The basics

What makes a coat of arms

Royl Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom, by Sodacan, under creative commons, 282There are strict and elaborate rules one must follow in the composition of arms, along with specific language and grammar that must be used to unambiguously describe, in words, the makeup of each arms.

This language is called blazony, which uses a combination of English, Latin and Norman French.

The most basic rule of heraldry is to keep the arms as simple as possible for easy identification and clarity.



Dividing the shieldAll Saints' Church, Holdenby. Close up of the family coat of arms.

The coat of arms is placed on the shield and is divided into simple geometric shapes, known as ordinaries. For example, the top part of a shield is called a chief, the bottom is the base and the centre is the fesse.


British Library c1360-04, Heralds manual, 2The names of the main colours, or tinctures, and metals used in heraldry come mainly from French and are: gules, azure, sable, vert, purpure, Or and Argent

One particularly strict rule is never place a colour on a colour or a metal on a metal, for example; gold on silver or blue on black would be virtually impossible to distinguish. Also, purpure and vert are not used a great deal as they are difficult to see from a distance. This was useful for the the ball boys and linesmen at the 2006 Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships – they wore purple and green, but rather than standing out they blended into the background, which meant the players could see the balls easily.

The furs seen on Royal Arms can also appear on heraldic arms, but are still referred to as tinctures. The two common furs used are Ermine and Vair.


Cosmetic treatment in action - removing dirt and varnish from a Royal ArmsThe helm, or helmet, sits on top of the shield and is based on the real helmets used in battles. There are rules governing what style of helmet you are allowed, depending on your status. The monarch has a unique helmet, gold with a barred visor, facing the viewer. An open or barred helmet is reserved for members of the nobility. If you are a commoner (i.e. non noble) you are granted a closed or tilted helmet.

Heraldic charges

St Mary's Church, Sandwich. Close up of the lion on the Royal Arms of Charles II.There are no rules about the charges you can depict on a coat of arms, as long as no two people have the same arms. Of the thousands of examples, some are: animals, chemical symbols, the DNA chain, limbs and tools. The lion and the cross remain the most popular charges and to ensure uniqueness amongst arms, over one hundred different types of cross and many hundreds of lions have been developed.

Find out more about heraldry


Civic arms

City of London, Coat of Arms, 188Nearly all counties, towns and boroughs in Great Britain have grants of arms. In the 1970’s, there was a major local government reorganisation and many councils were amalgamated. As a matter of pride, those councils that were merged did not want to completely lose their identity, which resulted in some very complex arms. These are good sources of information about local areas because aspects of the local industries, activities, historical features and events may be included in the arms.

Often the earlier arms are the most simple. The most famous example of this are the arms of the City of London, which can be seen all over the City on bollards, waste bins and at tube stations, for example.

The shield shows the cross of St George (now the cross of England) on its entirety with the addition of the sword of St Paul (the patron saint of London) in the top left of the shield.

The sword represents that both St Paul and St George were Roman citizens and therefore had the “privilege” of being beheaded rather than crucified.

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