An Introduction to Heraldry: Understanding Coat of Arms and How to Make Your Own

An Introduction to Heraldry: Understanding Coat of Arms and How to Make Your Own

Heraldry started in the Middle Ages as a way of identifying individuals. In this article we'll explain the purpose and structure of a heraldic shield and a coat of arms and give you an overview to help you make your own.
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An Introduction to Heraldry: Understanding Coat of Arms and How to Make Your Own

Heraldry started in the Middle Ages as a way of identifying individuals. In this article we'll explain the purpose and structure of a heraldic shield and a coat of arms and give you an overview to help you make your own. One of the most fascinating aspects of heraldry is that there are so many opportunities for an artist to create a truly unique design. Considering that this art form has been practised since the Middle Ages in many countries and by thousands of people, that's quite something. Ready to learn more? Let's go!

Shield of Edward IV (1442-83), King of England, in his Capacity as Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, Pierre Coustain (attributed to), c. 1481

What is Heraldry?

The concept of a coat of arms originated in medieval Europe to distinguish individuals, especially in combat, when someone's face was obscured by armour, or they were travelling fast or at a distance. Emblems were a unique combination of colour, pattern, and design that instantly specified the individual and potentially their family heritage, land ownership, and alliances.

A coat of arms design is very personal, and traditionally, the right to use it is passed down through the bearer's family, through the male line. So, even if you have the same surname as someone with a coat of arms, it doesn't mean you are allowed to use it. Coats of arms are not just for individuals; they can also represent educational institutions, countries and districts, businesses and charities.

Coat of arms of Frederik, prince of the Netherlands, anonymous, 1876 - 1907

How to Design Your Heraldic Shield  

The five traditional colours used in heraldry are blue, purple, red, green, and black, plus gold and silver metals, represented by yellow and white, respectively. Patterns known as 'furs' were ermine, a black-and-white design, and vair, a blue-and-white pattern. 

  1. Pick your shield and its background (metal, fur or colour). The shield's style changes with the era's trends. The Heraldry Society have a selection of options on Page 7 of their fascinating document, 'Beginners Guide to Heraldry'.
  2. Choose an 'ordinary'; this is a design for the shield. It can be halved or quartered, or you can have a shape like a cross or a chevron. Visit English Heritage for more design ideas.
  3. Add your 'charge'. A charge can be a symbol(s) or animal(s); mythical creatures from medieval bestiaries were very popular options. Check our Animal Reference Book and Monsters and Beasts pictorial archive for inspiration!

An important rule is to never place a colour on a colour or a metal on a metal, as the designs will be difficult to read. This rule doesn't apply to furs and graphic charges in their proper, lifelike colours. 

People loved adding visual puns and wordplay in their designs; for example, the Bowes-Lyon family had lions and bows on their coat of arms. How would you include a hidden reference to yourself in your design?

Part of a roll of arms painted in England at the beginning of the 14th century

What are the Design Elements of a Coat of Arms?

The coat of arms is displayed on a shield or escutcheon; its surface is called the 'field'. When heraldry began in England, knights and aristocracy spoke Norman French. The description of a coat of arms is called a Blazon, and it may consist of a range of English, Norman French, and Latin words. So, if you see a description mentioning an azure lion or an argent field, you'll know this refers to a blue lion or a silver shield.

A coat of arms typically contains these elements,

  1. The centre of the design has a shield, which can be divided into sections. Each section had an emblem or a 'charge', such as animals, mythical creatures or symbols, like diamonds, crosses, or crescents.
  2. Two people or animals flank the shield. These are known as 'supporters' because they look like they are holding the shield. They could be anything from angels to lions or eagles. They may stand on a 'compartment' that is in keeping with the design of the arms, such as brickwork, a river, or grass.
  3. Above the shield sits a helmet and a crest. Crests could be a feather or a design in the shape of an animal, a person, or an object like a horn. Their purpose was to identify the wearer and to make them look larger and more imposing. The design and placement of the helmet traditionally denoted the status of the bearer.
  4. A mantling is an ornamental flourish flanking the crest. The Ornamental Design image archive is a great place to get image inspiration.
  5. The torse is a twisted strand of six folds between the crest and the helm.
  6. Below the shield was a Latin phrase or motto in a scroll that summarised an individual's belief or purpose.

If you are feeling especially noble or regal, you could also incorporate medals, a crown, or even a wreath, badge, banner, or flag.

Decorated coat of arms of the Ter Borch family, Gesina ter Borch, 1660

Designing a coat of arms that reflects your values and beliefs is a fascinating opportunity to experiment with this historical art form. Here's a selection of our image archives full of ideas and references to help you get started!

Vintage Logo Design Inspiration Volume.1

Monsters and Beasts

The Animal Reference Book

Dragons and Mythical Creatures

Brutal Weapons and Armour

Ornamental Design

Borders, Frames and Cartouches

Botanical Art

Sea-Life and Monsters of the Deep

The Sign Painter and Lettering Artist's Reference Book

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