Understanding the “Coat of Arms”

[Technically, “coat of arms” refers to a vest-like, cloth item that noblemen used to wear over a suit of armor…the thing upon which their arms (also called “armorial”) was painted, embroidered or otherwise affixed. For purposes of this article, the proper term, “arms”, will be used for the designs (or blazons) which typically in modern America are called a “coat of arms”. Also see “Notes on Heraldry”, in this web site.]

The SHIELD is the central element of all arms, and is also called a “field”. It is within this field that symbols (called figures) constructing a blazon are placed to represent the bearer’s genealogical connection. Figures of many types may be used, ranging from simple color blocks, to animals, animal parts, rainbows, plants, or manufactured goods. Some such figures were chosen by a noble, commemorating a deed or honor or specialty for which he had become known. In other cases, as with Keith, the symbols were decreed by a king or higher noble. Shield figures in early Keith arms, and with some families allied by marriage,  include within the top 1/3rd of a silver shield, three gold and three red “palets”. In terms used by the Heralds, such a shield is described in this language: “argent, a paly of six pieces, gules and or“.  The significance of this odd wording will be made plain, below, in reference to “COLORS”.

helmetThe HELMET is essential, along with the shield, to form armorials, and signifies stature of the arms bearer. The drawings, here, illustrate the four distinctions. Reading left to right are helmets of the king (used in arms only by the king), a nobleman, a knight, and a gentleman. Though drawing style may differ somewhat, every armorial helmet will conform to these general characteristics.

The CREST, the topmost element in armorials, is a representation of figures that battle leaders once used to identify their person. Animal heads or other parts, hands, daggers, and such are common in crest, as they were in earliest times when the symbol might have actually been mounted atop a warrior’s battle helmet.

crownThe CROWN & CORONETS, called “ornaments of the head”, in one configuration or another are seen in some position (usually beneath the crest) in all arms of noblemen. Only the king may use a “crown”; others of the nobility display coronets in keeping with their titles. Though coronets look a lot like crowns, they technically are not crowns. Shown here, left to right, are the crown,  Earl’s Coronet, Lord’s Coronet, and Ducal Coronet. The latter seems to have been permitted, also, in arms of knights and even gentlemen, in which case the coronet rests atop the shield and is topped by a crest. Noblemen place their coronet of appropriate rank between shield and helmet. There are additional coronets in use, but seldom seen in Scottish arms (and not illustrated here). These include coronets signifying Prince, Viscount, Marqess, Etc., which display somewhat subtle differences from those I have shown. Listing from highest rank down, Scotland distinguishes these titles among its “Peerage”: Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, and Lord. Beneath the peerage are Barons and Knights.

The MANTLE. In early times, when arms and armament were hung in line at jousts (for display, and to identify the participants), it was necessary to protect against rain and rust. Thus, squires draped heavy cloth above these items, in a decorative manner. At night, or in case of rain, this drape was let down, to cover and protect the items on display. Later, as arms were illustrated for books or records, mantling was also depicted…usually as organic-looking swirls that we see in our times. In some countries, only higher nobles were allowed mantling, and rules developed as to how fancy it could be shown.

SUPPORTERS, man, animal or fanciful figures, appear on either side of the shield in arms of higher nobles. It is said that this stems from times when the particularly wealthy paid for fearsome-looking, costumed guards to stand beside their arms when on display. Stylized lions are most popular as supporters, and appear in that position (one side or both) in arms of most European and Scandinavian royal houses. Keith-Marischal used hearts (European red deer) for supporters; Kintore uses armed chevaliers.

A BADGE, representing some office served in the king’s name, appears in arms where appropriate. In very early times, the badge of Marischal was an axe. But, early Keiths, serving as Great Marischall, carried a red baton, topped by a crown, and decorated with thistles, and apparently displaced the axe badge. This baton was displayed in Keith Marischal arms, two of them, crossed behind the shield.

Besides the above items, we often see a decorative strip placed between the helmet and topmost coronet (when present) or between shield and crest. This is called a Wreath Bandeau (sometimes called torse), representing two rolls of silk or leather, wound together and forming a padding between items.


Since armorial tinctureblazons had a number of uses, it was not always possible to depict them in their true colors…such as when engravings of arms formed a die for impressing into wax seals. In heraldry, the word “tincture” is used, rather than “color”, and each tincture was provided with a line art or textural version, so that all remained legally accepted, whether colored or not. The illustration, here, places the black/white pattern, representing respective tinctures, below the color that we are more familiar with. In addition to those shown, heralds recognized tinctures such as furs (ermine, for instance), and several others which were used only outside of Scotland. Tincture names are often seen, but seldom recognized by Americans: GOLD (appears yellow) = or; SILVER (appears white or light grey) = argent; BLUE = azure; RED = gules; BLACK = sable; GREEN = vert (or sinople); and PURPLE = purpre. The names listed are in order of their ranking. Gold/or is the most regal of tinctures; Purple/purpre, the last color added to the herald’s palate, is lowest in rank. In writing, the names of tinctures are usually italicized.

The CHIEF (and other divisions of a shield) may be seen mentioned in verbal descriptions of arms, and should be discussed. In every system, shields are graphically divided in a number of proscribed ways, giving plenty of variability to accommodate the large number of arms recorded, and understandability to the verbal record. “Chief” refers to the top 1/3rd of a field. This applies even when a shield is “quartered” (divided into four fields) or “parted” in other ways (see “More about arms”).

Items outside of the shield are called “external ornaments”…such as crest, and high noblemen’s supporters. Such items are usually rendered “proper”, as it is called, which means they are to be shown in the colors appearing in nature. A stag would be brownish, rainbow would be in those colors, a lion would be tan, etc. Keeping all of the above in mind, a herald’s verbal record of a particular blazon then becomes more intelligible. Test your understanding as you view the arms of Kintore, which are written in old records as:

“Quarterly, first and forth, gules, a scepter and sword saltier-ways, with imperial crown in chief, all proper, within an orle of eight thistles or, as a coat of augmentation for preserving the regalia. Second and third argent, a chief paly of six pieces, gules and or, the paternal coat of Keith; which arms are supported by two chevaliers completely armed, with pikes in their hands, all proper; and for crest, an aged lady from the middle upwards, holding in her right hand a garland of laurel, proper: motto Quae Amissa salva.”

For related topics, see the following pages in this web site: