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The Coat of Arms



The basic components of any armorial achievement are the shield, crest and motto.  Of these three the shield is the most important since the arms are depicted on it.  The right side of the shield (from the knight’s viewpoint) is called the dexter side, and the left is the sinister side.  The term ‘tincture’ is the name given to the colours used in the Coat of Arms.  The tinctures represent two metals, seven colours and various furs.  The crest, when it exists, surmounts the arms and is usually shown on a wreath of the two main colours of the shield.  Historically, the crest was attached to the top of the knight’s helmet and acted as an additional form of identification in battle.  Mottoes were often a cri-de-guerre (war-cry) or slogan used in battle, and later adopted by the clan.  They are not hereditary and no one is compelled to bear one, nor is any authority needed to adopt a motto, the matter is left purely to the personal pleasure of the individual.  Hence, we can see how, the inclination of the bearer, the political climate of the time or a new generation could bring about a change in the family motto.  When a motto exists it is usually shown on a scroll beneath the shield, though the latter, as we have seen above may be displayed on its own.

The Field:  The blazon of the Coat of Arms gives the tincture to the field first.  For shields which have more than one tincture, partition lines in various forms are depicted.  Each type of line has its own heraldic term.  When a straight line divides the shield horizontally the shield is said to be blazoned ‘per fess’; vertically, ‘perpale’; diagonally from dexter to sinister, ‘per bend’; and diagonally from sinister to dexter, ‘per bend sinister’.  The lines which are not simple or straight have special names, such as wavy, indented, or raguly.  A shield may be ‘quartered’, or divided into four equal parts.   Some shields have bands of colour called ordinaries that have special meanings because of common usage.

The Charge:  The blazon gives the description of the charge next.  Almost anything that can be symbolized colour or form can be a charge.  Often charges are one word that simplifies the task of describing them.  For instance, a lion standing oon one hind leg with the front paws raised is called ‘rampant’.  An eagle looking over its right shoulder and with its talons and wings outstretched is called ‘displayed’.

The charges on the field you will most likely see are the lion, the rose and the lily, the most widely used designs.  Then there are the ordinaries: the honourable ordinaries and sub-ordinaries.  These are geometrical figures used as the charges on the field.  The seven honourable ordinaries are the bend, the chevron, the chief, the cross, the fess, the pale and the saltire.  The fourteen sub-ordinaries are the annulet, the billet, the bordure, the canton, the flaunch, the fret, the gyron, the inescutcheon, the label, the lozenge, the orle, the pile, the roundel, and the tressure.  The partition lines are used to separate the field and to border the honourable ordinaries and the sub-ordinaries. The eight basic styles are indented. inverted, engrailed, wavy, nebuly, embattled, raguly and dove tailed.  The ordinaries and partitions were added onto the shield to strengthen it.  These were painted to enrich the decoration on the field and eventually became a traditional component of the shield and of the charges.

Though not necessarily part of the coat of arms, three additional features of the heraldic achievement deserve mention, namely, the helmet, mantling and wreath.  The helmet serves to remind us of the turbulent days of Europe’s middle ages, out of which heraldry was born.  The mantling, which generally displays signs of having been hacked and torn on the field of battle was a long cloak, attached to the helmet by means of a twisted cord or wreath.  It fell loosely over the knight’s shoulders to protect his armour from rust and the effects of the sun.  By the thirteenth century it became fashionable to decorate this cloak or surcoat with the heraldic devices displayed on the owner’s shield.  Hence the origin of the term; Coat of Arms.  In all the shield, crest, motto, helmet, mantling and wreath form a truly colourful and romantic achievement commanding admiration.

Variations are often found in the Crest and Motto used by various branches of the one family, and sometimes no record of crest or motto can be traced.  They may have been in use in ancient times, but with the passing of the centuries they were omitted and forgotten.

Tinctures Used In Heraldry

Heraldry in its origin and purpose was a visual art.  The tinctures used in heraldry are divided into metals, colours and furs.  These are indicated in black and white drawings by a system of lines or dots that was introduced in the 17th Century by the Italian Herald Silvestre de Petra-Sancta.  Its main tinctures or colours were:


Gules - Red  depicted by perpendicular lines, represents fortitude and creative power.

Azure - Blue  depicted by horizontal lines, represents loyalty and splendour.

Purpure - Purple  depicted by lines from top left corner to the right lower corner, represents loyalty and splendour.

Sable - Black  depicted by crossed lines, represents repentance or vengeance.

Vert - Green  depicted by lines from the right-hand upper corner to the lower part, represents hope, vitality and plenty.


Or - Gold  depicted by dots or points, denotes generosity, valour and perseverance.

Argent - Silver or White  depicted by a white space, represents serenity and nobility.


Erm - Ermine  depicted by a white field with black spots, represents dignity and nobility.

Vair  composed originally of fur pieces but now silver and blue flower shapes in contrasting rows, represents a high mark of dignity.

Simple coats of arms are usually the most ancient, often consisting of a single division of the shield into two colours or one colour and a metal.

Heraldic Symbols

From its simple and practical origins, Heraldry gradually developed into a highly sophisticated art.  As the number of coats of arms multiplied, an ever increasing number of objects, animals, birds and even mythical creatures began to be depicted on shields.  These devices were often emblematic of some glorious deed or praiseworthy act of the owner and were founded  on fact or tradition appertaining to the bearer’s or his ancestors.  Sometimes, religious symbols or devices formed a play on the bearers name or occupation were used.

There is no specific meaning or explanation now available for the various designs and insignia used in Heraldry.  The origin of most of these is now obscure.  These have been evolved down the centuries by the Heralds when Arms were being granted, their number being added to as more arms came into use.  The principal heraldic devices in use may be taken from animals, birds, reptiles, insects, trees, plants, flowers, celestial objects (sun, stars) and monsters.  The latter are bizarre and fantastic creatures drawn from classical and medieval methology.  Examples of these are:  Lyons; a lion, Oakes; acorns, Butler; covered cups, Woulfe; a wolf, Fletcher; arrow heads (a fletcher was an arrow maker), Talbot; a talbot, ..... military men; weapons and armaments, bankers; bezants (gold coins), etc.

Spelling of Surnames

Various forms of spellings from the same basic name may be in use.  These variations have arisen through changing the original form of spelling for personal or other reasons, or to shorten or simplify a difficult spelling or to render pronunciation easier.  This applies particularly to numerous names of Irish and Continental European origin.


Chapter 3

What is Heraldry
The Origins of Heraldry
The Coat of Arms
Office of the Chief Harold
Blazon of Arms
Corrigan Coat of Arms
Armorial Grant
Ancient Armorial Bearings
Prefix Mac and O’
Irish Clans and Chieftanship