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A Basic Heraldic Bookshelf

Annotated by Members of the American Heraldry Society Forum

We are often asked to recommend a selection of good basic books on heraldry. The problem in doing this is not knowing where to start, but knowing where to stop. Heraldic literature goes back to the 14th century, and as the student of heraldry learns more and more, he finds himself delving ever more deeply into older and older sources. The purpose of this list is not to include every great book on heraldry but to list those works in English that members of the American Heraldry Society have found particularly useful and that are readily available for sale (new or used) or in libraries in the United States. Except for those focusing on American arms, we do not include works that are primarily collections of blazons, such as Burke's General Armory or Rietstap's Armorial General. We plan to develop a list of reliable sources of information on existing arms, country by country, in the future.

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1.  General Heraldic Texts

The following books were selected because they provide good comprehensive discussions of heraldry in general. Readers should be aware that most heraldry books written in English are aimed primarily at English users. In addition to discussing heraldic usages that are common to most traditions, many of these also include material—particularly on matters of heraldic rules and laws—that is specific to England, something the authors do not always make clear.

  • Bedingfeld, Henry Paston, and Peter Gwynn-Jones. Heraldry. London, Bison Books Ltd., 1993.
    • An informative, beautifully presented, exploration of heraldry in England from the Middle Ages to the early 1990s, with illustrations from the College of Arms records and collections. Peter Gwynn-Jones is now Garter King of Arms. (Arthur Radburn)
    • A nice book with many pictures from the archives of the College of Arms; also a section on international heraldry. (Ton de Witte)
  • Brooke-Little, John. Boutell's Heraldry. London: Frederick Warne, 1983.
    • If I were allowed two heraldry books, one would be Boutell's Heraldry. Watch out for the English orientation in discussions of law, right to arms, and related matters, but in my view unsurpassed in discussing how arms are composed, etc. Boutell was originally published in 1863; any of the revised editions by John Brooke-Little from 1970 onward are reasonably current.(Joseph McMillan)
  • Brooke-Little, John. An Heraldic Alphabet. Rev. ed. London: Robson Books, 1996.
    • A nice quick reference work with pictures. (Ton de Witte)
  • Dennys, Rodney. The Heraldic Imagination. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1975.
    • A book that deals with heraldic monsters, nicely illustrated with color and black and white pictures. (Ton de Witte)
    • While the section on fabulous creatures is the most entertaining, Dennys also provides a wealth of information on the duties of medieval heralds and extensive discussion on early heraldic literature. (Joseph McMillan)
  • Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles. The Art of Heraldry: An Encyclopaedia of Armory. 1904; rpt. London: Bloomsbury Books, 1986.
    • A very large volume with a lot of pictures in all kinds of different heraldic styles, it was based on a German book by Hugo Ströhl. Still an impressive book, but made by Fox-Davies, so just like A Complete Guide to Heraldry, not always correct. (Ton de Witte)
  • Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. 1909; rpt. New York: Crown Publishers, 1978.
    • Fox-Davies was a heraldic writer who, without any official sanction, tended to state as fact that which he would have liked to be so and to turn practices of which he approved into rules, when no such rules actually existed. Approach with caution. (James Dempster)
  • Franklyn, Julian. Shield and Crest. London, 1960.
    • A nice standard heraldry book comparable to Boutell's, but with many illustrations and several indices of blazons and surnames of the illustrations. (Ton de Witte)
  • Franklyn, Julian, and Tanner, John. An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Heraldry. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1970.
  • Friar, Stephen. A Dictionary of Heraldry. New York: Harmony Books, 1987.
    • An excellent, easy to use, and beautifully illustrated A-Z reference source. It's English-oriented, but includes entries on armorial practices in several other countries, including the USA. Definitely one of my favourite heraldry books. (Arthur Radburn)
  • Friar, Stephen, and John Ferguson. Basic Heraldry. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.
    • A standard book on heraldry illustrated by Ferguson; the color pictures are especially nice and include shields of the knights who were with Henry V at Agincourt as well as some contemparary arms. (Ton de Witte)
  • Heim, Bruno Bernard. Or and Argent. Gerrards Cross, Eng.: Van Duren, 1994.
    • A nice book because of the paintings of all kinds of heraldic traditions in the very distinct style of Monsignor Heim.
  • Mackinnon of Dunakin, Charles. The Observer's Book of Heraldry. London: Frederick Warne, 1966.
    • A useful introduction to English and Scottish heraldry. (Arthur Radburn)
    • A good pocket reference book, a primer of sorts that leads you on to the wider literature of heraldry. (John Tunesi)
  • Moncreiffe, Iain, and Don Pottinger. Simple Heraldry, Cheerfully Illustrated. Edinburgh, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1953.
    • My first choice. It is exactly what its title says. A small book with a simple introduction to heraldry that includes some very nice illustrations. (Dave Boven)
    • An excellent little primer, allowing for its natural Scottish bias. (James Dempster)
  • Neubecker, Ottfried. Heraldry: Sources Symbols and Meaning. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
    • This book looks at heraldry in an international perspective; many illustrations of arms as well as related heraldic subjects. (Ton de Witte)
  • Parker, James. A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry. 1894; rpt. Rutland, VT: Tuttle and Co., 1970. (A transcription of the 1894 edition is available on-line at http://www.heraldsnet.org/saitou/parker.)
  • Pastoureau, Michel. Heraldry: an Introduction to a Noble Tradition. New York, Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1997.
    • A little beginner's book, but very informative with nice illustrations. (Ton de Witt)
    • Pastoureau is probably the preeminent French scholar of heraldry of our day; unfortunately for English-speakers, most of his books are available only in French. This work covers heraldry from an international historical perspective as well as providing excellent background on French-specific topics. (Joseph McMillan)
  • Pine, L. G. International Heraldry. Rutland, VT: C. E. Tuttle Co, 1970.
  • Pine, L.G. The Story of Heraldry. London: Country Life Ltd, 1952.
    • A highly readable (though now dated) account, by an editor of Burke's Peerage, of the development of heraldry in England, with additional chapters on Ireland, Scotland, the British Commonwealth, and the USA. (Arthur Radburn)
  • Slater, Stephen. The Complete Book of Heraldry. London: Lorenz Books, 2002.
    • This book is gorgeous! Color photos of art throughout the ages, and renditions by Marco Foppoli, Daniel de Bruin, and others. Lush and lavish! I recommend it to the beginner—it has most everything Boutell has, but pics on the pages you're reading—but particularly for the artist. (Patrick Williams)
  • Slater, Stephen. The History and Meaning of Heraldry. London: Southwater, 2004.
    • A shortened version of Slater's Complete Book of Heraldry. A good introduction to the subject, with splendid illustrations and examples on every page, drawn from a number of countries. (Arthur Radburn)
  • Volborth, Carl-Alexander von. Heraldry: Customs, Rules, and Styles. Poole, Dorset: Blandford Press, 1981.
    • One of my two favorite heraldry books; the most thorough and reliable (although not infallible) description of heraldic traditions country by country. The fact that von Volborth approaches heraldry from a Continental perspective means that he doesn't insist on interpreting non-British practices through a British lens. (Joseph McMillan)
  • Volborth, Carl-Alexander von. Heraldry of the World. Poole, Dorset: Blandford Press, 1973.
    • A country-by-country guide to heraldry in Europe, the Americas, South Africa, and the churches. 906 illustrations, and detailed text about current and historical practices in those countries. (Arthur Radburn)
    • A very good little book with many illustrations, it describes heraldry from a global perspective in a by-country/regional approach. (Ton de Witte)
  • Williamson, David. Debrett's Guide to Heraldry and Regalia. London: Headline Book Publishing, 1992.
    • A book that focuses on the British view of heraldry; most of the book is devoted to this, but there are chapters on Continental heraldry and on regalia from around the world. Overall not bad, but there could have been more on other, non-British regalia, especially pictures. (Ton de Witte)
  • Woodcock, Thomas, and John Martin Robinson. The Oxford Guide to Heraldry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
    • An informative exploration by two English officers of arms of heraldry in England and Europe, with a chapter on pre-revolutionary America, all illustrated from College of Arms records and collections. (Arthur Radburn)
    • A good solid book on heraldry with some nice pictures. (Ton de Witte)
  • Woodward, John, and George A. Burnett. A Treatise on Heraldry, British and Foreign. 1891; rpt. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1969.
    • An excellent reference work for the serious heraldist which details the tinctures, charges, and their appearances in heraldry. (Darren George)
    • A heavyweight (over 3 inch thick) treatise that is available used for a reasonable price; there is some interesting reading within its boards and it is worth keeping your eyes open for. (John Duncan)

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2.  Books on Heraldic Art and Design

  • Child, Heather. Heraldic Design. London: Bell & Hyman, 1965.
  • Gwynn-Jones, Peter. The Art of Heraldry: Origins, Symbols, Designs. London, Parkgate Books, 1998.
    • A beautiful book which deals with the art of heraldry in four parts: (1) the history of heraldry, (2) fauna and flora, (3) heraldic monsters, and (4) changing styles and choices of devices. Very well illustrated, with many pictures directly from grants of arms. (Ton de Witte)
  • Lovett, Patricia. Calligraphy and Illumination: A History and Practical Guide. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.
    • Primarily a book on calligraphy, but with an extensive section on heraldic art, including recommendations on paints, papers, and techniques by a former herald painter at the College of Arms. (Joseph McMillan)
  • Spurrier, Peter. The Heraldic Art Source Book. Bath: Bath Press, 1997.
    • A high number of large, clear illustrations that demonstrate the various components that go into the design of an armorial achievement; easy to understand. (Jonathan Baker)
    • The greatest number of illustrations of heraldic monsters I have ever seen in a single reference book; a useful addition to any heraldic library. (David Pritchard)
  • Volborth, Carl-Alexander von. The Art of Heraldry. Poole, Dorset: Blandford Press, 1984.
    • Great book; many illustrations, and in part 3 a display of work from a lot of heraldic artists, which is very interesting because of the different styles used from the different heraldic traditions. (Ton de Witte)

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3.  Books on American Heraldry

The following works are primarily of value as sources of historic and present American personal arms. Questions of heraldic history and composition are generally covered better in the works listed under "General Texts," above.

  • American College of Heraldry. The Heraldic Register of America. 15 vols. Tuscaloosa, 1981-.
    • The ACH is a private arms designing and registering organization; this is primarily a compilation of the arms registered by the College. (Joseph McMillan)

  • Appleton, David B. The Gore Roll: An Early American Roll of Arms. Duncanville, TX: Appleton Studios, 2006.
  • Augustan Society. The Augustan Society Roll of Arms. 4 vols. Daggett, CA, 1967-87.
    • One of the Augustan Society's fields of activity is in the private registration of arms. This is a compilation of the arms registered by the Society. (Joseph McMillan)

  • Bolton, Charles Knowles. Bolton's American Armory. Boston: F. W. Faxon Co, 1927.
    • A collection of blazons without illustrations, but an indispensable resource on American arms nevertheless. Bolton was concerned with heraldry as it was actually used, not as theorists argued that it should be used. Almost every coat of arms included in the book is accompanied by a brief citation of the evidence for its use, including appearances on seals, church silver, tombstones, etc. (Joseph McMillan)

  • Committee on Heraldry, New England Historic Genealogical Society. A Roll of Arms. 9 vols. Boston, 1928-1980.
    • The NEHGS Committee on Heraldry is the world's oldest private heraldic institution; it has been collecting information since 1864 on arms used in the United States. This series contains a selection of the arms registered by the Committee. (Joseph McMillan)

  • Crozier, William Armstrong. Crozier's General Armory. 1904; rpt. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co, 1972. Available online from Google Books.
    • Crozier was an eminent genealogical scholar, but for some reason he did not discuss the sources for the arms included in this collection. He gives the name, date, and location for the earliest known member of the family in America, which tends to create the false impression that this was the first known user of the arms in this country. Nevertheless a valuable resource, although without illustrations. (Joseph McMillan)

  • Crozier, William Armstrong. Virginia Heraldica. 1908; rpt. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co, 1965. Available online from Google Books.
    • Perhaps a bit narrowly focused for a basic bookshelf, but it includes the kind of detailed source information that Crozier's General Armory lacks. Again, not a book for those seeking pictures. (Joseph McMillan)

  • The Heraldic Journal. Boston, 1865-1868. Google Books has all four volumes: volumes I and II and volumes III and IV.
    • A seminal collection of research, mainly on New England arms, based for the most part on original sources, by the founders of the Committee on Heraldry of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. (Joseph McMillan)

  • Matthews, John. Matthews' American Armoury and Blue Book. 1907; rpt. New York: Crest Publishing Co, 1962.
    • Mostly a collection of arms in use by prominent socialites of the day, but with a historical section in the back of the book. Illustrated, but in a style that shows its age. (Joseph McMillan)

  • Vermont, E. de V. America Heraldica. 1886-89; rpt. New York: Heraldic Publishing Co, 1965. Available online at Archive.org.
    • Basically a book of blazons and pictures; a nice armorial. (Ton de Witte)
    • Vermont was concerned with establishing his subjects' genealogical right to bear the arms included in this volume, so in addition to the blazons he also addresses the foreign sources of the arms and the lineages of the Americans using them. The organization of the book leaves something to be desired, a problem that is aggravated by the 1965 reprint's omission of the color plates. (Joseph McMillan)

  • Whitmore, William H. The Elements of Heraldry. 1866; rpt. New York: Weathervane Books, 1968.
    • Whitmore was one of the central figures in the revival of interest in heraldry in the United States in the mid-19th century. However, he took an extremely restrictive, Anglocentric view of the right to bear arms which most modern American heraldists would reject. Mainly of use for its inclusion of historical information on arms borne in early New England. (Joseph McMillan)

  • Zieber, Eugene. Heraldry in America. 1895; rpt. New York: Crown Publishers, 1984. Available online at Archive.org.
    • While not perfect (what is?) it is a fairly thorough coverage of American heraldic usage, at least as of the time of publication. (Michael McCartney)
    • Lots of examples of arms on seals, tombstones, and in other applications from the colonial period, with many black and white illustrations. Zieber's thoughts on appropriate heraldic usage in the United States are worth consideration, and on some points quite persuasive. (Joseph McMillan)

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4.  Books on Special Heraldic Topics

  • Dennis, M. D. Scottish Heraldry: An Invitation. Edinburgh: Heraldry Society of Scotland, 1999.
    • A very nicely illustrated basic book on Scottish heraldry…an absolute must of an introduction for Scottish Heraldry with excellent illustrations. (Dennis MacGoff)
  • Heim, Bruno Bernard. Heraldry in the Catholic Church: Its Origins, Customs and Laws. Gerrards Cross, Eng.: Van Duren, 1978.
    • A very good book on church heraldry with many beautiful illustrations by Heim. (Ton de Witte)
  • Innes of Learney, Sir Thomas. Scots Heraldry. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1956.
    • Approach with caution, especially the 1956 edition. I think that Scottish heraldry will be spending much of the next 100 years quietly undoing some of Innes of Learney's excesses. (James Dempster)
  • MacLysaght, Edward. Irish Families: Their Names, Arms and Origins. 4th ed. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1985.
    • More of a study of Irish family names, but the arms section shows the common charges for families from the same tribal affiliation or geographical location. (Dennis MacGoff)
    • As the first Chief Herald of Ireland, Dr. MacLysaght speaks with authority, but be aware that most other heraldic scholars are critical of his theory of "sept arms" shared by people of the same name living in the same district. (Joseph McMillan)
  • Mayer, L. A. Saracenic Heraldry. 1933; rpt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
    • A good reference. The author covers the meaning of the symbols, but makes a couple of mistakes. One error that led to some debate was the charge he identified as the "trousers of nobility," which some would call "trumpets." (Hassan Kamel)


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