Heraldic Symbols & Colors: A Brief Overview

Heraldry is not just pretty designs and random colors. There is a deep significance to the heraldic designs that were used.

Mar 17, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma
overview heraldic symbols and colors

 

The medieval battlefield was a grim place. Dust and mud-covered soldiers engaged in brutal pushing and shoving. But among the various hues of gray and brown, there were flashes of bright colors as the heraldic banners and shields of the nobility acted like magnets, drawing the attention of friend and foe alike.

 

These designs and colors weren’t just there for aesthetic reasons, however. The designs (called “devices”) and colors acted like signatures. Their banners told people where they were, and their shields told people who they were.

 

Heraldic colors and designs were immensely important not just on the battlefield but in many aspects of medieval life. They denoted the extremely important aspect of loyalty and communicated who was who, especially in tournaments.

 

The Heraldic Colors

heraldic colors symbols tinctures encyclopedia britannica
The five tinctures along with the two metals and the convention for denoting them in black and white print, via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

Although there are many colors that can be used outside of heraldry, the art of heraldic design makes use of five heraldic colors, which are known as “traditional colors” or “tinctures.” These heraldic colors should never be overlaid for reasons of visibility. Traditionally, these heraldic colors also have meanings.

 

  1. Black or “Sable” represents wisdom, constancy, grief, or prudence.
  2. Green or “Vert” represents abundance, joy, hope, and loyalty in marriage.
  3. Red or “Gules” is the symbol of the warrior, representing might and military strength. It is also associated with being a martyr and represents sacrifice.
  4. Blue or “Azure” is the symbol of faith, chastity, moral strength, and loyalty.
  5. Purple or “Purpure” is associated with royalty, sovereignty, justice, majesty, and also temperance.

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heraldic colors symbols furs
An example of some of the patterns or “furs” used in heraldry, via crwflags.com

 

In addition to these five heraldic colors, there are several additional colors that have been used historically, but not as often as the other five. These additional colors are called “stains.”

 

Supplementing these five heraldic colors are two “metals.” Gold is represented with yellow and is referred to as “or,” while silver is represented with white and is referred to as “argent.” The rule is that these two “metals” can be placed on any of the heraldic colors, but never on each other.

 

Along with the heraldic colors are patterns known as “furs” that were often used. These patterns were often used on their own without any devices.

 

Heraldic Ordinaries

combat of the thirty
The Combat of the Thirty by Octave Penguilly L’Haridon, 1857, depicts a scene from 1351 during the War of the Breton Succession when two teams of knights took to the field in an organised melee; via historynet.com

 

Apart from the heraldic colors, heraldic ordinaries are popular “charges” that are simple geometric designs that run from side to side, corner to corner, or top to bottom on the shield. Although sometimes used for aesthetic reasons, there are also significant meanings attached to some of the designs. In heraldry, the design is described from the perspective of the beholder rather than the viewer. As such, right and left are reversed in descriptions.

 

The “pale” is a vertical stripe that runs down the center of the shield. It represents great military or defensive strength and is derived from the word “pale,” meaning a sharpened stake driven into the ground. Palings formed defensive walls around settlements, camps, and forts.

 

The “bend” is a diagonal band running from the upper right (dexter) to the lower left (sinister) corner of the shield. It represents a sash that is awarded to those who have distinguished themselves as great commanders. The “bend sinister” runs in the opposite direction and was sometimes used as a mark of illegitimacy, although this wasn’t always the case.

 

heraldic colors symbols scotland flags
The flag of Scotland bears the Cross of Saint Andrew, from Getty Images via metro.co.uk

 

A “fesse” is a broad horizontal band that runs across the width of the shield. It represents the girdle of the ancients and is supposed to signify that the bearer is willing to stand up and act for the good of the people.

 

The “saltire” is a diagonal cross that runs from corner to corner rather than the standard cross, which runs from edge to edge. It is a popular ordinary commonly used in Scottish heraldry as it mimics the design of the Cross of Saint Andrew, which is a cross synonymous with Scotland and appears on the Scottish flag. The Saltire represents suffering and endurance, which many Scots associate with their relationship to the English. The shape of the saltire is derived from the X-shaped cross on which Saint Andrew was crucified.

 

heraldic colors symbols ordinaries
Some of the heraldic ordinaries, via curiosityuntamed.com

 

A pile is a wedge issuing from the chief (top), which tapers towards the bottom of the shield. It can, however, be arranged in various forms, issuing from the right or the left, or from the corners. It can also be reversed or constructed from charges (smaller designs)

 

The cross is a very popular design as it symbolizes the Christian faith. As such, it was widely adopted by crusaders in a variety of colors. The Saint George’s Cross, for example, is a red (gules) cross on a silver/white (argent) field, and it appears on the country flags of England and Georgia. It was also famously used by the Knights Templar.

 

The “chevron” is derived from the roof of a house and is derived from the French word “chevron,” meaning “rafter.” The symbol is popular in French and English heraldry, and relatively rare in German heraldry. It signifies protection and was used by those who had built something noteworthy, literally or figuratively.

 

A broad band across the top of the shield is called a “chief.” It signifies authority and domination of will and was especially used to signify a command position. The chief can never be cut off from the sides of the shield and cannot be surrounded or overlapped by any other symbol.

 

heraldic chevron lines patterns divisions
An example of patterned lines being used in heraldry. This is a chevron gulet (red) raguly (pattern) on an argent (silver) field, via vikinganswerlady.com; with Some popular “lines of division” patterns, via English Heraldry

 

Other ordinaries include a border called a “bordure,” a Y-shape called a “pall,” a “base,” which is like a chief but occupies the lower part of the shield, an “orle,” which is an inner bordure that doesn’t touch the edges, squares called “cantons” and quarters,” and many more.

 

The shield doesn’t necessarily have to contain an ordinary. It can also be split via the patterns inherent in the ordinary design. This is called “division of the field.” Furthermore, the lines need not be straight. “The lines of division” can incorporate a number of styles.

 

Charges

heraldic colors symbols fret
A fret design, via heraldicart.org

 

Apart from the ordinaries, there are many other charges that can adorn a shield, each with its own special name and meaning. Charges can be simple shapes called subordinaries. The list of subordinaries includes “lozenges,” which are diamond shapes, “annulets,” which are rings, “roundels,” which are circles, “billets,” which are rectangles, “frets,” which are designs depicting a single weave. If the fret pattern is repeated and covers the entire shield, it is called “fretty.”

 

heraldic colors symbols bavarian flag
The Bavarian flag features a field of lozenges, via flagsonline.it

 

The choice of other charges that can be displayed is almost infinite. They can be almost anything. Some popular charges involve human figures, animals such as lions, horses, crocodiles, spiders, and even wombats. Fish are also a common charge. Mythical creatures can also be used, such as unicorns, dragons, hippogriffs, and griffins. Of particular importance are birds, especially eagles, which have been extremely popular as national symbols and thus as heraldic charges.

 

Charges are also not bound by the convention of the use of heraldic colors. The colors used can reflect the image in real life. When this is done, the charge is referred to as being “proper.”

 

banner holy roman empire
The eagle was a prevalent symbol in the Holy Roman Empire. It was used as a charge on an or field for many centuries and underwent many design changes; via Wikipedia

 

Body parts are also commonly displayed, such as feet, hands, and heads, sometimes depicted as being recently separated from the rest of the body.

 

Weapons such as swords and axes are popular. Even shields are displayed (this particular design is referred to as an “inescutcheon”).

 

Other popular charges include lettering such as the Christogram, symbols such as the sun, crosses, and stars, or flora such as flowers and trees. Wheat is a common symbol, denoting a link to an agrarian background. A popular example of flowers being used is the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster, made famous during the Wars of the Roses.

 

Impalement

coats of arms england
Detail from a map of England showing the coats of arms printed by John Bartholomew & Son Ltd. Image supplied by the author.

 

Impalement is the combining of two or more heraldic devices. Over time, the escutcheon (shield) design got halved and then quartered as sons wished to display their father and grandfather’s heraldry in their own design. As such, an example of a fur, like any other heraldic symbol, ended up being one-half of the shield while another design occupied the other. This process is called quartering (splitting) and marshaling (combining), and its express purpose is to display more than one coat of arms on a shield. A famous example of this is the coat of arms of Edward III, who claimed the throne of France. To reflect this, his coat-of-arms was quartered to show the lilies of France (the fleurs-de-lis) and the lions, or “leopards,” of England.

 

heraldic colors symbols edward iii
The quartered shield of Edward III reflects both the French and the English thrones, via World History

 

Heraldry is a complex system of symbolic designs that is considered its own form of art. Heraldic colors and designs also constitute an interesting subject for those studying the fundamentals of design.

 

Although considered a relic of a bygone era, heraldry is still very much en vogue. No longer used solely by the nobility, people of more common backgrounds have become interested in seeking the meanings behind the symbols used by their ancestors, especially by those of European descent.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.