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Heraldry is the science and art of describing coats-of-arms (also referred to as "armorial bearings" or simply as "arms"). Its origins lie in the need to distinguish participants in battles or jousts and to describe the various devices they carried or painted on their shields.
In the late middle ages and renaissance, heraldry became a highly developed discipline, regulated by professional heralds, who used the language of heraldry to "blazon" a coat of arms. (Since arms are formally described by words, the painter, engraver, or stonecarver using a coat of arms in his work has considerable stylistic license.) As its use in jousts became obsolete, arms remained popular for visually identifying a person in other ways — impressed in sealing wax on official documents, engraved on a family tomb, and so forth. The descent of arms was and remains strictly regulated by inheritence; only certain actual descendents of a particular armigerous (arm-bearing) person are entitled to his arms or a differenced version of them — hence popular associations of a coat of arms with all bearers of a surname are based on a misconception. Heraldry is mostly a hobby today; but in some countries it remains regulated by heralds and the assumption of another's arms is illegal.
The word "crest" is commonly used to refer to a coat-of-arms. However, in heraldry, a crest is just one component of a full or complete achievement of arms. The crest sits atop a helmet, which itself sits on the main and most recognizable part of the arms, the shield or escutcheon. Other common elements include supporters holding up the shield and a motto beneath. Crests can in fact be used on their own (this is particularly useful when there is insufficient space to display the entire coat-of-arms); but where the shield alone is used it should never be called a "crest."
Shield and lozenge
Traditionally, as women did not go to war, they would not have a shield. Instead, their coats-of-arms would be shown on a lozenge, usually a square standing on one of its corners. As women may now serve in the armed forces in a number of countries, some armigerous women prefer to use a shield anyway. A parallel usage for noncombatant clergymen could be found sometimes on the European continent, with the occasional placement of arms on a cartouche (an oval-shaped vehicle for their display). For more detail on the use of the lozenge (subject to certain rules) by women in the British heraldic tradition, see the separate article on the lozenge.
Very rarely and almost invariably in non-European contexts, such as the arms of Nunavut, the former Republic of Bophuthatswana and some Algerian civic heraldry of French colonial origin, specific shapes of shield are specified in the blazon (and the specific type of shield is sometimes followed to the extent, as in the arms of Gauteng, that structures in the shield (in that case "shield thongs") function as charges).
In rare instances the shield may be blazoned as being displayed on a cartouche, the tincture of which is then specified.
Main article: Tincture
There are seven main tinctures, consisting of two metals (light tinctures) and five colours (dark tinctures), although there are a number of other rare tinctures. The names of the tinctures mainly come to us from French. The first rule of heraldry is the rule of tincture: metal must never be placed upon metal, nor colour upon colour, for the sake of contrast, and because this was technically difficult to do at the time. As any rule, this admits some exceptions, the most notable being the arms chosen by Godfrey of Bouillon when he was made king of Jerusalem, featuring five Or crosses potent on an Argent field, modelled after the Arab technique of Damascus steel.
* "Or" is usually spelled with a capital letter (Gules, a fess Or) so as not to confuse it with the conjunction "or."
Furs, such as ermine, ermines, or vair, are regular variations of the field that represent various types of actual fur. Any charge may be of a fur.
- Ermine is in design a field argent, semé (see variations of the field) of ermine-spots sable, but is not so regarded; it is regarded as a plain tincture.
- Ermines is the reverse of ermine – a field sable semé of ermine-spots argent.
- There is also vair and its variants. Basic vair is a row of small items shaped like bells with straight edges. The bells on the next row down are placed with their bottoms facing the bottoms of the bells on the row above, and so forth down.
There also exists, though rarely, two "stains": tenny/tawny (orange) and brown.
Proper: Objects may also be depicted in their natural colours. In this case, they are described as "proper".
Blazon: Historically the custom in English blazon was to reduce redundancy by referring to a particular tincture only once in the blazon, but the College of Arms has moved away from this practice in recent years.
Divisions of the field
Main article: Divisions of the field
The field of a shield in heraldry can be divided into more than one tincture, as can the various charges. The divisions are named according to the ordinary that shares their shape. (It should be noticed that French heraldry takes a different approach in many cases than the one described in this article, as do the heraldries of Italy, Spain, and Sweden.)
Common partitions of the field are:
- parted (or party) per fess (parted horizontally),
- party per pale (parted vertically),
- party per bend (diagonally from upper left to lower right),
- party per bend sinister (diagonally from upper right to lower left)
- party per saltire (diagonally both ways).
- party per cross or quarterly (divided into four quarters)
- party per chevron (after the manner of a chevron)
- party per pall (diagonal divisions from upper left and upper right meeting vertical division)
Charges can be animals, objects or geometric constructs (ordinaries).
Common animals are lions, leopards, martlets, eagles, gryphons, fish, boars or dolphins. There are dragons and unicorns as well, but they are not nearly as common as most people suppose. Possibly the rarest animal in heraldry is found in the coat of arms of Maidstone, Kent, which bears an iguanodon rampant on the dexter side. An animal shown langue (with its tongue sticking out) denotes fierceness or a roar.
The default position of an animal is looking dexter. Animals are found in various different positions — a flying martlet is a martlet volant, a swimming dolphin is a dolphin naiant, and a walking lion is a lion passant. Other words for positions are rampant (on hind legs), salient (leaping), sejant (sitting) and gardant (looking at the viewer). There are humans as well, although they are unusual, like wild men or Saracens. If you show only the head of, say, a lion, cut off at the neck, it is a lion's head couped if the cut is straight, and erased if it looks as if the animal's head has been ripped off.
Common objects are escallops (shells), crosses, mullets (a conventional five-pointed star shape, as on the American flag, which in fact represent spurs), crescents, bugle-horns, water-bougets, gauntlets, and different kinds of trees, flowers, leaves, and other plants. Circles are generally called "roundels", but in England instead of being described a roundel vert, they have different names depending on colour: bezants if they are golden, plates if silver, torteaux if red, hurts if blue, pellets or ogresses if black, pommes if green, oranges if orange, and guzes if sanguine. A roundel that is barry wavy argent and azure is called a fountain. This over-specialisation is peculiar to English heraldry; in French heraldry, for example, metal roundels are bezants and all others (colours and furs) are tourteaux.
Ordinaries (sometimes called "honourable ordinaries") are almost like partitions, but are handled like objects. Though there is much debate as to exactly which geometrical charges constitute ordinaries, certain ones are agreed on by everyone. A pale is a vertical charge starting from the top of the shield, ending at the bottom, and wide as a third of the shield's width. (The "Canadian pale", identical to the pale but taking up one-half the shield's width, was invented in 1964 by Conrad Swan, retired Garter King of Arms) ; it can be seen in the arms of Rehder.  A fess is the same thing as a pale, only horizontal.
There are also bends, saltires, flaunches and crosses, as well as chiefs, piles and chevrons.
A chief is a fess situated in the upper third of the shield. It can be associated with the fillet, a quite narrow horizontal band running along the bottom of the chief,  although it can be difficult if not impossible sometimes to distinguish between a fillet and a chief fimbriated, as the fimbriation of a chief occurs only along the lower line. (Fimbriation is the narrow bordering of the outline of a charge, with is then said to be fimbrated or fimbriated; a "fimbriation containing six diagonal 'tics' radiating" occurs in the badge of the 25th Flying Training Squadron of the United States Air Force.) The term edged is sometimes used in a similar context. There is at least one example of a triple fimbriation.) The fillet is sometimes inaccurately described as a diminutive of the chief, but the chief has no diminutive. It is important to note that a chief "enhanced" (which gives it a narrower appearance), as in the arms of Martin F. J. Matthews, is not a diminutive.
Probert , Guillim  and others say that if one chief is "surmounted of another" (one chief is charged on another chief) it will have the appearance of a chief divided by a line running along the upper part of the "chief". The rare "chief couped" is a chief that falls short of reaching the dexter and sinister sides of the shield; the representation of Stonehenge in the arms of Sir Cecil Chubb, "the Baronet who owned Stonehenge and gifted it to the nation", show an example. Chiefs are more commonly seen, though not blazoned as, couped when within a tressure.
A chevron looks like a saw's tooth, arching from the middle of the left side of the shield to the middle of the right.
A bordure is just that, a border around the shield. A bordure separated from the outside of the shield, which looks like a shield with another shield cut out of it, is an orle. Confusingly, when a number of charges (by default, eight) are arranged in the position that a bordure (not an orle) would be in, they are said to be "in orle".
A quarter is the top left (dexter chief in heraldry) quarter of the shield; this is the default position. The top right quarter is a sinister quarter.
The pall is a Y-shaped charge throughout the field, common to Scotland.
There are diminutives of charges as well.
The diminutive of the pale is the pallet and the diminutive of the fess is the bar. (The diminutive of the bar is the barrulet; barrulets are never borne singly. Bars are likewise rarely borne singly, though the arms of Scheffeld are amazingly blazoned as having one-and-a-half bars.) "Barry of <number>" means that the background is divided into that number of horizontal stripes. There are diminutives of most partitions, like "bendy of" or "paly of". It should be noted that in order to be described as "barry" or "paly" there must be an even number of stripes, otherwise it is a field of x tincture and y pallets or bars. Thus the shield of the United States of America, though officially described as "Paly of thirteen argent and gules, a chief azure", is no such thing; it is "Argent, six pallets gules and a chief azure".
The diminutive of the bend sinister is the scarpe.
The diminutive of the chevron is the chevronel.
The diminutive of the quarter is the canton, a square occupying, in theory, the upper left third of the shield. In theory a canton is never an original part of the shield, but some form of later addition, but this is not true in practice. Another charge can be completely hidden by the canton (sometimes, if the charge is not part of a predictable pattern of like charges laid out elsewhere on the shield, making it impossible to correctly blazon the shield); the charge so hidden is then called "absconded". (A highly unusual example of a quarter absconding charges can be seen when Robert Stewart, Lord of Lorn, marshalled his arms with those of Lorn: "Or a fess chequy of four tracts Azure and Argent between two buckles in chief and a garb in base of the Second; a sinister quarter Or bearing a lymphad Sable with sail set absconding one of the buckles and part of the fess; in the dexter base another quarter of the same absconding part of the fess". ) When a shield contains both a fess and canton they are always shown in their theoretical size, and with no dividing line between them; as they appear to be one continuous thing, blazoning a shield with a fess and canton can be confusing for the novice. The canton can be borne sinister (unless blazoned "a canton sinister" the canton is dexter), but this rarely happens.
A charge "in canton" is located in the position in which a canton would be.
The diminutive of the canton is the chequer of the chequy field (but this never occurs alone).
An escutcheon is a shield; it is usually shown in the shape of the larger shield it is on. An orle is a voided escutcheon.
If you put a mullet on a bend, the bend "is charged with" the mullet.
Any type of charge, but usually ordinaries and subordinaries, can be "voided"; without further description, this means that the charge has been "emptied" with a hole in the shape of the charge revealing the field behind it, and only a border has been left. It is possible, however, though highly unusual, that the voiding, the hole, is of a different tincture than the field behind the charge, which tincutre must then be specified; for example, "Argent, a mullet gules, voided or". It is also possible that the voiding is of a different shape than the voided charge, as in the arms of Newton Technical High School in South Africa: "Quarterly gules and sable; a lozenge or voided of a quatrefoil; at its centre a cog wheel argent; the whole within a border or".
Special charges known as "differences" may distinguish otherwise similar blazons; these often indicate "cadency", or what number son owns the shield, to distinguish him from other sons and the father.
Besides the shield
In addition to the shield, most coats-of-arms include a crest, placed above the shield, and a motto (see below), usually placed below it.
Other items may be added to the coat, such as a helmet (decorated with mantling) in a variety of meaningful postures and designs; supporters on either side of the shield and the compartment on which they usually stand; and a variety of medals, ribbons, mural crowns and other decorations. These items are often granted as special honours by the sovereign.
Other elements denoting the status of the bearer could be placed behind the shield. Those include anchors in saltire for admirals, batons for marshals etc. In ecclesiastic heraldry crosier are also used.
Coat of Arms Motto
A Coat of Arms motto is a phrase or collection of words intended to describe the motivation or intention of families with coats of arms. In heraldry, a motto is often depicted in a coat of arms, typically on a scroll under the arms, or else above it as in Scots heraldry. These mottos are traditionally in Latin or Romance languages, as well as in English or German.
Supporters and other additions
An armiger may be entitled, depending upon their rank to several other items.
- Supporters: peers of the realm, senior members of British orders of knighthood and some corporate bodies have supporters on either side of the shield. Often these can have local significance (such as the Fisherman and the Tin miner granted to Cornwall County Council) or a historical link (such as the lion of England and unicorn of Scotland on the two variations of the Royal Arms in Great Britain).
- A coronet of a design appropriate to a peer's rank would be placed on top of the shield.
- Helm: all coats of arms may be displayed with a helm or helmet, which sits over the shield and carries the crest (see below). The form of the helmet may vary with the rank of the armiger.
- Mantling or lambrequin is drapery tied to the helmet above the shield. It forms a backdrop for the shield.
- The crest rests above coronet (if applicable) and helm, usually on a 'wreath' of twisted cloth in the two principal colours of the coat of arms. Often but not exclusively an animal, crests were used to identify a knight at the joust and were, therefore, at first, a sign of the superior rank expected of participants in medieval tournaments. Since Tudor times, however, crests have been granted with all English coats of arms. The City of Sunderland's crest is a wild boar, a remembrance of the parish of Hetton-le-Hole, which became part of the City in 1974. A woman does not display a crest (just as no woman would have fought in a medieval tournament). The crest rests on the helm, as it would have done in real life, or it may be illustrated directly above the shield without a helm (as in the illustration of the arms of Sir Denis Thatcher). His wife, Lady Thatcher, as a woman, displays no crest but her coronet as a baroness is placed above her arms.
- Clergy, like women, and for the same reason (their non-participation in combat), traditionally do not display a helm or crest. Higher clergy, such as bishops or abbots, may display appropriate headwear (the mitre) above the shield, similar to the display by peers of their coronets. Lower clergy often use clerical hats with tassells appropriate to their seniority: this practice began in the Roman Catholic church but was subsequently adopted by some Anglican clergy. The Chief Herald of Ireland has granted Father William Richardson the crest A dexter hand couped at the wrist Gules holding a crown of thorns Proper., but this is often shown next to the shield, the only item above the shield being the historical tasselled hat of a priest.
Heraldry continues to flourish today. Institutions, companies, and members of the public may obtain officially recognized coats of arms from governmental heraldic authorities. This typically has the force of a registered trademark. The first recorded corporate coat of arms was granted to the Drapers' Company of the City of London in 1438 (see Coat of Arms of The Drapers Company). However, many users of modern "heraldic" designs do not register with heraldic authorities, and some designers do not follow the rules of heraldic design at all.
Some people who have interests in heraldry as a hobby participate in the Society for Creative Anachronism and other such medieval revivals, or in micronationalism. Many more people see heraldry as a part of their national, and even personal, heritage, as well as a manifestation of civic and national pride.
- One possible exception might be the arms of the University of Northern British Columbia.