Medieval Heraldry Introduction

Introduction to Medieval Heraldry

Coats of arms are an icon of the world of the Middle Ages and Medieval Collectibles brings you a short introduction into the world of medieval heraldry. We hope to help you get a better understanding of what is shown on a medieval coat of arms.

History of Heraldry and Coats of Arms

Since ancient times, warriors have been identified by their shields. Until the medieval world, the shields would usually indicate a military unit rather than a family. Truer heraldic styles were used during the reign of Charlemagne, but heraldry really came into its own when the need to identify individual opponents during combat became more important. The Bayeux tapestry shows a visible development of heraldry during the 11th century as only the Flemish section of the army using hereditary heraldry.

Medieval Heraldry - Bayeux Tapestry
A detail from the Bayeux tapestry.

Over time, many others would use family coat of arms. The first recorded depiction of a coat of arms is the one of Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou. It was recorded on his tomb in 1151.

Medieval Heraldry - Geoffrey of Anjou
Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou holding a shield with his coat of arms.
Medieval Heraldry - Geoffrey of Anjou
A closer look at Geoffrey V's coat of arms.

Heraldry was also used for important announcements. The job title of Herald has its origins with heraldry. A herald would be sent by an important person, usually a nobleman or monarch, to send messages or proclaim news. They would wear a tabard with the heraldic coat of arms of the person that they were representing. Heralds still exist today in places such as the United Kingdom, and some still oversee the usage of heraldry.

There are a variety of terms one may come across when looking at a coat of arms or other heraldic depiction. To start with, a coat of arms may include a crest, helmet, escutcheon, supporters, motto, and other details. A coat of arms may have some of these while not including others. For example, the coat of arms of England has only a few of these pieces. Furthermore, a coat of arms will have a blazon which is the formal description of the coat of arms.

What is an Escutcheon?

An escutcheon is the shield in the center of a coat of arms. A shield has a shape based on the shields commonly used in medieval warfare. However, women historically did not have shields on their coat of arms. They would either use a lozenge which often looks like a diamond on a playing card, or they would use an oval. For example, Princess Diana prior to her marriage had a coat of arms with a lozenge.

Medieval Heraldry - Escutcheon
The shield shape in the middle of the coat of arms is called the escutcheon.

Tinctures on a Coat of Arms

A tincture on a coat of arm is the color or pattern used. They come in colours, metals, and furs. There are only five commonly used colors in coats of arms. They are red or gules, blue or azure, green or vert, purple or purpure, and black or sable. The second term refers to the heraldic term used to describe the color. The metals are gold which is called or and silver which is called argent. The furs include ermine and fair. Ermine is meant to represent a stoat in winter while vair represents to a type of squirrel. Ermine patterns will normally have a white background with black shapes. Meanwhile, vair patterns will have alternating blue and white pointed pieces. There are additional variations on these two patterns such as pean and potent.

Divisions of an Escutcheon

There are many ways to have more than one color on a shield. These are called the divisions of the field. Some of these include party per pale, party per fess, and quarterly. Dividing a shield party per pale means that you are dividing the shield straight down the middle where the left half will be one color and the right another one. Party per fess divisions involve splitting a shield horizontally. Many of our shields are party per fess. Quarterly is exactly what it sounds like, a shield divided into four quarters. There are many more ways to divide a shield than those just mentioned.

Ordinaries and What are they?

An ordinary is a rectilinear shape sitting over the top of a shield in the coat of arms. These were common in the earlier days of heraldry, especially regarding use on the battlefield. They helped with identification. Some examples include a cross, chief, pale, bordure, chevron, and more. A cross is a straight up and down cross with the lines going through the center of the shield. It is not diagonal as a diagonal X-shape is called a saltire. A chief is a straight section along the top of the shield. Bordures are a border around the edge of a shield. Ordinaries, especially crosses, are not the same as charges.

Medieval Heraldry - Cross Ordinary
The coat of arms of the House of Savoie has a cross ordinary.

Popular Symbols, aka Charges

Charges are the objects or figures used to decorate a shield. The most common ones are crosses in addition to multiple circles called roundels, rectangles called billets, and more. Roundels have special names depending on their color, such as pommes for green roundels. In addition to shapes, plants and animals will often frequent heraldic designs. Trefoils, quatrefoils, and cinquefoils may represent flowers and leaves. Perhaps the most common flower used in medieval heraldry is the fleur-de-lis, while the most common tree is the oak.

Some of the more common animals depicted are beasts and birds. For example, these include lions, griffins, dragons, stags, eagles, and more. Such animals, especially four-legged ones, will be displayed in a specific pose called an attitude. Common attitudes include rampant and passant. A rampant lion would be standing with both of its front paws raised into the air. For a griffin, this position can be called segreant. A lion in passant, on the other hand, will only have one of the forepaws raised. The coat of arms of England which is based on the arms of Richard the Lionheart depicts three passant lions. We have flags based on this design.

Other Common Additions to a Coat of Arms

While a shield is perhaps the most common feature of a coat of arms, it is not always the only one. Many coats of arms will include a helmet above the shield. Above a helmet may be a crest, coronet, or mantle. Also, a coat of arms may just have a crown instead of a helmet. The Arms of Luxembourg, for example, only has a crown in this area of the coat of arms. In addition to a helmet or crown, a coat of arms may include a motto along the bottom. They may also have supporters which are animals on the sides of the shield seemingly holding it up. The most common depiction is one on each side. Rarely is there only one animal.


Popular Coats of Arms in History

There are many coats of arms across history. Some of which changed, especially when combining their coat of arms with their spouse. A great example would be the coat of arms for Henry VIII. It originally had lion and dragon supports which were dropped for the subsequent combined coat of arms. Many monarchical coats of arms could have multiple details that referred to the kingdoms being ruled. Queen Joanna of Castile had an extremely complicated coat of arms. There are at least three sets of quadrants.

Medieval Heraldry - Henry VII Coat of Arms
Henry VIII's Coat of Arms
Medieval Heraldry - Joanna of Castile Coat of Arms
Joanna of Castile's Coat of Arms

This introduction to medieval heraldry by Medieval Collectibles is merely a glimpse into the world of historical coat of arms. There is much more out there, but this introduction is sure to help you understand a bit more about medieval coats of arms. It includes an array of information whether it is about the history or design.

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