines, their position on the field, and the colors they separate. There are many more ornamental lines, divisions, and colors, as well as the various charges that can appear on the shield, all of which allow for thousands of unique combinations.
The technical description of the charges on a coat of arms, its blazon, therefore must be quite precise and adhere to established conventions. For example, color is not to be placed on color or metal on metal. (The red cross on an argent field is the cross of St. George, the national banner of England.)
Vert a bend Or
Or two bars Gules
Argent a cross Gules
Azure three fleurs-de-lis Or
Quarterly Purpure and Vert
Per Pale Undy Gules and Vert
The syntax is as exacting as the terminology. First, the tincture of the field, itself, is named (if parted or varied, the tincture of dexter chief is mentioned first and how they are divided), then the principal charge on the field (its name, which usually is an ordinary, and tincture; the position, unless otherwise specified, is assumed to be the fess point); any secondary charges in order of importance (those on the field, then those on charges already mentioned, then charges that are not in a principal position, and the charges on it). Adjectives tend to follow the noun they modify; tinctures are mentioned last and capitalized; punctuation is omitted.
This example would be blazoned as follows: Argent (the tincture of the field) on a chevron Gules (the principal charge and its tincture) between three leopard's faces Sable (the lesser charges on the field and their tincture) three castles Or (the lesser devices on the principal charge and their tincture).
Although three lions first were used by Richard I, from the time of Matthew Paris in the thirteenth century, they have been attributed to pre-Norman kings. Indeed, legendary arms often were invented for figures who lived before the advent of heraldry. Edward the Confessor, for example, was given posthumous arms of Azure a cross flory between five doves Or. Armorial bearings also were attributed to the characters of Arthurian romance. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, Uther Pendragon, the father of Arthur, was said to have taken his name from a visionary dragon, which he then had fashioned in gold "with the most marvellous craftsmanship." One was given to the church at Winchester, the other carried in battle. So, in the medieval rolls of arms, Uther was given Or two dragons addorsed Vert crowned Gules. To Arthur, himself, was attributed Azure three crowns Or, and to Gawain, Argent a canton Gules, neither of which have any textual basis. Lancelot's shield was thought to be blazoned Argent three bends Gules.
Almost nine centuries later, heraldry and the blazoning of arms still fascinate.
Although in the Annales Cambriae (c. AD 960), Arthur is said to have carried the image of the cross on his shield at the Battle of Badon and the Bayeux Tapestry shows insignia displayed on the gonfanons of both Harold and William at the Battle of Hastings, the Royal Arms of England began with Richard I (Coeur de Lion), who about 1198 bore a shield Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or, arms which English kings continued to use. The Plantagenets, beginning with Edward III in 1340, quartered the Royal Arms with those of France (Azure semy of Fleurs de lis Or) to signify his claim to the French throne, a claim that precipitated the Hundred Years War. In 1405, Henry IV reduced the number of fleurs-de-lis to three. This remained the Royal Arms for two hundred years, until 1603, when in the reign of James I they again were quartered to include the red lion of Scotland and the harp of Ireland.
The coat of arms (top) is from the Bedford Book of Hours and is that of John, the Duke of Bedford, a son of Henry IV. It is supported by an eagle and a Yale, a fabulous creature that appears here for the first time. (Interestingly, the water buffalo was introduced into England by Richard, the Duke of Cornwall and brother of Henry III, in the thirteenth century and some bestiary illustrations of the yale do look quite similar to it.) The label barely visible across the top is an example of cadency and distinguishes the arms as belonging to the son and not the father. The tree stumps allude to the Manor of Woodstock.
A glossary of additional terms used in blazon.
References: Boutell's Heraldry (1863/1983) revised by J. P. Brooke-Little; Arthur Charles Fox-Davies: A Complete Guide to Heraldry (1909/1969) annotated by J. P. Brooke-Little; The Oxford Guide to Heraldry (1988) by Thomas Woodcock and John Martin Robinson; William Henry St. John Hope: A Grammar of English Heraldry (1913/1953) revised by Anthony R. Wagner; "Heraldry" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed., 1910) by Oswald Barron; Early Blazon: Heraldic Terminology in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries with Special Reference to Arthurian Heraldry (1997) by Gerard J. Brault; The Heraldric Imagination (1975) by Rodney Dennys; A Treatise on Heraldry British and Foreign (1892) by John Woodward and George Burnett; Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain (1966) translated by Lewis Thorpe (Penguin Classics); Medieval Beasts (1990) by Ann Payne.
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