Heraldry in the USA




An American Heraldic Primer

by Philip D. Blanton, MA

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1.  Supporters

Supporters, sometimes called tenants if describing human beings, are animals, humans, or other objects that are part of the overall achievement, but are placed outside the shield to hold up, or support, the shield. There can be any number of supporters, but the most commonly seen are either individual supporters, placed behind or underneath the shield, or in pairs, placed on either side of the shield.

Certain heraldic traditions, such as those in Great Britain, restrict the use of supporters to the nobility, persons holding certain ranks within chivalric orders, persons with hereditary rights to supporters borne by their ancestors, cities, towns, and even large companies. There are no such restrictions in the United States, but it is generally recommended that personal arms not assume supporters unless they can show a hereditary right to ancestral supporters. The assumption of supporters by governmental, educational, and corporate bodies is generally accepted in the United States.

2.  Orders and Decorations

Along with the crested helm, the medieval tournament also gave rise to organized groups of knights and men-at-arms that called themselves tourney companies, societies, fraternities, and orders. Each of these groups had its own type of insignia that indicated membership or affiliation with the group. Heralds began including the ribbons, chains, and badges of these organizations around, under, or near each member's armorial display. This is most frequently seen with the various orders of chivalry where the member encircles, or suspends from, his or her shield the ribbon, chain, or garter that is befitting his or her rank within the order. Each organization has its own rules and regulations outlining what are proper heraldic practices with respect to its insignia. This practice survives today and also includes decorations conferred by governments.

Appropriate American decorations that may also be displayed with an armorial achievement are those honors and awards that include wearable insignia, such as a sash, neck ribbon, breast ribbon, star or badge. Decorations normally included with American heraldic displays include, in order of precedence: federal awards from the President, foreign orders and awards, any other federal awards, and state awards. Note that this does not include insignia such as service medals, unit citations, qualification badges, rank insignia or other such emblems.

Although the United States does not have any state or chivalric orders, armigers who are members of foreign state or chivalric orders may, of course, display the insignia appropriate to their rank within the order in their achievement of arms. Armigers should be cautioned that some organizations under the guise of a chivalric order may be fraudulent and not recognized by any legitimate state.

Insignia in the form of a sash, chain, collar, or garter should be displayed encircling the shield. Neck ribbons should be displayed as a ribbon from behind the shield with its pendant hanging below the shield. Breast ribbons should be displayed as suspended from the bottom of the shield and stars or badges should be displayed behind the shield and thoroughly visible around the edges of the shield.

3.  Heraldic Headgear

There are several types of headgear that one might find on or above a heraldic shield. To include these on a shield is reasonable, but to display them in an achievement above the shield is pretentious if the armiger has no legitimate claim to what they represent. Some of these indicate nobility and their use should be avoided by American armigers. Others denote certain professions and should only be used by armigers in those occupations. Still others may be used by anyone desiring a little extra heraldic adornment.

Heraldic hats come in many shapes and sizes. The chapeau, or cap of maintenance, is typically a red velvet cap, lined in ermine, and turned back on the bottom. It can alternatively be a blue velvet cap or lined in ermines. This cap normally indicates that its user is a baron, but it is sometimes used in general by nobility. A cap of similar construction, the electoral bonnet, is used by Electors of the Holy Roman Empire.

Some heraldic hats are indicative of offices and degrees held. The Lord Mayor’s cap is a cylindrical hat made of brown fur and might be seen above the arms of a city’s mayor. A cap of justice is a flat cap with two guards of braid in the livery colors of a barony and is used by a baron baillie. The doctoral cap, a black velvet tam with gold cords, is currently the only accepted heraldic accessory used to recognize educational achievement and can be used by holders of a doctoral degree. The cap of liberty, also known as an Albanian cap or a Phrygian cap, is a symbol of liberty and republicanism and is generally considered the hat of the common people.

There are some ecclesiastical hats used in heraldry that are restricted to members of the clergy. The galero is a wide-brimmed, flat hat that comes in a variety of colors and with varying numbers of tassels dependant upon the wearer’s rank. A bishop might ensign his shield with a mitre and the Roman Catholic Pope is distinguished with a unique Papal Tiara.

There are also various types of natural headgear often displayed in heraldry, known as chaplets, or alternatively, garlands or wreaths. The type of flowers or leaves the chaplet is composed of is normally specified. If this is not described, then the chaplet is shown as a circle of leaves with four equidistant flowers. If the chaplet is made of laurel leaves, it is then identified as a crown triumphant, representing the ancient Roman award given to military and athletic champions. The civic crown is a chaplet made of oak leaves and acorns and represents the ancient Roman crown given as an award to civilians.

There are certain crowns that may be displayed above a shield without implying nobility. The mural crown is often depicted above the arms of a city, denoting its status as such. Ducal, antique (or eastern), celestial, and vallary (or palisado) crowns are often seen in personal arms and crests and carry no special meanings. Naval crowns are often found on arms of persons involved in sailing or with the navy and, similarly, astral crowns on those affiliated with flying or the air force. There are also any number of crowns made up of diverse objects that are blazoned so. For example, a crown of maple leaves, or a maltese crown, which consists of a number of maltese crosses atop a metal band.

The following crowns, and their descriptions, specifically imply nobility and their use as an external ornament should be avoided by Americans. The crown of a British Duke consists of eight strawberry leaves. That of a Marquess has four strawberry leaves interspersed with four silver balls. An Earl’s crown uses eight strawberry leaves interspersed with eight silver balls on long spikes. A Viscount bears a circlet with sixteen silver balls and a Baron, six. Other countries with a history of titled nobility have equivalent systems of coronets. The royal, Hanover, Charlemagne, and imperial crowns are specific crowns of state. The crown of the King of Arms is used only by the English Kings of Arms.

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