, a charge
is an image occupying the field
on an escutcheon
(or shield). Charge
can also be a verb; for example, if an escutcheon bears three lions
, then it is said to be charged with three lions.
It is important to distinguish between divisions of the field
and charges, and to note that charges can themselves be charged with a superimposed image.
Sometimes the significance or the allusion behind the charge(s) may be given in the blazon, but this is generally regarded as poor practice.
Thousands of objects found in nature, mythology or technology have appeared in armory, in addition to charges that are unique to heraldry. This article lists only those charges frequently seen, which contribute to the distinctive flavor of heraldic design; a more exhaustive list will be found at List of heraldic charges.
Charges can be animals (cf. totem), objects or geometric constructs. The ordinaries are sometimes called proper charges, with other charges being known as common charges. In French blazon the ordinaries are called pièces while other charges, which may be placed anywhere on the shield, are called meubles (i.e. "mobile"; the same word also means "furniture" in modern French).
- Main article: Ordinary (heraldry)
Heraldic writers traditionally distinguish, somewhat arbitrarily, between honourable ordinaries and sub-ordinaries. It is often said that only nine charges are honourable ordinaries, but exactly which nine fit into this category is a subject of disagreement. It is sometimes said that only those ordinaries each of whose widths is one-fifth or more of the total width of the escutcheon is honourable.
Narrower or smaller versions of these ordinaries are called diminutives. The names of the diminutives are omitted here for brevity.
Several different figures are recognised as honourable ordinaries. Each normally occupies one-fifth to one-third of the field; the precise amount depends on whether there are other charges on the ordinary or on the field.
- The chief is the upper portion of the field.
- The fess, a horizontal stripe in the centre of the field.
- The bar, which is of an indeterminate width, but if borne singly supposed to be slightly thinner than a fess.
- The pale, a vertical stripe in the centre of the field.
- The bend runs from the upper left to the lower right, as , as seen by the viewer.
- The bend sinister runs from the upper right to the lower left, as /.
- The cross is a geometric construction of two perpendicular lines or bands, and is sometimes referred to as the "noblest" of the honourable ordinaries. It has hundreds of variants, most of which are common charges rather than ordinaries; some of these will be discussed below.
- The saltire, sometimes called Saint Andrew's cross, is a diagonal cross.
- The chevron is a construction shaped like an inverted letter V
- The pall is shaped like the letter Y. (There is a T-shaped charge, the tau, which is not understood to be an ordinary.)
- The pile is a triangle, whose base is along the top of the field, and whose vertex is in the centre of the bottom half of the field.
- The quarter is a rectangle occupying the top left quarter of the field, as seen by the viewer.
- The canton is a diminutive of the quarter.
Care must be taken in blazoning when two or more ordinaries or subordinaries, or diminutives thereof, are depicted "conjoined".
As well as those mentioned in the above section whose status as honourable ordinaries is disputed, there are several other charges recognised as sub-ordinaries.
- The bordure is a border touching the edge of the field.
- The orle may be considered the inner half of the bordure: it usually follows the shape of the shield, without touching the edges. It cannot have other charges on it. The double tressure is an orle gemel (split into two halves with an orle-shaped line drawn through the middle, and the two halves slightly separated), but never so called: seen in the arms of the kings of Scotland.
- The fret originally consisted of three bendlets interlaced with three bendlets sinister; this would now be blazoned as a field fretty. In modern depictions the outer strips are combined to form a continuous square. The Harington knot constists of a square balanced on one corner with diagonal lacing.
- The gyron is a right triangle occupying the lower half of the first quarter: its edges are the midlines of an imaginary bend and fess. A gyron sinister, much rarer, is a similar figure in the sinister chief.
- Flaunches or flanches are regions on the sides of the shield, bounded by a pair of circular arcs whose centers are to the right and left of the shield.
- A label is a horizontal strap, with a number of pendants (usually called points, or, more rarely, drops) suspended therefrom; normally three, but any number may be specified. The label is nearly always a cadency mark, but is occasionally found as a regular charge in early armory. It is sometimes called a file, as in the canting arms of Belfile, a label with a bell hanging from each point. There are some examples in which the strap is omitted, the "drops" depending from the top of the shield.
Common charges include land animals, fish, and birds. The heraldic depictions need not, and usually do not, exactly resemble the actual creatures. Mythical creatures used in heraldry are sometimes called "monsters". Inanimate objects are also used; many of them resemble flowers and floral designs.
A number of frequent charges are sometimes listed among the subordinaries (see above), but as their form is not related to the shape of the shield – indeed they may appear independent of the shield, e.g. in crests
– they are more usefully considered here.
- escutcheon: a small shield. If borne singly in the centre of the main shield, it is called an inescutcheon, and is usually employed to combine multiple coats. General practice, if not strictly speaking a "rule", suggests that it be the same shape as the shield it is on, though shields of specific shapes are rarely specified.
- lozenge: a rhomb, typically resembling the diamonds of playing-cards (except that its sides are always straight). A more acute lozenge may be called a fusil. A lozenge voided, i.e. with a lozenge-shaped hole, is a mascle; a lozenge pierced, i.e. with a round hole, is a rustre (rare).
- billet: a rectangle, usually at least twice as tall as it is wide; it may represent a block of wood or a sheet of paper. Billets appear in the shield of the house of Nassau, which was modified to become that of the kingdom of the Netherlands. A rare variant is the square delf.
- roundel: a solid circle, often representing either a coin or a cannonball. An annulet is a roundel voided, i.e. a ring.
Several other simple charges occur often enough to be grouped with these:
- mullet: a star of (usually) five or six straight rays, originally representing a spur.
- crescent: a symbol of the Moon, normally with its horns upward; if its horns are to dexter it represents a waxing moon (increscent), and with horns to sinister it represents a waning moon (decrescent).
- fleur-de-lis — see Flowers below.
- cross. When the cross does not reach the edges of the field, it becomes a common charge. The plain Greek cross (with equal limbs) and Latin cross (with the lower limb extended) are sometimes seen, but more often the tip of each limb is developed into some ornamental shape. Several of the most frequent variants are shown at Cross#In heraldry; another occasionally seen (and not shown in that article) is the Calvary cross, a Latin cross standing on a series of steps.
- escallop: the shell of the scallop, a symbol of pilgrimage.
- ermine spot: properly a component of the tincture ermine but sometimes seen as an independent charge.
- goutte: a "drop" of some liquid, seen more often in a field semé than as a single charge; there is a perhaps unique instance of these being blazoned as "drops".
- heart — notably in the arms of the kingdom of Denmark
In English heraldry the crescent, mullet, martlet, annulet, fleur-de-lis and rose may be added to a shield to distinguish cadet branches of a family from the senior line. It does not follow, however, that a shield containing such a charge belongs to a cadet branch. All of these charges occur frequently in basic (undifferenced) coats of arms.
Human or manlike beings
Humans, deities, angels and demons occur more often as crests and supporters than on the shield.
The largest group of human charges consists of saints, often as the patron of a town. Knights, bishops, monks and nuns, kings and queens also occur frequently.
The savage or wild man wears only a loincoth made of leaves, and usually carries a club.
Greco-Roman mythological figures typically appear in an allegorical or canting role.
Angels very frequently appear, but angelic beings of higher rank, such as cherubim and seraphim, are extremely rare. An archangel appears in the arms of Arkhangelsk. The Devil (or a demon) is occasionally seen, being defeated by the archangel Saint Michael.
Though the taboo is not invariably respected, British heraldry in particular, and to a greater or lesser extent the heraldry of other countries, frowns on depictions of God or Christ, though an exception may be in the not-uncommon Continental depictions of Madonna and Child, including the Black Madonna in the arms of Marija Bistrica, Croatia.
There are rare occurrences of a "child" (used to mean "boy"), both the head and entire body. A famous example birth of a child out of a dragon's mouth (the biscione) in the arms of Visconti dukes of Milan.
Races and nationalities of humans
Particularly in Europe, the "default" human is almost always depicted as one of European ancestry, though contrary examples can very occasionally be seen.
) "Humans" so blazoned are rare, though there are some examples.
Generally speaking, there is only one type of woman: young and blonde, with disheveled hair (though there are occasional instances of her hair being braided), and appearing more often as a bust than head.
The American Indian occasionally appears in heraldry though far more often as a supporter than a charge.
The Maure (Moor) or "blackamoor" is inaccurately shown as being (sub-Saharan) African, although James Parker states that an "African" appears in the arms of Routell,
Turks appear frequently in Balkan (e.g. Hungarian) armory, as defeated enemies.
Parts of human bodies
Parts of human bodies occur more often than the whole, particularly heads (often of exotic nationality), hearts (always stylized), hands, and armored limbs.
A famous heraldic hand is the Red Hand of Ulster, alluding to an incident in the legendary Milesian invasion.
Ribs occur in Iberian armory, canting for Costa.
The canting arms of the Lombard family of Coglione bore "per fess gules and argent, three pairs of testicles counterchanged". This charge has sometimes been described and rendered as a heart inverted. The community of Cölbe in Hesse has a coat of arms with a similar charge.
The beast most often portrayed in heraldry is the lion
. When posed passant guardant
(walking and facing the viewer), he is called a léopard
in French blazon.
Other beasts frequently seen include wolf, bear, boar, horse, bull or ox, stag.
The tiger (unless blazoned as a Bengal tiger) is a fanciful beast with a wolflike body, a mane and a pointed snout.
Dogs (of various breeds) occur more often as crests or supporters than as charges.
The unicorn resembles a horse with a single horn, but its hooves are usually cloven like those of deer.
The griffin combines the head (but with ears), chest, wings and forelegs of the eagle with the hindquarters and legs of a lion. The male griffin lacks wings and his body is scattered with spikes.
- martlet, a stylized swallow without beak or feet
- eagle, shown with two heads in the arms of the Holy Roman Empire and sometimes with three heads in the arms of imperial Russia
- owl, which is associated with wisdom and learning, thus often found in the coats of arms of teaching institutions.
of various species often appear in canting arms
, e.g.: pike
for Pike; luce (perch
) for Lucy; dolphin
(a conventional kind of fish rather than the natural mammal) for the Dauphin de Viennois
The escallop (scallop shell) became popular as a token of pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela.
The sea-lion and sea-horse, like the mermaid, combine the foreparts of a mammal with the tail of a fish, and a dorsal fin in place of the mane. (When the natural seahorse is meant, it is blazoned as a hippocampus.)
The sea-dog and sea-wolf are quadrupeds but with scales, webbed feet, and often a flat tail resembling that of the beaver.
Reptiles and invertebrates
- salamander is typically shown as a generic lizard surrounded by flames.
- The dragon is a large reptile with a forked tongue, an eagle's eyes, a bat's wings, and four legs. The wyvern and lindworm are dragons with only two legs.
- Bees and beehives appear as symbols of industry; the bee was a favorite badge of Napoleon.
Animals' heads are also very frequent charges, as are the paw or leg (gamb
) of the lion, the wing (often paired) of the eagle, and the antler (attire
) of the stag.
Heads of horned beasts (bull, stag) are typically shown caboshed: face-on, so as to display the horns, and with no neck visible. Other heads are usually shown in profile. If the neck ends in a clean horizontal line, it is 'couped;' if in a ragged edge (as if the head were forcibly torn from the body), it is 'erased.'
Sometimes only the forward half of a beast is shown; for example, the demi-lion is among the most common forms of crest.
Attitude of animals
The position, or attitude
, of the creature's body is also described.
By default, the charge faces the left, as seen by the viewer; this would be forward on a shield worn on the left arm (leaving the right hand to hold a weapon).
- The head of an animal guardant faces the viewer,
- The head of an animal reguardant faces the right, as seen by the viewer.
Certain features of an animal are often of a contrasting tincture. The charge is then said to be armed (claws and horns), langued (tongue), pizzled (penis), attired (antlers), unguled (hooves), crined (horse's mane) of a specified tincture.
- at bay (of prey): standing on four feet
- at gaze (of prey): standing on four feet, gardant
- couchant (of predators): lying on the ground, head raised
- courant: running: body horizontal, all four feet raised
- dormant: sleeping: lying on the ground, head lowered
- gardant: head turned to face the viewer
- lodged (of prey): lying on the ground, head raised
- passant (of predators): walking: standing on three feet, one forefoot raised
- rampant: standing on left hind foot, other feet raised to fight; this is the most frequent position for lions and the like, typically omitted in early blazon
- reguardant: head turned back over its shoulder
- salient (of predators): leaping, both hind feet planted
- segreant: like rampant, but applied to winged quadrupeds such as griffins
- sejant erect: sitting on hindquarters, forefeet raised
- sejant: sitting on hindquarters, forefeet planted
- springing (of prey): leaping, both hind feet planted
- statant (of predators): standing on four feet
- trippant (of prey): walking: standing on three feet, one forefoot raised
- The bear, apparently uniquely, can walk on its hind legs.
A straight horizontal fish is naiant
(swimming); an arched horizontal fish is embowed
If the fish is vertical, and its head is upward, it is hauriant
; if its head is downward, the fish is urinant
Frequent positions for serpents are glissant
(gliding) and nowed
An ouroboros is a snake looped with its tail in its mouth.
The rattlesnake, uniquely, may be coiled to strike.
The terminology for birds is based on the position of the wings.
- If a bird faces the viewer, with the head turned to one side, and the wings spread apart on either side, the bird is displayed.
- If the bird is not shown facing the viewer, and the wings are shown spread apart, the bird is volant (flying);
- *(The attitude "volant" is also sometimes applied to aircraft.)
- If the wings are shown folded, the bird is trussed, close or perched.
- If the bird's head faces upward, the bird is rising or rousant (about to take flight).
- Swans and ducks are very occasionally found naiant (= swimming).
- There are several examples of crowing cocks.
- A stork standing on one leg is vigilant
are extremely common in heraldry and figure among the earliest charges.
(The colonial-era arms of Tlemcen, Algeria are unusual in that they contain generic "plants".) The turnip
, for instance, makes an early appearance, as does wheat
When the fruit of a tree, branch, or the like is mentioned, as it generally will only be if it is of a different tincture, it is said to be fructed of the tincture.
The arms of the French family of Fenoyer provide a perhaps unique example in which the number of "pieces" of the "fructed" is stated.
- Wheat constantly occurs in the form of "garbs" or sheaves (and in fields in the arms of the province of Alberta and elsewhere), though less often as ears), though most often they are shown in stylised form.
- bearded wheat ears are distinguished in the arms of the 469th Support Battalion of the United States Army
- Ears of rye are depicted exactly as wheat, except the ears droop down.
- "Ginny wheat" (like wheat but with a fatter ear) also exists.
- There are very few examples of barley, maize and oats.
The most famous heraldic flower is the fleur-de-lis
, which is often stated to be a stylised lily, though despite the name there is considerable debate on this. The "natural" lily
, somewhat stylised, also occurs, as (together with the fleur-de-lys) in the arms of Eton College
The rose is perhaps even more widely seen than the fleur-de-lis. Its heraldic form is derived from the "wild" type with only five petals. It is often barbed (the hull of the bud, its points showing between the petals) and seeded in contrasting tinctures.
The thistle frequently appears as a symbol of Scotland.
The trefoil, quatrefoil and cinquefoil are abstract forms resembling flowers.
- The trefoil is supposed to be always, and is default, slipped, i.e. with a stem, though there is at least one exception.
- The cinquefoil is sometimes blazoned fraise (strawberry flower), especially when canting for Fraser.
The trillium flower occurs occasionally in a Canadian context, and the protea flower constantly appears in South Africa.
and bunches of grapes
occur very frequently, other fruits less so.
When the species of a tree is specified, it is drawn in a stylized form so that its fruit (if it is blazoned as "fructed," which it may well need to be to distinguish types of trees from each other) and the shape of its leaves are conspicuous.
The most frequent tree by far is the oak, followed by the pine.
A small group of trees is blazoned as a "hurst", which is distinguished from a forest.
If a tree is "eradicated" it is shown as if it has been ripped up from the ground, the roots being exposed. "Erased" is rarely used for a similar treatment.
In Portuguese heraldry but rarely in the heraldry of other countries trees are sometimes found decorticated.
- The maple usually occurs only in the form of the maple leaf (and occasionally seeds)
- Nuts are sometimes blazoned simply as "nuts" (depicted like the walnut) though the most frequently occurring nut is the acorn, often cracked by a squirrel, and constantly in conjunction with the oak.
- Grass is sometimes specified to occur on the "mounts vert" (green hillocks) on which charges on the shield, or crest, sit or are placed.
- The broom plant, symbol of the Plantagenets, occurs occasionally.
- The fern is usually found as part of the "fern-brake" or group of ferns. Almost invariably ferns are "generic" and mature but the arms of John Leighton Williamson give an example of fiddleheads (Matteuccia struthiopteris).
- hemp (French chanvre): in the canting arms of Chennevières-lès-Louvres, in the department of Val d'Oise.
is a disc with twelve or more wavy rays, or alternating wavy and straight rays.
The moon is occasionally depicted "in her plenitude" (full), distinguished from a roundel argent by having a face; but crescents occur much more frequently.
Estoiles are stars with wavy rays; pole stars are occasionally differentiated.
- Clouds often occur, though more frequently for people or animals to stand on or issue from than as isolated charges.
- In terms of clouds' precipitation, the raindrop as such is unknown,
- and the snowflake (blazoned as "snow crystal" ) is only known in more recent times,
- though the snowball predates this by some centuries.
Geology and geography
The oldest charge of this class is the mount
, typically a green hilltop rising from the lower edge of the field, providing a place for a beast or a building to stand. This feature is exceedingly common in Hungarian arms.
A charge distinctive to Italian arms is a mount stylized as a 'pyramid' of three or six domed cylinders.
Natural mountains and boulders are not unknown, though ranges of mountains are differently shown. An example is the arms of Edinburgh, portraying Edinburgh Castle atop Castle Rock. Volcanos are shown, almost without exception, as erupting, and the eruption is generally quite stylised.
In the 18th century, landscapes began to appear in armory, often depicting the sites of battles. For example, Admiral Lord Nelson received a chief of augmentation containing a landscape alluding to the Battle of the Nile.
The wheel is almost invariably a carriage wheel.
Ships, boats and water transport
of various types often appear; the most frequent being the ancient lymphad
. Also frequent are anchors
occur not infrequently, including the stylized boucle d'Oise
The ecclesiastical hat and bishop's mitre are not uncommon.
Crowns and coronets of various kinds are constantly seen.
The maunch is a lady's sleeve, highly stylized, resembling a fancifully-written letter M; in French blazon it is called manche mal taillée, a sleeve badly cut.
By far the most frequent building in heraldry is the tower
, a tapering cylinder of masonry topped with battlements
, usually having a door and a few windows. A castle
is two towers joined by a wall; but the canting arms of the Kingdom of Castile
are Gules, a tower triple-turreted Or
, i.e. three small towers standing atop a larger one.
- The ordinary chess-rook would be indistinguishable from a tower; the heraldic chess rook, instead of battlements, has two outward-splayed "horns".
- The doorway of a castle is often secured by a portcullis. This charge was used as a canting badge by the Tudors (two-doors), and has since come to represent the British Parliament.
Civic and ecclesiastical armory often shows a church or a whole town.
Sometimes a specific building is depicted; e.g. the shield of the city of Edinburgh has a representation of Edinburgh Castle atop Castle Rock.
Bridges, variously and usually more fully described, often occur.
Musical instruments commonly seen are the harp
(as in the coat of arms of Ireland
. The drum
, almost without exception, is a field drum
Weapons and militaria
is sometimes a symbol of authority, as in the royal arms of the Netherlands
, but more often alludes to Saint Paul
, as the patron of a town (e.g. London
) or dedicatee of a church.
Other weapons occur more often in modern than in earlier heraldry.
- The trophy is a collection of armor and weapons.
- Bows include the longbow and crossbow; arrows include the birdbolt.
- The cannon (and its balls).
- The dirk makes frequent appearances in Scottish heraldry.
- The grenade has an appearance similar to a cannonball with flames coming out of a flattened end.
- The mace appears as a weapon in addition to its appearance as a symbol of authority.
Flags of various kinds occasionally appear as charges.
constantly occur, most frequently in the arms of colleges
, though the Gospel
are sometimes distinguished. Books if open may be inscribed with words. Words and phrases are otherwise rare, except in Spanish and Portuguese armory. Letters of the various alphabets are also relatively rare.
Arms of merchants in Poland and eastern Germany are often based on "house-marks", abstract symbols resembling runes, though they are almost never blazoned as runes, but as a combination of other heraldic charges.