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An Introduction to Heraldry

In this article, we will look at some of the basic principles of heraldry with the help of our heraldry specialist, Kev Reilly.

What is Heraldry?

James Watson of Saughton Coat of ArmsThe word “heraldry” relates to coats of arms and covers a wide range of topics from their design, display and study through to their regulation. Coats of arms date back to medieval Europe and started out as designs displayed on shields to establish identity in battle. Coats of arms evolved to denote different families and, as hereditary symbols, were handed down to heirs and adopted by other family members in various forms, some of which we will discuss in this article.

People who are entitled to bear heraldic arms are known as “armigers” and are said to be “armigerous”.

The use of arms is regulated in the UK. In England and Wales, their use is governed by the laws of arms, which are upheld by the Court of Chivalry that has its origins in medieval times. In Scotland, the use of arms is governed by the Court of the Lord Lyon, with the Public Register of All Armorial Bearings in Scotland created in 1672 during the reign of Charles II. Both courts can and do prosecute people who misuse arms, so be warned!

The study of heraldic arms is an important aspect of historical research, as nearly all heads of prominent families – lairds, barons, clan chiefs, etc. – had arms matriculated with the court, and the associated records can provide useful insights into not just the arms bearer but also their ancestry.

Elements of a Coat of Arms

In order to study coats of arms, it is almost necessary to learn a new language. When heraldry began in England in the later part of the 12th century, the knights and their families who were the early adopters spoke Norman French, and this language is still used to this day to describe coats of arms. Take this description of the coat of arms of David Watson of Saughton that was matriculated in 1673 as an example:

“Mr David Watson of Saughton…Bears argent one Oak-tree growing out of a mount base proper, surmounted of a fess azur. Above the shield one helmet befitting his degree mantled gules doubled argent, Next is placed on one torse for his crest two hands mooting up the trunk of one Oak sprouting out branches.”

Such descriptions are intended to enable the reader to recreate the described coat of arms without seeing a picture of them; however, this is only possible if you can speak the secret language of heraldry!

Colours of HeraldryThe first term that we see in the description of David Watson’s arms is “argent”. This is still the French word for silver – although it can also mean “white” in heraldry – and relates to the background colour of the shield. Other colours that we encounter in heraldry include those listed below:

  • Argent = Silver (or White)
  • Azur(e) = Blue
  • Gules = Red
  • Or = Gold
  • Purpure = Purple
  • Sable = Black
  • Vert = Green
  • Next, we see that on David’s silver shield one oak tree is growing out of a “mount base proper”. This refers to a mount (mound, or small hillock) at the base (bottom) of the shield. “Proper” is an indication that the mound is depicted as a “real” mound rather than a stylised or cartoonish version. The implication is therefore that the mound is green (as in real life), although sometimes you will see such a device described as a “mount vert”, i.e. a green mound.

    Heraldic OrdinariesThe next description states that the oak tree is “surmounted of a fess azure”. A fess is a simple shape known as a heraldic ordinary, or which there are several main types:

  • Bend = a diagonal stripe
  • Bordure = a border around the outside edge of the shield
  • Chevron = a chevron across the shield with the point in the middle pointing upwards
  • Chief = a bar across the top edge of the shield
  • Cross = a cross, with the two branches going up/down and left/right
  • Fess = a horizontal bar across the middle of the shield
  • Pale = a vertical bar down the middle of the shield
  • Pile = a downward-pointing triangle
  • Saltire = a diagonal cross, the same as found on the Scottish flag
  • With “surmounted” meaning “on top of”, we can now see that the oak tree on David’s shield has a blue horizontal bar across the middle of it.

    The first half of “above the shield one helmet befitting his degree” is fairly self-explanatory, but it is worth a few words on the phrase as a whole. All arms have a helmet or cap above the shield, but these have varied in style throughout the ages. The aristocracy have controlled images to differentiate between, for example, a baron and a baronet, but the Lord Lyon does not control images for the lower levels of armigers. A baillie, for example may have worn a cap with a feather or a star to indicate their position, which may have appeared on his coat of arms, and a Lord Provost may have had regalia including a cap and chains of office. As the designs of helmets and caps designs for the lower levels of armiger are outwith the scope of the Lord Lyon, they are often described as “befitting his degree”.

    The second part of the phrase describing the helmet mentions “mantled gules doubled argent”. All arms have mantles, a form of drapery that visually ties the helmet into the shield. These were originally worn by knights from their helmets to stave off the elements, and had a secondary function of decreasing the effects of sword blows against the helmet when in battle (which is why mantles are often depicted as tattered or cut to shreds on coats of arms). Sometimes, the mantling has two sides, one side of colour and one of metal, and is then described as “doubled”. In David’s case, the mantle is doubled and in the colours of gules (red) and argent (silver or white).

    Annoted ArmsThe final part of the description of the arms begins with “Next is placed on one torse for his crest”. A torse is a twisted band, usually in the same colours as the mantle and typically with six twists. The torse forms the base for the crest, which appears above the helmet and in this case is described as “two hands mooting up the trunk of one Oak sprouting out branches”. This refers to the two hands grasping the trunk of an oak tree that we see in the clan crest of the Watsons, although it is interesting to note that the hands do not yet issue from clouds in these early Watson arms.

    Finally, we are told that the arms also depict a scroll containing the motto “insperata floruit”, or “flourished unexpectedly”, which remains the clan motto to this day.

    And there you have it! The original description of:

    "Mr David Watson of Saughton…Bears argent one Oak-tree growing out of a mount base proper, surmounted of a fess azur. Above the shield one helmet befitting his degree mantled gules doubled argent, Next is placed on one torse for his crest two hands mooting up the trunk of one Oak sprouting out branches"

    translates to:

    “Mr David Watson of Saughton…bears on a silver shield one oak tree growing out of a lifelike green mound, with a blue horizontal stripe across the middle. Above the shield is a helmet befitting his station with doubled mantling in red and silver. On top of the helmet is a twisted band (in red and silver), topped by an oak tree, the trunk of which is being grasped by two hands”.

    Other items that we may see when studying heraldry include heraldic charges and animals.

    Heraldic emblems are shapes or emblems added to the shield and include balls, crescents, crosses, diamands, flowers, rings and stars. There are several ways in which stars can be referenced:

  • Star = a star with straight-sided rays (assumed to be five unless otherwise specified) that is not pierced (i.e. does not have a hole in the middle)
  • Mullet = not a silly hair cut, but a star with straight-sided rays that is pierced
  • Estoile = A star with wavy rays (assumed to be six unless otherwise specified)
  • Stars of Heraldry

    We often see animals on coats of arms, with common beasts being lions, griffins, dragons, unicorns and eagles. Different descriptors are used to describe the posture of an animal:

  • Displayed = (of a bird) with wings outstretched
  • Passant = walking
  • Rampant = rearing up
  • Statant = standing up
  • Heraldic Animal Charges

    Differenced and Undifferenced Arms

    In heraldic law, only the principle arms holder (usually the head of the family) has the right to bear a coat of arms in their original form. This set of arms is referred to as the “undifferenced” arms, to denote that they are the “pure” form. The undifferenced arms can be inherited as is by the heir. All other siblings and cadet branches of the family can use the same base arms, but they must incorporate “congruent differences” to ensure that they are distinguishable from the undifferenced arms and hence cannot be confused with them. In modern Scottish heradlry, the Stodart system is used to standardise these differences, which uses a range of different borders and other devices to reflect the degree of separation of an armiger from the bearer of the undifferenced arms.

    Stodart System

    Prior to the introduction of the Stodart system, differencing was still a requirement but was achieved by various means. These differences are used by armigers until they establish houses of their own and can then apply for undifferenced arms in their own right. Nonetheless, the practice of differencing arms can be useful when researching connections between different arms holders. This is especially useful in Scotland, as the Court of The Lord Lyon typically assumes that all applicants for arms of the same surname are part of the same family, and so the oak tree is likely to feature in the arms of any Watson applying for arms whether they are related or not.

    End Notes

    Many thanks to Kev Reilly, our expert on heraldry, who provided much of the material for this article. If you’d like to discuss further with Kev, you can contact him via the Facebook group, or you can add a post to the group page if you’d like to start an open discussion. You can also contact us with any queries or comments, which are always welcome!

    The following sites provide more useful information for those who are new to heraldry:

  • The English Heritage Guide to Heraldry
  • Electric Scotland article on differencing
  • The Heraldry Society of Scotland
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