Banners and Blazons: Introducing Heraldry to History.

Throughout history, one of the similarities present in different societies and cultures has been the use of symbols to denote meaning. Among the various systems that regulate the use of symbols and emblems, heraldry is the most common throughout the globe. Unfortunately, heraldry has become a niche field and recent academic publication concerning it has been scarce. This article will give an overview on the basics of heraldry and try to identify its place in the study of history.


parts-of-a-heraldic-achievmentBasics of Heraldry

In its broadest terms, the word ‘heraldry’ could be used to denote any system of regulated symbols and emblems. In this article, we will define ‘heraldry’ as the system that regulates the design, display and study of armorial achievements. It should be kept in mind that heraldic tradition differs from place to place.

The most important aspect of heraldry is the blazon; a blazon is the official written description of a coat of arms.  For example, the blazon of the coat of arms of York is: Argent, on a Cross gules, five lions passant guardant or. At a glance, this sounds like a mishmash of English and French. However, those that understand blazon can translate this into an image. The blazon written without the proper terminology would be White, on a red cross, five gold lions walking and facing the viewer.

While the armigers (people that are entitled to have coat of arms) have free rein on the design of their blazon, there is one rule which a coat of arms should follow: ‘Metals should not be on metals, colours should not be on colours’. The colours and metals referred to are the tinctures used in heraldry. Metals are Argent and Or (white/silver and gold/yellow respectively), while colours are gules, vert, azure, purpure, sable (red, green, blue, purple and black respectively). In later periods, more colours were used as heraldic tinctures, and these are often referred to as ‘stains’. Another type of tincture used are called ‘furs’, including ermine, vair and their subcategories. The rule on metals and colours was supposedly created so that the designs would be easily discernible.  This so-called law has several loopholes that were exploited to create more varieties of blazons. At other times, it is deliberately broken such as in the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. This was done to show the extraordinary status of the kingdom. However, this rule was more of a guideline than an enforced law.

When displayed in its entirety a coat of arms is more aptly termed as a ‘heraldic achievement’. It is composed of several parts: the crest, wreath/coronet, mantling, helmet, shield, supporters, order, compartment and motto. It should be noted that heraldic practices are different from place to place. The elements listed above may be absent or have different practices depending on the heraldic tradition. In Scotland, the motto is displayed above the crest while in other countries it is displayed below the shield. Meanwhile, in German heraldry it is a norm to display more than one crest and helmet in a single heraldic achievement. Furthermore, there are different regulations in place on civil and ecclesiastical heraldry.

For a system of heraldry to be effectively put in place within a country, that country would need an office of heraldic authority. In the UK there are three heraldic authorities. In England, it is the College of Arms; in Scotland, it is the Court of the Lord Lyons; in Northern Ireland, it is under the jurisdiction of the Norroy and Ulster King of Arms working within the English College of Arms. These institutions are responsible for creating, granting, and resolving cases in which heraldic laws were breached.

One of the most common misconceptions about heraldry is that one coat of arms could be used by every member of a family. In truth, a coat of arms is only granted to one individual for personal use. The descendants of the individual would not be able to use the exact same coat of arms of their living armigerous ancestor. However, the descendants may differentiate the coat of arms of their ancestor by adding an extra element to it and using it as their own, which is a practice called cadency. When the armiger of the original coat of arms have passed away, their heraldic heir would remove the differentiating element thus adopting the original unchanged arms as their own.

marshallingThe last heraldic matter that this article will highlight is marshalling, the practice of combining two or more coat of arms. There are several ways to marshal a coat of arms: quartering, impalement, dimidiation and pretension. Quartering, as the name suggest, is to divide the shield into four or more sections and displaying the blazons within one shield. Impalement is to completely display two coat of arms side by side on one shield. Dimidiation is to cut the two coat of arms with a vertical line and uniting them together, a precursor to impalement. Finally, pretension is to display a coat of arms in a smaller shield called an inescutcheon over another coat of arms. The cause for several coats of arms to be marshalled varies. It is commonly caused by a marital union or having a tenure in an office. However, there are several instances where a marshalling was caused by political reasons. A rather well known example would be Edward III quartering the arms of England with the arms of France to show his claim to the French throne.

An understanding of these concepts should be enough to analyse a coat of arms. However, a more in-depth understanding would need a firmer grasp on heraldry.


Origins and Contemporary usage

The use of various symbols within a military context has been common since antiquity. For example, the Greek hoplites decorated their aspis shields with a variety of symbols and the legions of the Roman Empire would march behind their signum, aquilium and vexilium. However, the intricate field of heraldry that we now know today was developed during the heights of chivalric culture in the Middle Ages. As such, it can be said that heraldry is the most enduring legacy of chivalric culture as it is still practiced to this day, albeit on a smaller scale.

In the many publications that study chivalry, one of the key points of discussion is the importance of individual martial prowess in chivalric culture. Since knights would want to be easily identified when they performed a martial feat, they adopted coats of arms to stand out and differentiate themselves. It is  likely that heraldry was not created on the battlefield, but in tourneys instead, as the mud and blood of a battle would tarnish the tabards and shields making them indistinguishable from one another. Furthermore, contemporary images showed knights participating in a tourney melee and proudly displaying their full colours, while images of battle would show knights displaying their blazonry only on their tabards, shields, pennons and banners. As such, it is a reasonable case to say that heraldry developed on the tourney list and was brought to the battlefield on a smaller scale

It is impossible to detach heraldry from its roots in medieval aristocratic martial culture. However, the clergy and burghers would also  adopt heraldry as a way to represent themselves. Since the clerical participation in warfare was common at the time, the creation of the ecclesiastical branch of heraldry was a natural consequence. As they were in the third estate, the burgesses did not adopt heraldry to represent their individual members but to represent civic and corporate authority. In later periods, the burgesses were able to purchase a grant of arms from a heraldic authority. However, its steep price ensured the exclusivity and the prestige of being an armiger.

Even before the adoption of heraldry by the burghers and the clergy, it was common to see a coat of arms outside battlefields and tourneys. Buildings, stained glasses, household items, monuments, tombs and illuminated manuscripts from this period would often incorporate heraldry as a decoration. Due to the raison d’etre of heraldry, the display of a coat of arms in buildings, stained glass etc. was not purely decorative; it was used to show patronage or ownership. Furthermore, to have one’s blazon displayed in certain places would bring prestige to the armiger. An example of this is the choir-stalls of St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle; displaying one’s arms in there shows membership to the Order of the Garter, the most prestigious chivalric order in Britain.


The use of Heraldry in history

Perhaps the most common area of history in which heraldry is used is the field of genealogical and family history. This takes advantage of the marshalling and cadency aspects of heraldry. However, unwary genealogy enthusiasts may fall into the trap of  believing that by having a certain surname, one can adopt a coat of arms owned by an armiger with the same surname. Some businesses have abused this misconception to make money by selling incorrectly emblazoned merchandise. Not only has this practice reinforced this misconception, it has also made those that fall prey to it  unknowingly commit heraldic fraud.

For a family historian, heraldry is a useful tool to track the activities of a particular individual and their descendants. However, since the armiger status was only granted to those of high social standings, the use of heraldry in family history is limited to families of high statuses, thus marking a  limitation in its use.

coa-edwardThe use of heraldry may also be deployed in arguments beyond the scope of family history. For example, one of the common debates on the Hundred Years’ War has concerned whether King Edward III was vehement in pushing his claim on the throne of France. When Edward III started styling himself as the King of France, he quartered the arms of England with those of France. Heraldic conventions would dictate that the arms of the father would be displayed on the most honoured positions in a quartered shield, the Dexter Chief and the Sinister Base (top left and bottom right of the shield from the viewer’s perspective). Instead, he displayed the arms of his mother Isabella of France in these positions. While this could be considered an honest mistake, one should remember that Edward would most likely have had heralds in his court that would advise him in marshalling his arms. Thus, this act was more likely to be deliberated beforehand. This would show that Edward believed that his claim to the French throne was more important than the English throne. Another heraldic case that concerns Edward and his claim is in the arms of the Order of the Garter. The arms of the Order showed the eponymous garter surrounding a shield blazoned with the cross of St. George. The garter bears the motto “HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE” (shame on him who thinks evil of it) what ‘it’ denotes remains to be argued by historians. One argument is that since the colour of the garter is blue and gold (the same colour as the coat of arms of France); ‘it’ refers to Edwards claim to the French throne.



Overall, the major problem with using heraldry in history is—paradoxically—the lack of literature written that uses heraldry as it is an esoteric field. As shown above, there is a place for heraldry within mainstream historical study to become more than a niche field as it can give a new perspective and depth to a historical period. However, one should be aware of the limitations of heraldry as a tool for historical research. One of the most striking problems is that, despite its established conventions, in some cases an amount of arbitrariness is involved in practice due to the misconceptions already discussed.

Written by Azam Caesar


Boutell, Charles. Edited by S.T. Aveling Heraldry: Ancient and Modern (London: Frederic Warne, 1898)

Ellis, William Smith. The antiquities of heraldry, collected from the literature, coins, gems, vases and other monuments of pre-Christian and mediaeval times, etc. (London: John Russel Smith, 1869)

Friar, Stephen Heraldry for the Local Historian and genealogist (Stroud: Sutton, 1996)

Denholm-Young, Noël. History and Heraldry 1254 to 1310 (Oxford: University Press, 1965)

Woodcock, Thomas, and John Martin Robinson. The Oxford Guide to Heraldry (Oxford: University Press, 1988)

The College of Arms “FAQs: heraldry.” Accessed 24 October 2016

The College of Arms “History” Accessed 20 October 2016