Very Basic Heraldry Part Two – Variations, Animals, Colors and Metals

Here’s some more heraldry basics. Sometimes shields had patterns on them. These patterns are called variations. A shield could have variations over the whole shield or only on part of it. The patterns are usually made with two colors. I chose not to have a pattern on my character’s coat of arms because I thought it would be easier for the illustrator. But here’s a list of the most common shield variation names:

  • Barry – horizontal (sideways) stripes
  • Paly – vertical (up and down) stripes
  • Bendy – diagonal stripes
  • Chequy – a pattern of squares, like a checkerboard
  • Lozengy – a pattern of diamonds, like a diagonal checkerboard
  • Chevronny – a stripe-like pattern of upside-down v-shapes

Historically, there doesn’t seem to be any reliable explanation for why certain designs or animals were chosen to be part of a coat of arms. It seems that the owner of the coat of arms just chose whatever they liked.  For example, one person could include a lion in their coat of arms and say that it stood for bravery and courage, while another person could have a lion on there and say that it stood for nobility and royalty. And both of them would be right.

The main colors used in coats of arms were gold/yellow, silver/white, blue, red, green, purple, and black. Gold/yellow and silver/white were considered metals. Blue, red, green, purple and black were considered colors…in the language of heraldry, colors are called tinctures.

For my character, I chose to include an eagle in the coat of arms, because I wanted the eagle to represent wisdom and quick-thinking and far-sightedness. So I decided to have a black eagle on a blue background. But when I did some more research, I discovered that I had broken the Rule of Tincture.

The Rule of Tincture states that you may not have a metal on top of a metal in a coat of arms or a color on top of a color (there are a few historical exceptions). This rule existed because the whole point of carrying a coat of arms on a shield was to allow others to identify a knight from far away. It can be difficult to tell the lighter metals (gold/yellow and silver/white) apart at a distance, just like it could be difficult to see a dark blue lion on a black background from far away. But it would be easy to recognize a gold lion on a black background from far away. The contrast between the dark and light colors helps.

Well, I learned my lesson, and my character now has a coat of arms that follows the Rule of Tincture with a silver/white eagle on a blue background. If you think it still looks a little incomplete, don’t worry. Stay tuned for the third and final part of my Very Basic Heraldry series where I will explain what ordinaries are.