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The Origins of Heraldry

J. D. Williams


From the dawn of history, long before man could read or write he used symbols and emblems to convey his ideas. In the days of the Roman Empire the Romans carried the eagle atop their standards as a symbol of strength. The Old Celtic clans used a system of colours to indicate social and political standing. The rank of the individual was displayed on his cloak by the number of colours he was permitted.

One Colour Workmen and Farmers
Two Colours Soldiers
Three Colours Inn keepers
Five Colours Sons and daughters of Kings
Six Colours Brehons and historians
Seven Colours Kings

Heraldry, as we know it, came into existence during the twelfth century. An instantly recognizable device to distinguish friend from foe was required at this time, due to the introduction of coat mail, which covered combatants from head to foot in grey steel. The primary and other bright colours were the obvious choice and these were so painted on the shields as to be easily recognized at a distance without error.


Heraldry in its origin and purpose was a visual art. Its main tinctures or colours were gules or red, symbol of martial fortitude and magnanimity; azure or blue, symbol of loyalty and truth; sable or black, symbol of constancy and grief; vert or green, symbol of hope and joy and purpose or purple, symbol of royalty and justice. The chief metals used were or (gold), depicted as a bright yellow, symbolising generosity and elevation of mind, and argent (silver) depicted as white indicating peace of sincerity. The furs of heraldry signify a mark of dignity, in addition to the symbolism attached to their various colours. The furs are: ermine, ermines, erminois, pean, vair, countervair, potent and counter-potent. 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.


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 or his ancestors. Sometimes, religious symbols or devices forming a play on the bearers name or occupation were used. Examples of these are: Lyons, a lion; Oakes, acorns; Butler, covered cups; Woulfe, a wolf; Fletcher, arrow heads; military men, weapons and armaments; bankers, gold coins.


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 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 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.

Clare County Library wishes to thank Clare Local Studies Project for preparation of text for this publication.

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