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How to Decipher a Coat of Arms

A full achievement of arms consists of a crest, helm, supporter, mantling, shield, and motto.


The primary focus of an achievement is the coat of arms, or shield. Heralds were able to create a nearly infinite variety of patterns by using different combinations of elements and making a wide range of minor ornamental variations.

The various colors, patterns, and shapes that appear on the shield are known by their Anglo-French names. The formal written description of an achievement, using the same Anglo-French terminology, is called a blazon.


Tinctures are colors, metals, and furs that provide the field (background color or pattern) and the colors of the charges. See top two images on right.


Charges consisted of ordinaries and figures that appeared inside the shield. Ordinaries are simple geometric shapes running side to side, top to bottom, or diagonally. The ordinaries shown here are just a few of the many used by heralds. See third image on right.


Ordinaries could also be varied to include engrailed, wavy, indented, or embattled lines, instead of straight lines. See fourth image on right.


Arms are marshalled to depict rank, marriage, or descendants. The two main types of marshalling are impalement and quartering. Impalement combines two coats of arms side by side — usually a husband’s and wife’s arms — by shrinking the arms so that each fits into one-half of the shield. Quartering divides the shield into four or more compartments in order to include the arms of ancestors who were heraldic heiresses. See bottom image on right.




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