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The Language of Heraldry

Like any other science, heraldry has its own jargon and its own technical terms. Before one can really get to grips with the subject, a basic knowledge is necessary, although in the past too much has often been made of this side of heraldry.

First of all the coat of arms, or 'complete achievement' must be examined. It is perfectly simple. An achievement consists of a shield of arms, usually with the addition of a crest borne upon a helmet (upon which it rests on a wreath) and frequently with a motto beneath. Invariably attached to the helmet is a flowing material known as mantling and deriving from the material used to protect the helmet and the head inside it from extreme heat of the sun. It is now solely decorative and can be used to great artistic effect.

Peers display their coronets between the shield and helmet and peers and others entitled to them have supporters (the human or animal figures either side of the shield - the lion and unicorn in the case of the Royal arms). Allied to the complete achievement are other adjuncts such as badges and insignia.

The crest was borne by a knight in armour on top of his helm as an extra ornament which became, like the charges on his shield and surcoat, an hereditary symbol. Crests are often used separately from the shield and are always on a wreath or chapeau or issuing from some form of coronet and often with the motto beneath.

Helmets, like coronets, change according to rank. The Sovereign's helmet is gold and barred and faces the beholder. Peers have a silver helmet with gold bars turned in profile to the left. Knights and baronets have an open-vizored steel helmet facing the beholder while esquires and gentlemen have a closed steel helmet facing left.

Mottoes are not necessarily hereditary and can be adopted and changed at will. In Scotland, and in England where more than one motto has been adopted, they are often displayed above the crest.

It is the actual shield itself which is the most important part of an heraldic achievement. Upon it are borne the various markings, known as charges, which make up the design. They are used according to ancient conventions and they have strange names. The principal charges are called ordinaries. There are hundreds of objects which are used regularly in heraldry but literally anything under the sun and indeed the sun itself may be used in a coat of arms, though of course many things are unsuitable aesthetically.

The colours on a coat of arms are called tinctures and many have Norman-French names. There are also two metals - silver (argent) and gold (or). Red is gules, blue is azure, green is sert, purple is purpure and there are others. Furs are also used, the most common being ermine which is depicted by little black tails on white.

One of the cardinal rules of heraldry is that no metal may appear on a metal nor colour upon a colour. Scrope's arms azure, a bend or have a metal on a colour. Argent, a bend or would not be permissible in heraldry.

When describing or blazoning a coat of arms, rules must be observed. In this way succinct accuracy, can be achieved without any possibility of ambiguity and anyone with heraldic knowledge anywhere in the world can understand a description precisely. The field is described first with one word. If it is red, then, simply, gules. This is followed by the principal ordinary if any and then lesser charges. Thus if a shield had a red background with a wide band in the middle (a fesse) charged with a blue five-pointed star (a mullet), the correct blazon would be: gules, on a fesse or, a mullet azure. Any detailed work on heraldry will give fuller explanations of blazoning, but the best way to understand it is to examine the arms in Burke's or Debrett's Peerages and follow the blazons for them which are given - in this way it will be easily mastered.

Sometimes in printing, where colours cannot be used, a series of lines and dots represent the metals and tinctures. Urgent is blank, or is depicted by dots, gules by vertical lines, asure by horizontal lines and so on.

Left and right in heraldry become sinister and dexter, but to make things more difficult, dexter is left and sinister is right as you are looking at the shield - dexter is only right and sinister left for the hypothetical person behind the shield - a tedious point worth remembering.

If an animal has golden claws it is armed or. If a lion is standing on its hind legs and looking ahead it is rampant, if it is looking out of the shield it is rampant guardant, if it is turning right round to look backwards it is rampant reguardant. If an animal has a blue tongue it is langued azure. If an animal or inanimate object is depicted in its natural colours it is described as proper.

Impaling means dividing the shield down the middle and placing arms in both halves, either the arms of a husband and his wife or a man and his office dexter side (left as you are looking at the shield) and the wife's on the sinister side. Quartering is dividing the shield into four or more and having the most important arms (usually the patronymic) in the top left hand quarter and other arms which one is entitled to display through inheritance from heiresses, in the other quarters. Even if the shield is divided into many parts, each part is still called a 'quarter'.

The novice will find it all very intriguing - this strange medieval language, sonorous, dignified yet at the same time slightly unreal. It has the ring of ancient chivalry about it and takes us away, momentarily, from the concrete and exhaust fumes around us. There is also something faintly comical about some of the words. This fact has inspired many heraldic nonsense rhymes, notably by the late C. W. Scott-Giles Fitzalan Pursuivant Extraordinary. It also prompted Sir Walter Scott to create the character of 'Mumblazon' in his novel Kenilworth.

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