College of Arms: Purpose

August 22, 2009 at 2:35 pm (Essentials, Medium) (, , )

Yes, I know it’s a little long, but I can assure whole books (!) have been written on this.

The College of Arms (or Heralds’ College) has the sole right to grant arms in the UK.

In order to be granted arms by the College, a person must show that they are related by a purely male line from a person granted arms (an armigerous person), or that they are sufficiently well-respected to be able to apply for one themselves. An exception to this rule is made if the only breaks in the line of male descent are heraldic heiresses, meaning they are women, daughters of armigerous people, who have no brothers, or only brothers who have died without children (‘without issue’). The line may continue through them as required.

The College may advise on the use of differencing, through the use of cadency or otherwise, and enforce it where necessary. Cadency itself will be covered in future posts.

It holds many family trees of armigerous people, which are held in its buildings. They are considered factual and have official status and may only be changed at the head of the College’s discretion if the claim is backed up a relatively large amount of reliable evidence. Although they are not open to the public, the College of Arms may still be able to advise on a person’s pedigree with reference to their right to bear a coat of arms.

The most senior king of arms is the Garter King of Arms, in reference to the Order of the Garter. Although knowledge of the system beyond this is largely unnecessary in the current conditions, it is important to recognise that the College of Arms is almost completely self-financed (the members of the College receive nominal salaries from the government) and this grants it a level of autonomy not otherwise achieved. Furthermore, the rest of the funding is secured by a charge raised against applicants, which as of the start of the year 2009 was £3,950 for private individual applicants (the cost being approximately double for charitable organisations and triple for commercial companies).

Name changes, often particular sources of difficulty for genealogists where they are involved, are meticulously kept by the College and the declaration by use of a deed poll is also mentioned in its records. They are far more common within the land-owning families that tended to have coat of arms, and in particular a fairly common practise was to make an inheritance depended on the adoption of the name of the deceased.


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Case in point (2) & counterchanging

August 15, 2009 at 11:50 am (Cases in point, Medium) (, )

Counterchanging is the practice of reversing the colours of a particular section. It is clear in this flag, which serves as our second case-in-point.

This is the flag of the State of Maryland, in the United States of America. It is derived from a coat of arms.
What can we tell about it? Well,

  • It is parted quarterly
  • The first and fourth quarters have a base of paly, Or and sable
  • These quarters also have a bend counterchanged
  • The second and third quarters are quarterly argent and gules
  • The cross is a cross bottony (we’ve not met them yet, but you’re looking at all you need to know about it)
  • It appears to be counterchanged. (I say appears to be because it’s subtely different in character to the bend).

The state law officially defining it says thus (slightly edited, original here):

The State flag is quartered. The 1st and 4th quarters are paly of 6 pieces, or and sable, a bend [dexter (no difference)] counterchanged. Thus, the 1st and 4th quarters consist of 6 vertical bars alternately gold and black with a diagonal band on which the colours are reversed. The 2nd and 3rd, quarterly, are argent and gules, a cross bottony countersigned.

Looks like we got that one sussed, eh?

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Barry and Paly

August 15, 2009 at 11:37 am (Jargon, Medium) (, )

A shield that is paly has a series of around 6 vertical stripes of two alternating colours, a colour and a metal. Similarly, barry has horizontal stripes. If there aren’t six, it is specified, almost always even. (On a more advanced note, an odd number would be created using a field colour with a number of pallets (thinner pales) on top of it.) The two tinctures are defined after the term, with the left-most, or top-most stripe defined first. This is the simple version, there are other terms for similar effects with different ordinaries. Wikipedia has some useful illustrations, which I won’t bother with here (they can be found here).

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Crosses: the quick version

August 14, 2009 at 6:01 pm (Introductory) (, )

State Arms of the Kingdom of Greece as used during Glücksburg dynasty (1863-1924 and 1935-1974)

State Arms of the Kingdom of Greece as used during Glücksburg dynasty (1863-1924 and 1935-1974)

Depending on context, crosses can either be ordinaries (like the fess or bend, for example) or a moveable charge – most of which we haven’t met yet. The cross has Christian connotations, yes, but also reflects those intermediate people: those who used it by reference to Christ, yet it came to be associated with him. For most people, it is not the shape but the colour that comes to mind when putting crosses into categories: the red cross of Saint George, or the white-on-blue of Saint Andrew. For heraldists, though, the shape prevails. Take the later example: it consists of two bands, one from the top-left to bottom-right; the other from top-right to bottom-left. In this way is bears a considerable resemblance to a mix of a bend and bend sinister. This particular shape is called a saltire; the plainer shape of Saint George normally just a cross.

There are other variations, with varying connotations. The Greek Cross most strongly springs to mind, with the “arms” of the cross (by which I mean all four) do not reach the sides. This is not the case, stangely enough, on the current coat of arms of Greece (available here), but are on the older arms of the Glücksburg dynasty (for UK readers, that’s the one Prince Philip’s related to), as pictured here.

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Lines of division – other types

August 5, 2009 at 10:23 am (Jargon, Medium) (, )

Types of division (click to enlarge)

Types of division (click to enlarge)

The field divisions and ordinary can be modified with an extra word after the type of division or ordinary. For example, these are both correct blazons:

Per pale nebuly, argent and azure
Argent, a pale nebuly azure.

This post’s one for the reference material, I think – the division types are fairly easy to identify, in the sense that a particular word falls into this category, but not easy to remember them all.

This particular post covers wavy, engrailed, invected, nebuly, indented, dancetty, embattled, dove-tailed potenty, raguly, urdy and rayonné. They do come up in other places, other than heraldry – such as architecture. There have been a couple more recent inventions, but their use is largely limited to the Scandinavian countries where they were conceived. History may give them proper names in English, but for now they are “fir-twig” and “tree-top lined” (or similar).

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Divisions of the field

July 31, 2009 at 3:14 pm (Introductory, Jargon) (, )

Right, so the previous post outline extra things to add to a shield, but what about the field itself? The truth is, it can be parted (or party) in several ways. The most simple is parted per fess, which is halved to form two horizontal parts, one on top of the other. One example is the flag of Lübeck, in Germany, which is:

Parted per fess, argent and gules

This means it formed from two sections, white on red. Note the top tincture (in this case argent) is first. If horizontal, it’s left-to-right.
The equivalent term for three stripes is tierced.
All the terms either resemble or are derived from the ordinaries in the previous post.

  • fess is parted horizontally,
  • pale is parted vertically,
  • bend is parted diagonally from upper left to lower right,
  • bend sinister is parted diagonally from upper right to lower left,
  • saltire is parted diagonally in both directions,
  • cross or quarterly is parted into four quarters,
  • chevron is parted by a line in the shape of a chevron,
  • pall or pairle is parted into thirds by lines to the middle from the top-left and top-right corners and the base of the shield.

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July 30, 2009 at 5:08 pm (Essentials, Introductory, Jargon) (, )

Up to this point, all we know about is the shield, which has a background (the field). The field can have a tincture. Now comes another layer of detail, which, while basic, is slightly more complicated. Anything else that has a colour, that one can put on a shield, is an ordinary. This is the short definition. For example, one could put a white horizontal stripe on a red background. This stripe is called a fess. There are other words to cover similar things, but they are treated in the same way: they are followed by a tincture.

The arms of Austria are:

Gules, a fess argent

To be honest, the comma is optional. What this is telling us is that the shield is red (Gules) with a white horizontal stripe (a fess argent). In this case, the fess takes up about 1/3 of the height of the shield. The “about” is important: just like shades of a tincture, it is a matter of preference. All ordinaries are geometric in nature; they are mathmatical constructs. However, this type of “ordinary” is not moveable. There is only one position for the stripe, and that’s central. To take an extract directly from my book:

  • A cross is a cross (+) whose vertical stripe covers between about one-fifth and one-third of the shield width and vice-versa.
  • A saltire is a diagonal cross as in St. Andrew’s cross.
  • A pale is a central vertical stripe of about a third of the shield’s width.
  • A fess is a central horizontal stripe of about a third of the shield’s height.
  • A bar is a narrower fess of around one-fifth of the shield’s height.
  • A bend is a diagonal band from the viewer’s upper-right to lower-left, a bend sinister the opposite.
  • A chevron is a band in the shape of a chevron (^).
  • A chief is a band across the top of a shield.
  • A bordure is a border.
  • A pile is a triangle pointing down from the top corners of the shield.
  • A pall is a Y-shape.

One of my favorite coats of arms is that of de Clare. If I told you a chevronel was a thinner chevron, maybe you can visualise “Or, three chevronels gules”. If you can’t, or want to show off to yourself how correct you are, click here.

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Blazon make-up

July 28, 2009 at 4:51 pm (Essentials, Introductory, Jargon) (, )

What a blazon is is described here, but this is how they are made up. The words in bold are jargon, and will be explained more fully later, but I hope the gist is clear enough.

The blazon begins with a definition of the field. This is the background of the shield. In the case of many coats of arms this is single tincture, for example ‘Or’ (gold). It then includes the principal charges, along with their tinctures, starting with the ordinaries. These come, in the French style, after the charges they describe, for example ‘a bend azure’. The charges of the shield are then described, followed by the supporters and other surrounding elements.

The blazon of the shield of Libya is “Vert”. This means it has a green background, with nothing on. If it were “Vert, an eagle Or”, it would be green with an eagle on (more on this charge later). It’s then built up from there.

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Simple tinctures

July 28, 2009 at 4:40 pm (Essentials, Introductory, Jargon) (, )

Tinctures describe things, and refer to their appearance. The English language rather lacks the correct language to accurately describe the scope of the word “tincture”, but it encompasses three categories: colours, metals, and furs. The most simple are the first two, which are explained here. This short list is not comprehensive, since I’ll leave the most rare to more advanced posts. Or and argent are metals; the others here are colours.

If something as proper, it is shown in its normal colours in nature.

The term Or represents Gold, related with heraldry and royalty from the start. It is usually capitalised to avoid confusion with the conjunction. In line drawing or engravings, a pattern of light dots is used in its place. It normally represents the Sun and the life it brings and the virtues of courage and honour.

The term argent literally means ‘silver’ but it is almost always represented as white (and for this reason an argent field is never shown on a white background). In line drawing or engravings, the area is left blank, sometimes with the abbreviation Ar. written in them.

Sable represents the colour black, and is shown in line drawings and engravings as a hatch of vertical and horizontal lines.

The term gules denotes red, and symbolises martyrdom in particular. In engravings it is depicted with vertical lines or the abbreviation Gu., and is normally illustrated with a pure red.

Azure is used to describe blue. It is a dark, rich blue, and the only type of blue to be regularly described in heraldic language . It may be represented in a lighter or darker shade, however. In line drawing or engravings, horizontal lines are used to signify its presence, or the abbreviation Az. or B.

The term purpure refers to the colour purple. In engravings it is depicted with diagonal lines, running from the observer’s bottom-left to top-right, or the abbreviation Purp.

Vert, coming from the French for green, is used to describe it in English heraldry (the French use the term sinople). It is depicted in black-and-white by diagonal lines, running from the observer’s top-left to bottom-right, or the abbreviation Vt. It is associated with abundance and life.

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Case in point (1)

July 23, 2009 at 8:04 pm (Cases in point) (, )

The first of many example pieces designed to ensure the topics are well understood, and may help people who are unsure. This build on what on previous posts, using the arms of Moravia as the example. It’s not going to be in much detail at this stage, but that’s not the point: everyone’s got to start somewhere. It’s also a useful test for jumping in at the “Case in point” you understand, and work from there. Here it is:

The coat of arms of Moravia, in the public domain (author unknown).

The coat of arms of Moravia, in the public domain (author unknown).

Right, we can see that:

  • The shield is blue with an eagle on it;
  • The helm is a mediaeval helmet;
  • The crest is a coronet and another eagle;
  • The mantling is red and white;
  • There are no supporters.

That should be enough to summarise what you know about this particular coat of arms already, using the right jargon. A pat on the back for those who started at the beginning, methinks. There’s more to do yet, though!

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