In heraldry, a charge is any emblem or device occupying the field of an escutcheon (shield). This may be a geometric design (sometimes called an ordinary) or a symbolic representation of a person, animal, plant, object or other device. In French blazon, the ordinaries are called pièces while other charges are called meubles (i.e. "mobile"; this is a homonym of "furniture" in Modern French). The division of charges into "ordinaries", "sub-ordinaries" and other categories is a relatively modern practice that has been deprecated, and these terms much pejorated, in the writings of Fox-Davies and other heraldry authors. The particular significance or meaning of a charge may be indicated in the blazon, but this practice is also deprecated.
The term charge can also be used as a verb; for example, if an escutcheon bears three lions, then it is said to be charged with three lions; similarly, a crest or even a charge itself may be "charged", such as a pair of eagle wings charged with trefoils (e.g. Coat of arms of Brandenburg). It is important to distinguish between the ordinaries and divisions of the field, as these typically follow similar patterns, such as a shield divided "per chevron", as distinct from being charged with a chevron.
While thousands of objects found in nature, mythology or technology have appeared in armory, there are several charges (such as the cross, the eagle and the lion) which have contributed to the distinctive flavour of heraldic design. Only these and a few other notable charges (crowns, stars, keys, etc.) are discussed in this article, but a more exhaustive list will be found at List of heraldic charges.
Some heraldic writers(I) distinguish, albeit arbitrarily, between "honourable ordinaries" and "sub-ordinaries". While some authors hold that only nine charges are "honourable" ordinaries, exactly which ones fit into this category is a subject of constant disagreement. The remainder are often termed "sub-ordinaries", and narrower or smaller versions of the ordinaries are called diminutives. While the term "ordinaries" is generally recognised, so much dispute may be found among sources regarding which are "honourable" and which are relegated to the category of "sub-ordinaries" that indeed one of the leading authors in the field, Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, has written at length on what he calls the "utter absurdity of the necessity for any [such] classification at all," stating that the ordinaries and sub-ordinaries are, in his mind, "no more than first charges." Apparently ceding the point for the moment, Fox-Davies lists the generally agreed-upon "honourable ordinaries" as the bend, fess, pale, pile, chevron, cross, saltire and chief. Woodcock sheds some light on the matter, stating that earlier writers such as Leigh, Holme and Guillim proposed that "honourable ordinaries" should occupy one-third of the field, while later writers such as Edmondson favoured one-fifth, "on the grounds that a bend, pale, or chevron occupying one-third of the field makes the coat look clumsy and disagreeable." Woodcock goes so far as to enumerate the ordinaries thus: "The first Honourable Ordinary is the cross," the second is the chief, the third is the pale, the fourth is the bend, the fifth is the fess, the sixth is the inescutcheon, the seventh is the chevron, the eighth is the saltire, and the ninth is the bar, while stating that "some writers" prefer the bordure as the ninth ordinary. Volborth, having decidedly less to say on the matter, agrees that the classifications are arbitrary and the subject of disagreement, and lists the "definite" ordinaries as the chief, pale, bend, fess, chevron, cross and saltire. Boutell lists the chief, pale, bend, bend sinister, fess, bar, cross, saltire and cheveron as the "honourable ordinaries". Thus, the chief, bend, pale, fess, chevron, cross and saltire appear to be the undisputed ordinaries, while authors disagree over the status of the pile, bar, inescutcheon, bordure and others.
Several different figures are recognised as "honourable ordinaries", each normally occupying about one-fifth to one-third of the field. As discussed above, much disagreement exists among authors regarding which ordinary charges are "honourable", so only those generally agreed to be "honourable ordinaries" (i.e. chief, bend, pale, fess, chevron, cross and saltire) will be discussed here, while the remainder of ordinary charges will be discussed in the following section.
In addition to those mentioned in the above section, other ordinaries exist. Some of these are variously called "honourable ordinaries" by different authors, while others of these are often called "sub-ordinaries".
Mobile charges are not tied to the size and shape of the shield, and so may be placed in any part of the field, although whenever a charge appears alone, it is placed with sufficient position and size to occupy the entire field. Common mobile charges include human figures, human parts, animals, animal parts, mythical creatures (or "monsters"), plants and floral designs, inanimate objects and other devices. The heraldic animals need not, and usually do not, exactly resemble the actual creatures.
A number of geometric charges are sometimes listed among the subordinaries (see above), but as their form is not related to the shape of the shield – indeed they may appear independent of the shield (i.e. in crests) – they are more usefully considered here. These include the escutcheon or inescutcheon, lozenge, fusil, mascle, rustre, billet, roundel, fountain, and annulet. The escutcheon is a small shield. If borne singly in the centre of the main shield, it is called an inescutcheon, and is usually employed to combine multiple coats. It is customarily the same shape as the shield it is on, though shields of specific shapes are rarely specified in the blazon. The lozenge is a rhombus generally resembling the diamonds of playing-cards. A more acute lozenge may be called a fusil. A lozenge voided (i.e. with a lozenge-shaped hole) is a mascle; a lozenge pierced (i.e. with a round hole) is a rustre. The billet is a rectangle, usually at least twice as tall as it is wide; it may represent a block of wood or a sheet of paper. Billets appear in the shield of the house of Nassau, which was modified to become that of the kingdom of the Netherlands. The roundel is a solid circle, frequently of gold (blazoned a bezant). A fountain is depicted as a roundel barry wavy argent and azure. An annulet is a roundel voided (i.e. a ring).
Several other simple charges occur with comparable frequency. These include the mullet or star, crescent and cross. The mullet is a star of (usually five) straight rays, and may have originated as a representation of the rowel or revel of a spur (although "spur-revels" do appear under that name). Mullets frequently appear pierced, and in Scottish heraldry are necessarily pierced, although this cannot be presumed in English heraldry. If unpierced, it is called a "star" in Scottish heraldry, and stars also appear in English and continental heraldry under that name (often with six points). The "Spur revel" is also found in Scottish heraldry, but this is considered to be one and the same with the mullet. A star with (usually six) wavy rays is called an estoile (from etoile, the French word for "star"). The Crescent, a symbol of the Moon, normally appears with its horns upward; if its horns are to dexter it represents a waxing moon (increscent), and with horns to sinister it represents a waning moon (decrescent).
|Inescutcheon||Lozenge||Three mascles||Rustre||Six billets|
|Three bezants||Fountain||Three annulets||Star and crescent||Five mullets pierced|
One of the most frequently found charges in heraldry, if not the most, is the cross, which has developed into some 400 varieties. When the cross does not reach the edges of the field, it becomes a mobile charge. The plain Greek cross (with equal limbs) and Latin cross (with the lower limb extended) are sometimes seen, but more often the tip of each limb is developed into some ornamental shape. The most commonly found crosses in heraldry include the cross botonny, the cross flory, the cross moline, the cross potent, the cross patée or formée, the cross patonce and the cross crosslet.
|cross botonny||cross flory||cross moline||cross potent||cross patée||cross patonce||cross crosslet|
In English heraldry the crescent, mullet, martlet, annulet, fleur-de-lis and rose may be added to a shield to distinguish cadet branches of a family from the senior line. It does not follow, however, that a shield containing such a charge belongs to a cadet branch. All of these charges occur frequently in basic (undifferenced) coats of arms.
Humans, deities, angels and demons occur more often as crests and supporters than on the shield. When humans do appear on the shield, they almost always appear affronté (facing forward), rather than toward the left like beasts. The largest group of human charges consists of saints, often as the patron of a town. Knights, bishops, monks and nuns, kings and queens also occur frequently. There are rare occurrences of a "child" (usually a very young boy), both the head and entire body. A famous example is the child swallowed by a dragon (the biscione) in the arms of Visconti dukes of Milan.
Greco-Roman mythological figures typically appear in an allegorical or canting role. Angels very frequently appear, but angelic beings of higher rank, such as cherubim and seraphim, are extremely rare. An archangel appears in the arms of Arkhangelsk. The Devil or a demon is occasionally seen, being defeated by the archangel Saint Michael. Though the taboo is not invariably respected, British heraldry in particular, and to a greater or lesser extent the heraldry of other countries, frowns on depictions of God or Christ, though an exception may be in the not-uncommon Continental depictions of Madonna and Child, including the Black Madonna in the arms of Marija Bistrica, Croatia.
Particularly in Europe, human figures almost always appear caucasian, though contrary examples can occasionally be seen. "Humans" so blazoned are rare, though there are some examples. Generally speaking, there is only one type of woman: young and blonde, with disheveled hair (though there are occasional instances of her hair being braided), and appearing more often as a bust than head. The American Indian occasionally appears in heraldry though far more often as a supporter than a charge. The Maure (Moor) or "blackamoor" is inaccurately shown as being sub-Saharan African, although James Parker states that an "African" appears in the arms of Routell. Turks appear frequently in Balkan and Hungarian heraldry, generally as defeated enemies.
Parts of human bodies occur more often than the whole, particularly heads (often of exotic nationality), hearts (always stylized), hands, torso and armored limbs. A famous heraldic hand is the Red Hand of Ulster, alluding to an incident in the legendary Milesian invasion. Hands also appear in the coat of arms of Antwerp. Ribs occur in Iberian armory, canting for the Portueguese family da Costa. According to Woodward & Burnett, the Counts Colleoni of Milan bear arms blazoned: "Per pale argent and gules, three hearts reversed counterchanged;" but in less delicate times these were read as canting arms showing three pairs of testicles (coglioni = "testicles" in Italian). The community of Cölbe in Hesse has a coat of arms with a similar charge.
Animals, especially lions and eagles, feature prominently as heraldic charges (cf. totem). It is important to note, however, that many important differences exist between an animal's natural form and the stylized form it assumes in heraldic displays. Many of these differences are apparent in the attitude, or position, into which heraldic animals are contorted; additionally, various parts of an animal (claws, horns, antlers, tongue, etc.) may be differently coloured, each with its own terminology. Most animals are broadly classified, according to their natural form, into beasts, birds, sea creatures and others, and the attitudes that apply to them may be grouped accordingly. Beasts, particularly lions, most often appear in the rampant position, save for the leopard which, when so termed, is nearly always passant; while birds, particularly the eagle, most often appear displayed. While the lion, regarded as the king of beasts, is by far the most frequently occurring beast in heraldry, the eagle, equally regarded as the king of birds, is overwhelmingly the most frequently occurring bird, and the rivalry between these two is often noted to parallel with the political rivalry between the powers they came to represent in medieval Europe. Neubecker notes that "in the heroic poem by Heinrich von Veldeke based on the story of Aeneas, the bearer of the arms of a lion is set against the bearer of the arms of an eagle. If one takes the latter to be the historical and geographical forerunner of the Holy Roman emperor, then the bearer of the lion represents the unruly feudal lords, to whom the emperor had to make more and more concessions, particularly to the powerful duke of Bavaria and Saxony, Henry the Lion of the House of Welf."
The beast most often portrayed in heraldry is the lion. When posed passant guardant (walking and facing the viewer), he is called a léopard in French blazon. Other beasts frequently seen include wolf, bear, boar, horse, bull or ox, stag. The tiger (unless blazoned as a Bengal tiger) is a fanciful beast with a wolflike body, a mane and a pointed snout. Dogs of various types, and occasionally of specific breeds, occur more often as crests or supporters than as charges. According to Neubecker, heraldry in the Middle Ages generally distinguished only between pointers, hounds and whippets, when any distinction was made. The unicorn resembles a horse with a single horn, but its hooves are usually cloven like those of a deer. The griffin combines the head (but with ears), chest, wings and forelegs of the eagle with the hindquarters and legs of a lion. The male griffin lacks wings and his body is scattered with spikes.
The bird most frequently found in coat armory, by far, is the eagle in its various forms, including the ubiquitous eagle displayed, eagles in other poses (such as statant or rising), the demi-eagle (an eagle displayed, shown only above the waist), the double-headed eagle of imperial fame, and a few other forms (triple-headed eagles are not unknown, and one eagle appearing in the Codex Manesse curiously has its wing bones fashioned into additional heads).(III) Eagles and their wings also feature prominently as crests. The double eagle gained its fame in the arms of the Byzantine, Holy Roman, Austrian, and Russian empires. The alerion, an eagle without beak or feet, appears notably in the arms of the duchy of Lorraine, for which its name is an anagram. The martlet, a stylized swallow without beak or feet, is a mark of cadency in British heraldry, but also appears as a simple charge in undifferenced arms. The pelican is notable as frequently occurring in a peculiar attitude described as in her piety (i.e. wings raised, piercing her own breast to feed her chicks in the nest). This symbol carries a particular religious meaning, and became so popular in heraldry that pelicans rarely exist in heraldry in any other position. A distinction is sometimes observed, however, between a pelican "vulning herself" (alone, piercing her breast) and "in her piety" (surrounded by and feeding her chicks). Other birds occur less frequently.
The category of sea creatures may be seen to include various fish, a highly stylized "dolphin", and various fanciful creatures which appear to be half-fish and half-beast, as well as mermaids and the like. The "sea lion" and "sea horse", for example, do not appear as natural sea lions and seahorses, but rather as half-lion half-fish and half-horse half-fish, respectively. Fish of various species often appear in canting arms, e.g.: pike for Pike; luce (perch) for Lucy; dolphin (a conventional kind of fish rather than the natural mammal) for the Dauphin de Viennois. The escallop (scallop shell) became popular as a token of pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. The sea-lion and sea-horse, like the mermaid, combine the foreparts of a mammal with the tail of a fish, and a dorsal fin in place of the mane. When the natural seahorse is meant, it is blazoned as a hippocampus. The sea-dog and sea-wolf are quadrupeds but with scales, webbed feet, and often a flat tail resembling that of the beaver.
Reptiles and invertebrates occurring in heraldry include serpents, lizards, salamanders and others, but the most frequently occurring of these are various forms of dragons. The "dragon", thus termed, is a large reptile with a forked tongue, an eagle's eyes, a bat's wings, and four legs. The wyvern and lindworm are dragons with only two legs. The salamander is typically shown as a simple lizard surrounded by flames. Also notably occurring (undoubtedly owing much of its fame to Napoleon) is the bee.
"Sea lion" with sword
Animals' heads are also very frequent charges, as are the paw or leg (gamb) of the lion, the wing (often paired) of the eagle, and the antlers (attire) of the stag. Sometimes only the anterior half of a beast is shown; for example, the demi-lion is among the most common forms occurring in heraldic crests.
Heads may appear cabossed (also caboshed or
caboched): with the head cleanly separated from the neck
so that only the face shows; couped: with the neck cleanly
separated from the body so that the whole head and neck are
present; or erased: with the neck showing a ragged edge as
if forcibly torn from the body. While cabossed heads are shown
facing forward (affronté), heads that are couped
or erased face dexter unless otherwise specified for
differencing. Heads of horned beasts are often shown cabossed to
display the horns, but instances can be found in any of these
The attitude, or position, of the creature's body is usually described in the blazon. When such description is omitted (as may be the case with a lion, leopard, or eagle particularly), a lion is assumed to be rampant, a leopard is assumed to be passant, and an eagle is assumed to be displayed.
By default, the charge faces dexter (left as seen by the viewer); this would be forward on a shield worn on the left arm.
Certain features of an animal are often of a contrasting tincture. The charge is then said to be armed (claws and horns), langued (tongue), pizzled (penis), attired (antlers), unguled (hooves), crined (horse's mane) of a specified tincture.
Many attitudes have developed from the herald's imagination and ever-increasing need for differentiation, but only the principal attitudes found in heraldry need be discussed here. These, in the case of beasts, include the erect positions, the seated positions, and the prone positions. In the case of birds, these include the "displayed" positions, the flying positions, and the resting positions. Additionally, birds are frequently described by the position of their wings. A few other attitudes warrant discussion, including those particular to fish, serpents, griffins and dragons.
The principal attitude of beasts is rampant (i.e. standing on one hind leg with forepaws raised as if to strike). Beasts also frequently appear passant or trippant (walking), and may appear statant (standing), salient or springing (leaping), sejant (seated), couchant or lodged (lying prone with head raised), or occasionally dormant (sleeping). The principal attitude of birds, namely the eagle, is displayed (i.e. facing the viewer with the head turned toward dexter and wings raised and upturned to show the full underside of both wings). Birds also appear rising or rousant (i.e. wings raised and head upturned as if about to take flight), volant (flying), statant (standing, with wings raised), trussed or close (at rest with wings folded), and waterfowl may appear naiant (swimming), while storks may appear vigilant (standing on one leg). Fish often appear naiant (swimming horizontally) or hauriant (in a vertical position), but may also appear addorsed (two fish placed back to back). Serpents may appear glissant (gliding) or nowed (knotted). Griffins and quadrupedal dragons constantly appear segreant (i.e. rampant with wings addorsed and elevated) and, together with lions, may appear combatant (i.e. two of them turned to face each other in the rampant position).
Plants are extremely common in heraldry and figure among the earliest charges. The turnip, for instance, makes an early appearance, as does wheat. The colonial-era arms of Tlemcen, Algeria are unusual in that they contain generic "plants". Trees also appear in heraldry, and when the fruit is mentioned, as to indicate a different tincture, the tree is said to be fructed of the tincture. The arms of the French family of Fenoyer provide an unusual example in which the number of "pieces" of the "fructed" is stated. The most frequent tree by far is the oak, followed by the pine. If a tree is "eradicated" it is shown as if it has been ripped up from the ground, the roots being exposed. "Erased" is rarely used for a similar treatment. In Portuguese heraldry, but rarely in other countries, trees are sometimes found decorticated. A small group of trees is blazoned as a "hurst", which is distinguished from a forest. Apples and bunches of grapes occur very frequently, other fruits less so.
The most famous heraldic flower (particularly in French heraldry) is the fleur-de-lis, which is often stated to be a stylised lily, though despite the name there is considerable debate on this. The "natural" lily, somewhat stylised, also occurs, as (together with the fleur-de-lis) in the arms of Eton College. The rose is perhaps even more widely seen in English heraldry than the fleur-de-lis. Its heraldic form is derived from the "wild" type with only five petals. It is often barbed (the hull of the bud, its points showing between the petals) and seeded in contrasting tinctures. The thistle frequently appears as a symbol of Scotland.
The trefoil, quatrefoil and cinquefoil are abstract forms resembling flowers. The trefoil is supposed to be always slipped (i.e. with a stem), though there may be exceptions. The cinquefoil is sometimes blazoned fraise (strawberry flower), most notably when canting for Fraser. The trillium flower occurs occasionally in a Canadian context, and the protea flower constantly appears in South Africa.
Wheat constantly occurs in the form of "garbs" or sheaves (famously in the canting arms of Gustav Vasa) and in fields (in the arms of the province of Alberta and elsewhere), though less often as ears. Ears of rye are depicted exactly as wheat, except the ears droop down. Barley, maize and oats rarely occur.
|Tree fructed and eradicated||Fleur-de-lis||Heraldic rose||Three trefoils||Garb of wheat|
Very few inanimate objects in heraldry carry a special significance distinct from that of the object itself, but among such objects are the escarbuncle, the fasces, and the key. The escarbuncle developed from the radiating iron bands used to strengthen a round shield, eventually becoming a heraldic charge. The fasces (not to be confused with the French term for a bar or fess) is emblematic of the Roman magisterial office and has often been granted to mayors. Keys (taking a form similar to a "skeleton key") are emblematic of Saint Peter and, by extension, the papacy, and thus frequently appear in ecclesiastical heraldry. Keys also notably appear in the arms of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers.
The sun is a disc with twelve or more wavy rays, or alternating wavy and straight rays. Often, the sun is represented "in his splendour" (i.e. with a face). Similarly, the moon is occasionally depicted "in her plenitude" (full), distinguished from a roundel argent by having a face; but crescents occur much more frequently. Estoiles are stars with six wavy rays, while stars (when they occur under that name) generally have six straight rays; "pole stars" are occasionally differentiated. Clouds often occur, though more frequently for people or animals to stand on or issue from than as isolated charges. The raindrop as such is unknown, though a drop of fluid (goutte) is known. These rarely appear as a charge, but more frequently constitute a field semé (known as goutté). In English heraldry, a field of silver drops is termed goutté-d'eau ("drops of water"). The snowflake occurs in modern heraldry, usually blazoned as a "snow crystal" or "ice crystal".
The oldest geological charge is the mount, typically a green hilltop rising from the lower edge of the field, providing a place for a beast, building or tree to stand. This feature is exceedingly common in Hungarian arms. Natural mountains and boulders are not unknown, though ranges of mountains are differently shown. An example is the arms of Edinburgh, portraying Edinburgh Castle atop Castle Rock. Volcanos are shown, almost without exception, as erupting, and the eruption is generally quite stylised. In the 18th century, landscapes began to appear in armory, often depicting the sites of battles. For example, Admiral Lord Nelson received a chief of augmentation containing a landscape alluding to the Battle of the Nile.
By far the most frequent building in heraldry is the tower, a tapering cylinder of masonry topped with battlements, usually having a door and a few windows. The canting arms of the Kingdom of Castile are Gules, a tower triple-turreted Or (i.e. three small towers standing atop a larger one). A castle is two towers joined by a wall; the doorway is often secured by a portcullis. This charge was used as a canting badge by the Tudors ("two-doors"), and has since come to represent the British Parliament. The ordinary chess-rook would be indistinguishable from a tower; the heraldic chess rook, instead of battlements, has two outward-splayed "horns". Civic and ecclesiastical armory often shows a church or a whole town, and cities often bear a mural crown (a crown in the form of a wall with battlements or turrets) in place of a crown over the shield. Ships of various types often appear; the most frequent being the ancient lymphad. Also frequent are anchors and oars.
Crowns and coronets of various kinds are constantly seen. The ecclesiastical hat and bishop's mitre are nearly ubiquitous in ecclesiastical heraldry. The maunch is a lady's sleeve, highly stylized, resembling a fancifully-written letter M; in French blazon it is called manche mal taillée ("a sleeve badly cut"). Spurs also occur, sometimes "winged", but more frequently occurring is the "spur-rowel" or "spur-revel", which is more often termed a "mullet of five points pierced" by English heralds. The sword is sometimes a symbol of authority, as in the royal arms of the Netherlands, but more often alludes to Saint Paul, as the patron of a town (e.g. London) or dedicatee of a church. Other weapons occur more often in modern than in earlier heraldry. The mace also appears as a weapon in addition to its appearance as a symbol of authority. The globus cruciger, also variously called an orb, a royal orb, or a mound (from French monde, Latin mundus, the world) is a ball or globe surmounted by a cross, which is part of the regalia of an emperor or king, and is the emblem of sovereign authority and majesty.
Books constantly occur, most frequently in the arms of colleges and universities, though the Gospel and Bible are sometimes distinguished. Books if open may be inscribed with words. Words and phrases are otherwise rare, except in Spanish and Portuguese armory. Letters of the various alphabets are also relatively rare. Arms of merchants in Poland and eastern Germany are often based on "house-marks", abstract symbols resembling runes, though they are almost never blazoned as runes, but as a combination of other heraldic charges. Musical instruments commonly seen are the harp (as in the coat of arms of Ireland), bell and trumpet. The drum, almost without exception, is of the field drum type. Since musical notation is a comparatively recent invention, it is not found in early heraldry.
|Escarbuncle||Fasces||Keys addorsed||Sun in his splendour||Moon in her plenitude||Estoile|
|Snow crystal||Tower on a mount||Crown||Spur||Book with letters||Harp|
Note (I): Woodcock, himself apparently one such author, lists Leigh, Holme, Guillim and Edmondson among these, while other prominent authors such as Fox-Davies shun the distinction as an arbitrary and unuseful practice.
Note (II): Marks of cadency differ from country to country, but are largely the same in Britain and France, and similar in other European countries outside of the German-speaking (and Nordic) countries, where brisures on the shield were less common and different crests were often adopted to indicate the difference. Volborth (1981), p. 76. It should also be noted that the English system of cadency, by which the use of the label to indicate the first son is best known, was not developed until the Tudor dynasty. Woodward (1892), p. 444.
Note (III): The town of Waiblingen was granted arms in 1957 displaying a triple-headed eagle said to represent the dukes of Swabia, seen here, and the arms of Reinmar von Zweter, depicted in the Codex Manesse, can be seen here.