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Heraldry and Coats of Arms

“Heraldry is the fusion of fact and fancy, myth and manner, romance and reality…”

– Charles John Burnett, Dingwall Pursuivant of Arms in Ordinary 1983 – 2010

It’s important when redrawing original arms from carvings, paintings or documents, to keep the original historic shapes and feel of the figures used intact. I research and cross-reference material where possible to find the original forms used and recreate them faithfully.

Many elements may have been redrawn over the years and, depending on the style of the time, taken on embellishments and artifice that can be pared back to something more elegant and simple.

I’ll usually prepare sketches for a new design and then work in Adobe Illustrator – vector editing software – hand-drawing the elements using a graphics tablet. The final file is in vector format meaning it can be enlarged to any size without losing clarity. The format can be edited easily to make changes.

A few interesting facts about Coats of Arms and their use in the UK…

  • In England and Wales The College of Arms is responsible for the issuing and control of Coats of Arms. In Scotland it’s under the jurisdiction of the Lord Lyon King of Arms.
  • Legal Coats of Arms are awarded to individuals, not to families or surnames. They can be inherited through male lineage.
  • Many people could actually apply and be granted the right to a coat of arms as a “test for eminence” can be a university degree or a professional qualification. The cost might be a bit prohibitive at around £5,000.
  • It’s not acceptable to use existing arms without the permission of the owner, or proof that you are directly descended through the male line to the original owner.
  • A new design has to be unique and have at least two “linear differences” so it’s distinctive when appearing in black and white.
  • In the UK the High Court of Chivalry deals with cases where ownership is disputed, though the last time a case was heard over sixty years ago.
  • A “crest”actually refers to the bit above the “helm” and not to the whole arms.
  • When the description of a Coat of Arms describes something left (sinister) or right (dexter) – it means from the viewpoint of the bearer not someone looking at the shield.

A few phrases used in describing objects on a Coat of Arms

Bend – A broad diagonal strip from top left to bottom right of a shield
Chevron – An inverted V shape
Chief – A broad strip across the uppermost part of a shield
Dexter – Right-hand side of the shield – from the user’s point of view, not the observer’s
Ermine – A fur made from the white pelt of the ermine on which the black tips of the creature’s tail appear
Fess – A broad strip horizontally across the centre of the shield
Mantling – A small cloak hanging from the back of the helm, usually shown as shredded and in an updraft
Pale – A broad vertical strip down the centre of a shield
Sinister – Left-hand side of the shield – from the user’s point of view, not the observer’s.
Wreath – A cord of twisted silk which holds the mantling to the top of the helm and forms the base of most crests

Animals on Coats of Arms

Griffin / Gryphon – A winged creature with the head and talons of an eagle and body of a lion
Wyvern – A two-legged dragon

Attitudes of beasts:

Couchant – Lying down – but with the head raised
Courant – Running – full stride with all four legs in the air
Dormant – Sleeping – eyes closed and head lowered, resting on the forepaws
Passant – Striding – walking with one foreleg raised
Rampant – Rearing – standing up on one hind leg and pawing the air with the other three
Salient – Leaping – both hind legs together on the ground and both forelegs together in the air
Sejant – Sitting – sits on haunches, with both forepaws on the ground
Statant – Standing – all four feet on the ground, usually with the forepaws together

Colours used in Coats of Arms

Argent – Silver – mostly shown as white
Azure – Blue
Gules – Red
Or – Gold – often shown as yellow
Purpure – Purple
Sable – Black
Vert – Green

Shield or Escutcheon shapes and styles

I’ve compiled a collection of common shield shapes – and given them names.

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