An American Heraldic Primer - Page 2

by Philip D. Blanton, MA

The Basic Achievement of Arms

2aThe basic components of the standard achievement of arms can be seen in figure 7. They are as follows:

A. Crest
B. Torse or wreath
C. Helm
D. Mantling or lambrequin
E. Shield
F. Scroll
G. Motto

Other components sometimes included in an achievement of arms, such as crowns, caps of maintenance, supporters, and compartments, are typically discouraged in American personal arms since their use usually denotes some sort of noble status. 

In order to understand what each component of the full achievement of arms is, and why it is used, one must first understand the component's original purpose. The achievement of arms as we know it today did not just appear out of the blue one day. Instead, it evolved over hundreds of years of time while constantly adding and subtracting both good and bad elements.

There is some debate as to whether the armorial flag or shield was first to appear on the battlefield, but there is no doubt that the shield was the earliest component of what came to be known as heraldry. The earliest heraldic manuscripts, or rolls-of-arms, usually show just a simple shield attributed to each person without all the other attached embellishments (figure 8). Even in modern heraldry, the shield remains the central and most important part of an armorial achievement.

2bThe second most important element is the crest. Warriors’ helmets have been decorated with simple ornaments like feathers and horse-hair crests since ancient time, but the modern heraldic crest can be traced back to the 13th century—about 100 years after the heraldic shield. It seems to have been inseparably connected to the medieval institution of the tournament. 

Since standing armies and standardized training programs did not exist, knights and men-at-arms had to devise their own ways of maintaining their martial proficiency. One way to do this was the organized tournament. At the tournament, knights and men-at-arms would compete in various martial sports such as the joust, or tilt, individual foot combat, and grand mêlées. The tournament became a grandiose display of pageantry where the participants enthusiastically competed, not only to prove their prowess, but also to have the most splendid coat armor. Therefore, they began wearing feathers, fans, and other devices atop their helmets to give themselves an even more personal and impressive identity. These devices became known as crests. Although they are separate and distinct from the arms on the shield itself, the crest of each knight, mounted atop his helm, came to be displayed above the shields in the rolls-of-arms. 

The wreath, or torse, and the mantling, or lambrequin, made their appearance on the helm around this same time (figure 9). Some scholars believe that the mantling was worn as a cloth sun-shade for the helm and back of the neck. The torse may have helped secure the mantling to the helm, or it may have simply been an ornamental way of hiding the unsightly points where the crest was attached to the helm. It has been theorized that men of coat armor would typically hang their shields by a strap to the wall and place their crested, torsed, and mantled helm on a shelf or hook immediately above the shield and that heralds then duplicated this arrangement in their rolls-of-arms. 

2cAlso often included in the full achievement of arms, although not usually necessary, is the scroll and motto. From the beginning of time, warriors have used some sort of cri de guerre during battle as a kind of primal release of energy and rallying call. This war cry could have been personal, familial, or organizational. Being so intimately connected with warfare it only stands to reason that the war cry, or personal motto, be depicted in ones armorial achievement. Yet being that it is not a visual, but an audible identification, a problem arose—how to display this motto? Heralds rose to this challenge and began including scrolls below the shield on which they could write the armiger's motto. Over time, the old medieval style war cries were replaced by expressions of noble sentiment. 

In some countries, such as Germany, mottoes never became part of the heraldic tradition. In other countries, such as Scotland, the motto is granted as an integral part of the arms and cannot be changed without official approval. In countries such as England or the United States, the motto is chosen by the individual bearing the arms and can change from one generation to the next or even on the whim of the armiger.

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As noted earlier, heralds developed their own language so as to perform their jobs most effectively. In order to describe, or blazon, a coat of arms a herald uses specific terms to describe each color, object, and division of the shield. A herald will also blazon arms in a certain sequence. Generally this sequence is as follows:

Ordinaries (except for the chief and bordure)
Other primary charges
Secondary charges
Charges of honor (including the chief)
Charges overall
Cadency marks (including the bordure)

It should be mentioned that the blazon of a coat of arms is very important because the accuracy of future renditions, or emblazonments, is not based on the original drawing, but on the specifications depicted in the blazon.

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The background of the shield is known as the field. There are specific colors, patterns, and divisions allowable on the field. There are also specific names for the different areas of the field. They are as follows:

It is important to keep in mind that the heraldic right (dexter) and left (sinister) are stated from the point of view of someone carrying the shield. They are therefore the opposite of the right and left as seen by the viewer.


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What we would mundanely call colors are known in heraldry as tinctures and are divided into four major categories: colors, metals, stains, and furs. There is a general rule of tincture in that no color should be placed on any other color and no metal should be placed on any other metal. Furs are considered neutral in this rule and stains are treated the same as colors. This rule has sometimes been broken with great success, but should normally be observed, as it is intended to make the various charges and field divisions more noticeable and evident at a distance. 

If the field is only one tincture, this should be the first thing described in the blazon. The tinctures used in heraldry are as follows:


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Field Divisions

If the field is divided into multiple tinctures, the type of field division is described first followed immediately by the different tinctures of the field. The tincture nearest the chief dexter (or upper left, as seen by the viewer) corner is described first followed by any subsequent tinctures in a clockwise direction. For example, the first shield in the chart below would be blazoned: Per fess azure and argent. The third shield would be: Per bend azure and argent. The third from last would be: Tierced per pall azure, gules and argent. The following chart shows the most frequently used field divisions.

field divisions

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A charge is any object placed upon the field. Some of the most rudimentary and oldest charges are known as ordinaries, sometimes called “honorable ordinaries.” The ordinaries are characterized by their basic geometric shapes and the fact that those shapes extend to the edge of the shield. 


If there is an ordinary and another charge on a coat of arms, the ordinary should be blazoned immediately after the field is described and before the other charges. The only exceptions to this rule are the chief and the bordure which are sometimes used as augmentations.

Sometimes other charges are placed on an ordinary. In this case, the ordinary should be blazoned, then the charges upon it. For example, Argent upon a chevron Gules three crosses couped Or.


There are some basic geometric charges that do not fall into the category of ordinaries and are therefore listed as Sub-ordinaries. They are as follows:


Smaller charges might also be placed on the field following the form of an ordinary or sub-ordinary. For example, ten martlets in pile would be shown as a row of four martlets, over a row of three, over a row of two, over one, all in the shape of a pile. Another example is three crosses potent in fess. This would be shown as a row of three crosses potent in the middle of the shield, where a fess would be. Special notice should be taken of charges shown in bend, or bendwise, that unless otherwise specified, they should follow the angle of the bend and not their normal, vertical alignment.


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Many ordinaries and sub-ordinaries have smaller versions or Diminutives. Diminutives may be displayed singly or multiple times. If a diminutive is to be displayed more than once, the number should be noted in the blazon. If a charge is scattered throughout the field, it is termed semy. For example, in the following chart of diminutives the shield in the bottom right corner would be blazoned as argent semy of crosslets azure.


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