You may well be familiar with the coat of arms, but for those who've seen them and don't really know their origin, they are a symbol of identity.
Used by families, towns, and organizations, the special design is in the form of a shield. Formally known as an achievement, heraldic achievement, or armorial achievement its made up of several parts; the shield, mantling, helm, the wreath, charges, and the crest.
The coat of arms, though, is a part of a long history and what's known as heraldry. Many people study heraldry throughout their life, but it's something not everyone knows much about it. In this guide, we'll explore heraldry and the coat of arms' history. You'll also gain some insight into common colors and symbols that are used and their meanings.
What Is Heraldry?
Heraldry is something that came about in England in the late 1100s. Knights covering their faces to participate in battles and tournaments quickly became unrecognizable when fighting. As a solution to this problem, the knights began to paint unique combinations on their shields and banners. These varied in colors, animals, and shapes called 'arms.'
Thus started a long history of heraldry that remained popular and has been used beyond knights wearing them in battle. Nowadays, you can see them as part of family crests to distinguish themselves from others.
Common Heraldry Colors
There are five distinct colors used within heraldry, and the colors themselves have their own names. These heraldic names were given due to the history of heraldry, where knights and their families spoke Norman French. Here are those five colors and their herald names:
- Red = Gules
- Blue = Azure
- Green = Vert
- Black = Sable
- Purple = Purpure
The heraldry would also be typically made out of two metals:
- Gold or yellow = Or
- Silver or white = Argent
The meanings behind the colors
The colors also have meanings to them to be more symbolic of those wearing the coat of arms.
Blue (Azure) signified loyalty, truth, strength, charity, and faith.
Red (Gules) was representative of military strength, warrior, magnanimity, and martyr.
Purple (Purpure) signified regal, justice, temperance, royal majesty, and sovereignty.
Black (Sable) can mean grief, prudence, and wisdom.
Green (Vert) signified loyalty to love, hope, joy, and prosperity.
Yellow/Gold (Or) - representative of wisdom, great generosity, faithfulness, and constancy.
Silver/White (Argent) - represents truth, innocence, peace, purity, and sincerity.
It's interesting to look at what many of us would consider common coats of arms and how their colors are very telling of who they represent. For example, the United Kingdom's coat of arms has mixtures of gold, green, blue, and red. The US has blues and yellow/gold that mainly make up the heraldry.
What Are The Coat Of Arms Symbols?
The coat of arms is not just made out of the colors alone. It's given to encompass everything that you see, from the shield to the symbols used. In order to fully understand the coat of arms in its entirety, it's important to break it down.
Ordinaries are the shapes on the shield itself. They come in many different forms and are typically against a color, metal, or fur background.
There are a number of shapes that are typically used and can be found with many historical coats of arms. Here are a few examples:
- Bend - A diagonal stripe
- Cross - A cross in the middle
- Bordure - A border around the edges
- Pile - A downward-pointing triangle.
Charges were emblems that were added to the shield in order to distinguish it further. Some knights would use animals as charges too.
Some of the common charges would be rings, balls, stars, crescents, and flowers. The charges could be just one shape or consist of several smaller shapes.
Animal charges would be used in a number of ways, and their positioning would also have relevance.
6 Common Heraldry Symbols
Many knights would use animals as their charges because they often were representative of their fighting style or personality. With many family crests, the animal has a lot of significance and can be symbolic in many ways.
As mentioned above, the positioning of the heraldry animal charges is important. If the animal is facing toward you, it's considered to be on guard (guardant).
The animal charges can be again, either a big one or displayed as several smaller ones. They can be shown in different ways too. For example, if the animal is rearing up or stretching out its wings. Here are some of the ways in which they can be displayed:
- Rearing up (Rampant)
- Standing (Statant)
- Wings outstretched (displayed)
- Walking (passant)
There are six common heraldry symbols in the form of animals that are worth mentioning. You'll have likely seen many of them before, especially with countries and their individual coat of arms. Here are the six common animal charges used:
Our loyal companions in life, dogs are commonly used as chargers and represent faithfulness and reliability - just like the canines themselves.
You'll notice plenty of coats of arms will have lions as their animal charges, and this is due to them being representative of bravery.
A common animal used is the eagle, a bird known for its power and symbolic in its noble nature. It also signifies protection.
A somewhat unusual animal choice at first glance, however, badgers are considered to be representative of endurance.
A common animal to be used is the hare. Known for their speed as a symbolism.
Finally, the stag is used as a way to represent wisdom and long life. One that would make sense for family crests.
Anyone can design their own animal charge, particularly if there is an animal that represents you as an individual or your family history. Organizations or businesses may also choose to have a coat of arms where a certain animal is used as their mascot perhaps.
Other common symbols used
There are a number of other common symbols used within the coat of arms that have meaning. Here are a few examples:
- Chains - reflect an acceptable and weighty service
- Cypress - death and eternal life
- Bells - disperse evil spirits
- Feathers - a sign of willing obedience
- Battle ax - used to show a position of power
- Olive branch - representative of peace
- Cross - represents faith, holy spirit
- Hand - hands conjoined represent union and an alliance.
- Fleur-de-lis - the floral badge of France, represents the sixth son.
- Cross pattée - military honor
Popular Coat Of Arms And Family Crest Examples
For those who've studied heraldry, there are many popular coats of arms and family crest examples. When you next come across a coat of arms or a family crest, be sure to look for the animals or symbols used and how each image or shape has been colored to provide further symbolism.
The coat of arms of Australia
A well-known coat of arms is the Australian one called the 'Commonwealth Coat of Arms officially.' It's the official symbol that represents the Australian Union and provides six symbols that represent the six states. These symbols are held up by the native Australian animals, the kangaroo and the emu.
The royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom
Royal arms, for short, are used by the Queen herself in an official capacity as the monarch. The coat of arms itself is steeped in a variety of colors. It's a family coat that has remained the same since Queen Victoria's accession in 1837.
Old Welsh coat of arms
The old welsh coat of arms displayed dragons which are representative of a valiant defender. As Wales is its own country, it's very symbolic of its independence and bravery. The traditional red colors used for the dragons themselves also bolster the warrior and strength symbolism they've gone for.
The coat of arms Iceland
Displaying a silver-edged and red cross on a blue shield, it's representing the design of the country's flag. There are four protectors of Iceland standing on the columnar basalt. These are the bull, the eagle/griffin, the dragon, and the rock-giant.
While the coat of arms symbols may be historical in their relevance, they still are an important part of many people's heritage. You may unknowingly have a coat of arms your own that carries a battle axe, seven heads, family crests for human society, or one to represent great battles or death-defying bravery that you have no idea exists.
Some have been lost through generations, so it's always worth looking back through your lineage and seeing what history your family may be a part of. If not, then it's the perfect excuse to make your own for your family tree!
Genealogist and family-tree research specialist
Neil was born in Shropshire, England surrounded by centuries of living history. His interest in the past has been a lifelong passion leading to undergraduate degrees in both Economic History & Geography and History & Politics.
This interest in history quickly translated to family history when he moved to the U.S. in 2010. It was here that he began working on his own family tree as well as that of his American wife. That research allowed him to gain a wealth of experience working with both U.S. and European genealogical documents and studying their best uses in researching family history.
Following 9 years of honing his genealogical research skills, Neil was proud to have earned a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University in late 2019. Neil also took part in the research process for a Duke University study into the families of 19th Century UK Members of Parliament.
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