Almost anyone who’s interested in history and reads historical fiction has heard of coats of arms, but many people—even those who write historical fiction—have many misconceptions about heraldry (of which coats of arms are one element). It’s a topic that can be enormously complicated if you want to get into the details, but the basics are pretty simple.
The term “coat of arms” derives from the fact that the distinguishing colors and symbols were originally used on actual garments so that men wearing full armor could be recognized in battle. The warrior would also use his arms on his banner, horsecloth, and shield. Off the battlefield, for purposes of ceremony and display, arms were usually depicted on a shield, so that’s how we’re used to seeing them.
The right to a coat of arms was given by a monarch to an individual—almost always a man, because the honor was frequently in recognition of actions during battle. Only that man and his descendants were entitled to use that coat of arms. So contrary to what many people believe, there is no such thing as a coat of arms belonging to a family or to all people with the same name.
A relatively few elements go into creating any coat of arms. There are five tinctures, or colors: gules (red), azure (blue), sable (black), vert (green), and purpure (purple). There are also two metals: or (gold) and argent (silver), which are actually yellow and white unless real metal or metallic paint is used,and several kinds of fur.
The background or “field” can be a solid color or metal, or can be divided into sections of different colors or metals. Various geometric designs or representations of animals, plants, or other objects are painted on top of the ground. Colors aren’t usually used on top of colors or metals on top of metals, because they don’t show up well at a distance.
Originally, heraldic designs were very simple so they could be recognized immediately. The traditional flag of England, a white field with the red cross of St. George, the patron saint of England, is a good example.
Over the centuries, when coats of arms were no longer primarily used to identify men in armor, the designs became more complicated, especially when the arms of different families or countries were quartered on one shield.
Note the change between the arms of Sir Richard de Vere, the eleventh Earl of Oxford (1385-1417) and those of Sir John de Vere, the fifteenth Earl of Oxford (c. 1482-1540).
The arms of the monarchs of Britain have changed many times, depending on which countries they claimed to rule. The blazon, or how the design of a coat of arms is described, is very simple and specific. It begins with the color of the field, or the way the field is divided into different colors, and then describes the shape and color of the other elements.
The Earl of Coventry’s arms are blazed: Sable, a fess ermine between three crescents or.
Animals, real or imaginary, are shown in certain poses. Rampant means rearing up on the hind legs. Passant means walking. Couchant means lying down. When something is described as “proper,” that means it is shown in the colors in which it would appear in nature.
When a coat of arms is depicted ceremonially, it is frequently shown with supporters, or figures, often animals, holding the shield; a helmet on top of the shield; mantling, or draped cloth; and on top of the helmet, a crest. There may also be a motto on a scroll. The whole collection of elements is referred to as the “achievement.” Note that the crest is not the same as the coat of arms, though people sometimes confuse the terms.
As ancient as the tradition of heraldry is, it is not dead. The College of Arms is the official heraldic authority for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and much of the Commonwealth including Australia and New Zealand, and it continues to keep track of matters related to heraldry and genealogy in those countries. The Court of the Lord Lyon performs the same function for Scotland. Burke’s Peerage, published since 1826, and Debretts, founded in 1769, remain authoritative sources for matters related to the heraldry and genealogy of the noble families of Britain.
Coats of arms continue to be used ceremonially today. Ancient noble families in England still use the arms awarded to their ancestors, and the British monarch continues to bestow coats of arms, though not usually now for achievements in battle.
Sources and further reading:
Simple Heraldry, Cheerfully Illustrated by Iain Moncreiffe and Don Pottinger
College of Arms: http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/
Court of the Lord Lyon: http://www.lyon-court.com/lordlyon/CCC_FirstPage.jsp.
Burke’s Peerage: http://www.burkespeerage.com/heritage_publications.php
Gillian Bagwell is the author of three acclaimed historical novels. The Darling Strumpet, based on the life of Nell Gwynn, seventeenth-century actress and mistress of Charles II, was an RWA RITA finalist for Best First Book. Her second book, The September Queen, was the first fictional accounting of the extraordinary adventure of Jane Lane, who risked her life to save the young Charles II and the future of the British monarchy after the disastrous Battle of Worcester.Venus in Winter, published in July 2013, is based on the first forty years of the life of the formidable four-times widowed Tudor dynast. Please visit Gillian’s website, www.gillianbagwell.com, for links to her research blogs and more on her books and upcoming events.