How does heraldry work?

Heraldry has its own language.This is based on the Norman French of the Angevin Kings of the time and stems from the need to describe arms in an unambiguous way when it wasn’t possible to draw or paint them.This is known as the Blazon. As Arms became more elaborate, the language of their blazons acquired its own rules, vocabulary and syntax. It is necessary to get used to the vocabulary – and that comes with practice. See Rules of Heraldry >



Blazon:  Argent, a stag springing Gules, on a chief Vert, three mullets of the first. Above the shield a helmet befitting his rank, mantled Argent doubled Vert and for the Crest a hand couped holding a sword all proper.


1. The field of the escutcheon (shield) – give the colour, which here is Argent
2. The main charge or partition on the field – in this case, a stag, and blazon its ‘attitude’,
springing, and its tincture, Gules
3. Charges not central – here, a chief and its tincture, Vert
4. Charges on the last mentioned – three mullets of the first, meaning the first colour or metal
referred to, Argent; a mullet is a five-pointed spur


Notice a few things here:

  • the two sides of the shield are referred to as sinister and dexter, yet the dexter side seems to be on the left – but if you were holding the shield, the dexter side would be on your right, which is why we ONLY use the terms given and NEVER ‘right’ or ‘left’;
  • the shape of the shield is not specified – the one shown is the most common shape, known as a ‘heater’ (like an old flat-iron), but it is left up to the artist’s discretion; however, because women traditionally did not go into battle, a shield is considered inappropriate so most females’ coats of arms are displayed on a lozenge or an elliptical shape (cartouche). There are exceptions – the arms of a Queen, as the sovereign is the commander-in-chief of the nation’s armies; women in the armed forces; and in Canada there is no restriction against women bearing arms on a shield;
  • colours and metals are given an initial capital (Gules, Or), largely to remove any confusion over the word ‘or’ as a conjunction;
  • the hand and sword are referred to as ‘proper’, meaning the colours they are in nature, not heraldic colours (unlike the red stag, for instance);
  • the mantling takes the main colours of the shield (here, Argent and Vert), with the first on the outside and the second as the ‘lining’ – a peer’s mantling is always Gules doubled Ermine.

The ordinaries, diminutives and partitions

coa15These are simple geometric shapes – ‘ordinary’ because they are the most common, and are often called the ‘honourable’ ordinaries (everything to do with arms is by definition honourable!). They also represent, in their simplest forms, the oldest arms on records, because there were fewer arms then and therefore more choice. Unless specified, they extend to the edges of the field. The main ones, with examples of their use in arms, are shown below, along with their diminutives, partitions of the field and charges arranged on the field. Here are some Argent and Sable examples:


Sub-ordinaries and patterning the field

These are less common and are often used to pattern the field – here are some examples:


Lines of division

Lines do not have to be straight, but can take a variety of shapes such as engrailed (scalloped with points outward), invected (opposite of engrailed), undy (wavy), nebuly (like clouds, supposedly), dancetty, embattled (in the form of battlements) and so on.



Just about any object found in nature may be a charge in heraldry, subject to the agreement of the granting authority. Sometimes these are highly stylised versions of animals, plants or objects, such as a quill pen, a book or a wheel.The most frequent charges are varieties of cross and the lion (an interesting choice for medieval Britain). Other common animals are stags and boars, fish, eagles, doves and martlets, and the mythical griffin. Dragons, unicorns and other exotics are more common as supporters. (For some reason, the iguanodon is a supporter in the arms of the borough of Maidstone in Kent, and Inverness has a camel.) The armiger is not limited as to choice, except by imagination and good taste

Attitudes of animals

Quadrupeds are often rampant (standing on the left hind foot or both hind feet), arranged to show features such as claws and tail; passant (walking), salient (jumping), couchant (sitting) and their heads gardant (looking towards the reader), regardant (looking backwards) and other variants.


Stags have their own attitude nomenclatures such as trippant (walking), statant (standing), at gaze (head turned towards the reader), lodged (sitting) and cabossed (the head alone, facing forwards).

Eagles are usually shown with their wings displayed (spread). Fish have three main attitudes: naiant (swimming), hauriant and urinant. Human figures are rare as charges,but often appear as supporters.

Attitudes of animals. Notice the different terms used for beasts of prey (such as lions) and stags. Heraldic beasts often bear no resemblance to their natural counterparts, as with the heraldic dolphin and the sea-lion, clearly conceived by someone who had never seen the real thing.

Attitudes of animals. Notice the different terms used for beasts of prey (such as lions) and stags. Heraldic beasts often bear no resemblance to their natural counterparts, as with the heraldic dolphin and the sea-lion, clearly conceived by someone who had never seen the real thing.

Marshalling arms

This is the term for merging two or more coats of arms in one shield, often to show the marriage of two armigers, the holding of office by an armiger (such as a bishopric), a claim to lands. or some other circumstance. Marshalling is usually indicated by:

  • impalement (where the shield is divided per pale into dexter and sinister halves, each with the full arms)
  • dimidation (half of the arms on each side);
  • quartering (the shield is divided into four);
  • adding an inescutcheon (a smaller shield on the main shield).
  • If more than four coats of arms are to be marshalled, there may be two rows of three (quarterly of six) or more. It is more usual to subquarter.


Shields impaled or quartered are read by rows from the dexter chief with the first or main coat representing the highest or oldest title, or the paternal line. It works like this:


Cadency and difference – distinguishing children and branches

In England and some other heraldic jurisdictions, all heirs of an armiger can bear the undifferenced arms. Since arms are unique to one person at a time in Scotland, there is a stricter system of differencing or cadency (from the same root as ‘cadet’). There are a number of accepted systems of indicating younger children and derived branches of a family.

1. Use of coloured bordures
The heir bears the father’s undifferenced arms plus a label of three points during the father’s lifetime, then may inherit the undifferenced arms. Younger children use coloured bordures and other differences. You will also notice some small cadency brisures, for example in the last generation descended from the second son. All such cadencies are honorific, and when a descendant has his or her own household, he or she is expected to matriculate arms, which may well formalise the designs shown.

2. Use of cadency marks
In British, and particularly English, heraldry the following brisures (small charges) may be added to a shield to distinguish younger children and cadet branches of a family, in order of birth: Label of three (born during the father’s lifetime); Crescent; Mullet; Martlet; Annulet; Fleur-de-Lis; Rose; Cross Moline; Double quatrefoil.

Do not assume, however, that a shield bearing such a brisure necessarily belongs to a cadet branch – they are also used as general charges.
In Scotland, all daughters bear the undifferenced arms of their father, on a lozenge or other non-shield shape. There is a similar system of brisures for females in Canadian heraldry – necessary because equal rights legislation over there means that women also get shields, not lozenges.

3. Differencing by changes in tincture
A good example of this can be seen in the branches of the Brodie family, showing the use of impalements, marks of cadency and tinctures.
Another example is from various branches of the Hay family.



4. Differencing by quartering

Quartering (see above) by itself does not always indicate cadency, so there is often an additional charge, usually at the fess point. One example is Campbell of Glenlyon, which has quartered arms with the Douglas heart royally crowned in the centre.



All coats of arms may be displayed with an appropriate helm or helmet, which sits above the shield and carries the crest.The form of the helmet depends on the rank of the armiger and has a complex set of associated rules derived from conventions laid down in the 1600s.

Corporations use another form of helmet called a sallet. But not everyone bears a helmet – churchmen, not being warriors, may display above the shield a mitre (bishops and abbots) or a clerical tasselled hat called a galero (lower clergy).



The crest tops the helm, arising from a torse (wreath) of twisted cloth in the two main colours of the coat of arms, sometimes within a coronet (simpler than coronets of rank). Crests identified a knight at a joust, and were often but not always an animal. Since Tudor/Stuart times, crests have been granted with all coats of arms, except to women, who would not have fought in a medieval tournament. It must be capable of being fabricated in three dimensions.The crest either rests on the helmet or is sometimes shown directly above the shield without a helmet, much to the fury of heraldic purists.The word ‘crest’ is often wrongly used to refer to a coat of arms.

The crest in heraldry can be almost any object, real or imaginary.  The example shown below, from the author’s coat of arms, is blazoned as: a cubit arm vested Azure cuffed Argent the hand Proper holding a crescent Or (the hand signifying, it is said, a pledge of faith or sincerity).

Crests are also used on their own, with the torse, when there is insufficient space to display the entire arms, such as on stationery and the like. In Scottish heraldry in particular, the crest may be incorporated into a clan or family badge, which can be worn by any kinsman or kinswoman. However, DO NOT put the crest of the chief on personal or business stationery, signet rings, plates, mugs and so on, because that would imply legally that the object in question was the property of the chief.

The crest badge

Clan or family chiefs may allow the use of their crest as a crest badge by their clansmen or families, in which case it is usually surrounded by a belt and buckle.This distinguishes it from the chief ’s own crest, which is his personal property. Often, the badge uses the clan or family plant or animal, or the crest from the arms, as in the case shown (Durie).

Scottish feudal barons may petition the Lord Lyon for a badge – as distinct from a crest – which is a separate armorial device, not always and not necessarily a feature of the arms.This badge may be used by the ‘tail’ or following of a landowner baron and the baron’s pennon (a heraldic flag in the livery colours, usually the two most prominent colours of the arms) may bear a large representation of the badge. The pennon is then also blazoned in the grant or matriculation of arms. A cap badge, without the belt and buckle, would be used by one of his followers. This is a direct descendant of the tradition of wearing the clan or family symbol (such as a sprig of heather, a feather etc) in the bonnet.


This is a word or phrase meant to describe the character or intention of the armigerous holder or corporation. Sometimes it is a pun on the name, as with Neville (Ne vile velis – ‘wish nothing vile’). It is usually on an escrol (a scroll) under the shield,or in Scots heraldry above the crest. A motto may be in any language but Latin is the most frequent.

There are two versions of the motto in various Durie arms: Steadfast and Confido (meaning ‘I trust’, possibly a contraction of Confido Deo, ‘I trust in God’; or it could mean ‘have confidence in’,‘be confident of ’ or ‘rely upon’, depending on whether or not it is treated as a semi-deponent verb).

Supporters and other additions

An armiger may be entitled, depending upon rank, to other component. The supporters of peers of the realm, chiefs of clans and families, and holders of the older baronies (chartered before 1587) and those which have been in continuous family ownership, are inherited with the title. Life peers (including law lords), Knights of the Thistle, Knights Grand Cross of British orders of knighthood, corporate bodies established by Royal Charter or an Act of Parliament and certain other classes of individuals and institutions are entitled to supporters on either side of the shield, but only for life. These are often animals, mythical beasts (such as unicorns) or savages, as in the Durie of Durie Arms shown in the plates (two savages wreathed about the loins with laurel also proper).
Normally a Scottish coat of arms will have two supporters; however, single supporters are found in the arms of the City of Perth (an eagle), Campbell of Inverneill (a lymphad with the shield suspended from its mast) and Dunbar, Earl of March & Dunbar (a tree with the shield hanging from a branch). Dundas of that Ilk has three supporters – two lions rampant Gules but the whole resting on the back of a salamander in flames Proper (a compliment taken from the Douglas crest because Archibald Dundas recovered the forfeited estates of Dundas in 1465, thanks to the Earl of Douglas).
Supporters in Scots arms are always on a compartment or ground, often shown with the clan or family plant badge.

Supporters may have local significance (the Fisherman and the Tin Miner granted to Cornwall County Council) or a historical meaning (the dolphins supporting the arms of Mary, Queen of Scots while married to the Dauphin of France). In England, supporters are reserved for the peerage, and a Scottish feudal baron who is not also a peer will not be allowed supporters in arms granted by the College of Heralds in London.

Coronets of rank

If the armiger has the title of peerage baron or higher (or hereditary knight in some countries), he or she may display a coronet of rank above the shield, usually below the helm in British heraldry, often above the crest (if any) in continental heraldry. For example, an earl has an eight-pearl coronet (but only five pearls are visible from the front). Scottish feudal barons in Scotland were awarded a cap or chapeau of maintenance – Gules if they still held territory, Azure without territory, for families in possession of feudal baronies before 1427, the last time that all feudal barons were summoned to the Scots Parliament; the chapeau is doubled Ermine if the land was held of the sovereign, Counter-ermine if not. A chief may use a coronet of four strawberry leaves tinctured according to whether or not the former lands are still held. Of course, a peer, if a feudal landholder, may have both a coronet and a chapeau, and may also be a chief.

Dr Bruce DurieThis information was kindly supplied by Dr Bruce Durie:
Dr. Bruce Durie BSc (Hons) PhD OMLJ FSAScot FCollT FIGRS FHEA
Genealogist, Author, Broadcaster, Lecturer
Shennachie to the Chief of Durie
Shennachie to COSCA
Honorary Fellow, University of Strathclyde
Member, Académie Internationale de Généalogie