How to Interpret the Heraldry
Coat of Arms Components (The Achievement)
The escutcheon or field where the bearings in coats of arms are placed is known as the shield. This comes from the fact that in medieval times the shield carried by a knight was ornamented with various devices in order to identify him to his friends in the midst of battle. Also known as a heater, the shield displays the unique colors and charges (lions, designs, etc. that appear on the shield). Shield shapes may vary according to their geographical origin as well as the time period.
purpose in heraldry is to bear the crest and as the crest was generally
made of either wood or boiled leather, the helmet should be large
enough to bear the extra weight. It should also be functional enough so
it could actually be worn.
The helmet represents that piece of armor worn to protect the head and neck of the warrior. The achievement of arms is ensigned with a helmet by placing it above the escutcheon. There were established rules by which the rank of the bearer was designated by the position occupied by the helmet, its material and decorations.
First, there was the helmet of the Sovereign and Princes by blood. It was worn full-faced, open and garde-visure with six bars; and of gold, burnished damask.
The second was the helmet of a Duke: made of silver, figured with gold, full-faced, open and garde-visure, with five bars.
The third was the helmet of all those who were dignified with the peerage under the degree of a dukedom: made of silver, figured with gold, in profile, open and garde-visure, three bars visible.
The fourth was the
helmet of the Baronets and Knights: made of polished steel, figured
with silver, full-faced, open and without guards.
The fifth was the helmet of Esquires and gentlemen: made of polished steel, and must be placed sideways or in profile with closed gard. All helmets were lined with crimson.
In showing arms of families from the British Isles , the helmet used should be that of the Esquire or Gentleman. The helmet of a knight, noble or sovereign is used only with arms of the particular man having that rank.
There is a prevailing idea that everybody has a coat of arms and that it is only a question of finding it. A more imaginative idea could hardly exist. Another mistaken idea is that anybody can assume a crest in the same haphazard manner in which one designs a monogram. The crest represents the molded, wrought or carved figure fixed to the knight's helmet.
The delusion that crests are hereditary and may be assumed at pleasure is very deep-rooted. There are many coats of arms in existence to which no crests have ever been assigned, but there is not a solitary crest lawfully existing without its complementary coat of arms. Unless there be an undoubted right to arms is it absolutely certain there can be no right to a crest. A crest is essentially but a part of a formal armorial achievement and cannot exist alone.
The helm or helmet is used to indicate the rank of the bearer of the arms from the gold full-faced helm of royalty to the steel helmet with closed visor of a gentleman. By the end of the 13th century many nobles and knights had adopted a secondary hereditary device called a crest.
The crest is a
figure or device affixed to the helmet of every commander for his
distinction in the confusion of battle. It was generally made of wood
or stiffened leather, and was laced on to the top of the helm. Crests
were in use before the hereditary bearing of coat armor. Crests were
not considered in any way connected with the family arms until the 14th
century. Thousands of men wear crests upon their rings, and yet they
are altogether ignorant of what a crest really is and do not know the
difference between a crest and a coat of arms.
The crest was laced to the top of the helmet and in some cases was bolted on to hide the junction of the crest and helmet. The wreath, or "torse" as it is alternately known, was employed for covering the joining between the helmet and the crest.
consisted of a twisted silken scarf which was wound around the helm
over the join and knotted behind. In modern heraldry, the wreath is
depicted as if two scarves had been wound together. The colors showing
in alternate sections and the colors (or tinctures) are the same as the
first named metal and the first named color in the blazon and are known
as the colors.
A rule of heraldry is that wreaths should always show an equal number of divisions (now restricted to six), the coil or twist to the left showing the metal, and that at the right the principal color of the arms. Every crest is understood to be placed upon a wreath unless a chapeau or some coronet be expressly mentioned.
The mantling (or
lambrequin) is the device of the painter to give prominence to the coat
of arms and crest and is believed to have had its origin as a piece of
cloth which covered the helmet and hung down at the back to a point
beneath the base of the helm. It was intended to shield
the wearer from the heat of the sun and rain. The origin of the
flowered and scroll-like addition which is seen on each side of the
design in a full achievement originated from the slashed and ragged
mantling coming from battle. This kind of mantling cannot be used by
ladies because it is inseparable from the helmet.
The tinctures to be used in painting the mantling, unless otherwise stated, are the principal color and metal of the bearer's arms, the outer part being the color, and the inner part, or lining, being the metal. There is no set rule in depicting this mantling. It is entirely the artist's conception, but in so painting, simplicity should prevail.
Supporters are the
figures placed on each side of the shield in the attitude of holding up
or supporting a shield. In almost every instance in English heraldry
supporters appear in pairs, and they are taken from either living or
imaginary creatures - human, animal, beast, bird or
The origin of supporters is traced to ancient tournaments where the knights caused their shields to be carried by servants or pages who were disguised as lions, bears, griffins, etc.
Very few American families are entitled to supporters, yet many commercial firms and heraldic artists in furnishing a copy of the arms of a family will depict it with supporters. Supporters do not pertain to the arms of a family. They designate the specific rank of a person, and are used only with the arms of that person.
The following persons may bear supporters:
- All pears of the realm.
- Knights of the Garter, Thistle and St. Patrick.
- All knights, Grand Cross of the Orders of Knighthood.
In addition to the above there are a considerable number of
armigerous persons whose right to use supporters has been
admitted through "ancient usage."
Not officially granted with a coat of arms, mottos are a phrase which incorporates the basic philosophy of the family or an ancient war cry. They may or may not be present on an individual coat of arms, and are normally placed below the shield or occasionally above the crest.
The motto is of
comparatively recent origin. It, too, was not hereditary, and each man
could adopt one or discard one at will. American families of colonial
stock should not use a motto unless it can be shown that a recent
ancestor of the emigrant used it.
In Scotland and Ireland and in some English families the "war cry" was used as a motto by custom, in which case, of course, it accompanied the coat of arms. The motto is most usually couched in French or Latin and should be placed under the shield where it is always carried on a scroll, also called the riband. The color of the scroll is now left to the choice of the artist.
Learn more about the Symbol and Color Meanings of the coat of arms.