Coats of Arms

Coats of Arms

A knight’s coat of arms during medieval England was used to identify him during a battle or tournament.

The simplest part of a coat of arms was the achievement - in the context of heraldry and a coat of arms, this was the full display of accessories, arms and crests. Achievements consisted of eight parts and the rules of the colours that could be included in a heraldic device were strict. The eight sections included:

  1. The mottoes
  2. The mantling
  3. The shield
  4. The crest
  5. The wreath
  6. The helmet
  7. The coronets
  8. The supporters
Coats of Arms
Coats of Arms

Generally a shield was seen as the coat of arms’ most important part - it could appear on its own without any other part of an achievement which was a symbol of how important it was to a family’s coat of arms.

A helmet came above the shield and its type and position made the owner’s rank clear. It featured a mantling - drapery tied to the helmet above the shield which forms a backdrop for the shield. The wreath (or torse) is a twisted roll of fabric laid about the top of the helmet and the base of the crest. Originally a crest was an object which was worn by knights and attached to their helmets, in particular at jousts. Shields often featured an animal or person holding up the shield, which was known as a supporter. Coronets were only peer achievements such as dukes, earls, viscounts and barons and symbolised their rank. Mottos were usually found at the bottom of a shield within a scroll but was sometimes placed above it. Heraldic colouring on a shield was very strict and consisted of metals, tinctures, furs and colours.

Shields were also a design on patterns known as ordinaries - a type of band which went across a shield, whether it was horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Ordinaries are thought to have come from a band of metal being put across a shield to strengthen it for combat. Each band style had a name - a chief or fess had a bar which ran horizontally across a shield, while a pale ran vertically down a shield. Other patterns were pall, chevron, pile, cross and saltire. Designs that were more complicated were called sub ordinaries. Ordinaries were simple shapes which were recognisable outside of heraldry.

Knights had a helmet above their shield, but peers of the realm had a type of crown which symbolised their rank. Barons would have a crown with silver balls on the pattern’ earls would have strawberry leaves with silver balls above; a marquess would also have a strawberry leaf followed by a silver ball and then a strawberry leaf, whilst an earl’s pattern would just be strawberry leaves.

Blazoning was the term given to the description of a coat of arms and the painting of arms was called emblazoning. Shields had three significant sections - in chief which was the top section, in fess was the middle and the lower section was called in base.

The eldest family member would be the one who inherited the coat of arms, and the younger family member would use the same but simply put a different symbol in the centre rather than the original - this was a tradition known as Cadency. If a woman did not have any brothers once she got married, the family coat of arms would be added to her new husband’s and this was known as marshalling. It was a representative of the permanent covenant of marriage.  

See also: Royal Coats of Arms

MLA Citation/Reference

"Coats of Arms". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.