It is important to note that a given coat of arms is defined by a written description, not by a picture. A given coat of arms may be drawn in many different ways, all considered equivalent, just as the letter "A" may be printed in many different fonts while still being the same letter. For example, there is no strict definition of the shades of colours used in Heraldry.
A description of a coat of arms is called a blazon. To draw it is to emblazon it. To ensure that the pictures people draw after reading the descriptions are accurate, and reasonably alike, blazons follow a set of rules. The first thing the blazon describes is the tincture (colour) of the field (background), and then it describes the placement and tinctures of the different charges (objects) on the shield. The charges on a shield are described from the top to the base, from dexter to sinister. Dexter ('right' in Latin) is the left side of the shield, and sinister ('left') is the right. The reason for this is that they refer to the shield-bearer's point of view, not the observer's.
The word "crest" is commonly used to refer to a coat of arms. However, in heraldry, a crest is just one component of a coat of arms. In a complete depiction of a coat of arms, the crest is a design affixed to the helmet. However, crests can also be used on their own; this is particularly useful when there is insufficient space to display the entire coat of arms.
Tinctures There are seven tinctures, consisting of two metals and five colours.
Colour: Heraldic name: Gold/Yellow Or Silver/White Argent Black Sable Red Gules Blue Azure Green Vert Purple Purpure
Later heraldry has introduced some more colours: brown (murrey), sanguine (blood-red), light blue (ciel or celeste) and orange (tenné), but these are very uncommon, particularly in British heraldry.
There are also a number of furs, like ermine, ermines, or vair - these are regular variations of the field (ermine is for example white with small black bell-shaped spots) that represent various types of actual fur. Objects may also be depicted in their natural colours. In this case, they are described as "proper". Sometimes a colour must also then be given (e.g. a white horse proper).
The first rule of heraldry is the rule of tincture: metal must never be placed upon metal, or colour upon colour, for the sake of contrast. The main duty of a heraldic device is to be recognized, and the dark colours or light metals are supposed to be too difficult to distinguish if they are placed on top of other dark or light colours. This rule is so closely followed that arms that violate it are called armes à enquerre, or arms of enquiry; any violation is presumed to be intentional, to the point that one is supposed to enquire how it came to pass. (For example, such arms are sometimes caused by the addition of honourable augmentations granted by the monarch, which always ignore the rule of tincture.) One of the most famous armes à enquerre was the shield of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which had gold crosses on white.
Divisions The field can be divided into more than one colour. Common partitions of the field are:
There are diminutives of charges as well. Barry of <number> means that the background is divided into that number of horizontal stripes. There are diminutives of most partitions, like bendy of or paly of.
A shield vertically divided into blue (left side) and gold (right side) would be blazoned: Per pale azure and Or.
The partition lines are straight by default, but there are other kinds of lines as well. A line that looks like a saw's edge is "indented", and a line that looks like a sine curve is "wavy".
A shield horizontally and vertically divided into red (upper left and lower right) and silver with sawedged lines would be blazoned: Quarterly indented gules and argent.
A partition variation is the counterchange. This is the term used to blazon a shield wherein the colors have been inversed across a partition line.
A shield which is green on the upper half and silver on the lower, charged at the center with a lion whose upper half is silver and lower half green, would be blazoned: Vert, a lion argent counterchanged per fess.
Charges Charges can be animals, objects or geometric constructs (ordinaries).
Common animals are lions, leopards, martlets, eagles, gryphons, fish, boars or dolphins. There are dragons and unicorns as well, but they are not nearly as common as most people suppose. The default position of an animal is looking to the left. Animals are found in various different positions - a flying martlet is a martlet volant, a swimming dolphin is a dolphin naiant, and a walking lion is a lion passant. Other words for positions are rampant (on hind legs), salient (leaping), sejant (sitting) and gardant (looking at the viewer). There are humans as well, although they are unusual, like wild men or Saracens. If you show only the head of an animal, cut off at the neck, it is an <animal>'s head couped.
Common objects are escallops (shells), crosses, mullets (a conventional five-pointed star shape, as on the American flag, which in fact represent spurs), crescents, bugle-horns, water-bougets, gauntlets and different kinds of trees, flowers, leaves, and other plants. Circles are generally called roundels, but instead of being described a roundel vert, they have different names depending on colour; Bezants if they are golden, plates if silver, torteaux if red, hurts if blue, pellets or ogresses if black and pommes if green. A roundel that is barry wavy argent and azure is called a fountain.
Ordinaries are almost like partitions, but are handled like objects. A pale is a vertical charge starting from the top of the shield, ending at the bottom, and wide as a third of the shield's width. A fess[?] is the same thing, only horizontal. There are also bends, saltires and crosses, as well as chiefs, bordures[?] and chevrons. A chief is a fess situated in the upper third of the shield. A chevron looks like a saw's tooth, arching from the middle of the left side of the shield to the middle of the right.
If you put a mullet on a bend, the bend 'is charged with' the mullet.
Full descriptions of shields could look as follows:
There are, of course, more complicated designs:
|Coat of Arms of Saskatchewan, with parts labelled|
Other items may be added to the coat, such as a helmet (decorated with mantling) in a variety of meaningful postures and designs; supporters on either side of the shield and the compartment on which they usually stand; and a variety of medals, ribbons, and other decorations. These items are often granted as special honours by the sovereign.
Heraldry is still practiced today, especially in monarchies such as the United Kingdom. Institutions, companies, and members of the public may obtain officially recognized coats of arms from governmental heraldic authorities. This typically has the force of a registered trademark.
However, many modern "heraldic" designs are not registered with heraldic authorities, and do not follow at all the rules of heraldic design.
There are also many people who are interested in heraldry as a hobby; many of them participate in the Society for Creative Anachronism and other such medieval revivals, not to mention micronationalism.