The Basics of Blazonry

Master Eldred Ælfwald, Azure Dragon Herald
©1998, 2010 Eldred Ælfwald / J.T. Thorpe

This course is intended to introduce people to the basic language of heraldry and how to blazon.

Basic Description

Heraldry became systematized early in its history and developed a specialized vocabulary called blazon to describe the devices used. In the British Isles the vocabulary of blazon was derived from Norman French with much borrowing from other languages. The term emblazon refers to the actual depiction of the arms. In practice, the blazon should allow any heraldic artist to draw the emblazon the same way as any other heraldic artist.

From A Heraldic Primer Internet web page:

A shield or flag usually consists of a field (or background) on which one or more distinct charges (objects) are placed. The blazon of such a shield describes the field first, then the charges.

The field may be a single, solid tincture. In this case, it is described by simply naming the tincture. For example, the arms of Brittany consist of a field ermine with no charges on it. Thus, the blazon of the arms of Brittany is "Ermine."
The emblazon of the arms of Brittany look like the sheild at the left.
To describe a group of charges, you usually specify at least three things:

  1. the number charges in the group
  2. the type(s) of charge(s) in the group
  3. the tinctures of the charge(s)
in that order.

For example, the shield at left is blazoned "Sable, a mullet argent."

The first word, "Sable" describes the field, indicating that it is entirely sable. The remainder of the blazon, "a mullet argent" describes a group of charges on the field:

  1. "a" indicates that there is one charge in the group
  2. "mullet" indicates that charges in the group are mullets (stars)
  3. "argent" indicates that the tincture of the group is argent.
It is helpful to think of a shield as being painted in layers. The field constitutes the first layer, and the first group of charges is placed in a second layer on the field. The following picture may help make this clear:

The illustration shows how "Sable, a mullet argent." might look if viewed obliquely from below.

To summarize the syntax rules so far:

Areas of the Device

For descriptive purposes, the shield-shaped field of the coat of arms is divided into areas. There are essentially three horizontal areas and two "sides". The topmost third of the shield is the "chief"; the middle third is known as "fess"; and the bottom thrid of the shield is called the "base". The two sides are dexter and sinister. The designations "dexter" (Latin: "right") and "sinister" (Latin: "left") are given from the point of view of the warrior behind the shield.

The diagram at left may help you visualise the areas--assume that the owner of the arms is facing you behind the shield.

The Tincture(Color) of Armory

When describing heraldry in the SCA, the basic colors, or tinctures, of the field are limited to two metals, gold or yellow (Or) and silver or white (argent); five colors, red (gules), blue (azure), black (sable), green (vert), and purple (purpure). In addition to the basic tinctures there are various furs, such as ermine (appearing in stylized form as black tails on a white field), ermines (white tails on a black field), erminois (black tails on a gold field), pean (gold tails on a black field), vair (squirrel; bell shapes of alternating white and blue), and potent (interlocking "T"s of alternating blue and white). There are other tinctures that are listed in most heraldic references, however they are mainly post-period and ignored by the SCA College of Arms.

When designing a device, you should use what is called the "Rule of Tincture". Quite simply, ensure that your arms are easily identifiable by using good contrast. More formally, "no metal on metal, and no color on color". The furs are no exception to this rule. The primary tincture of the fur is what should be contrasted with. An example is placing an Azure charge on an Argent field. Blue on top of white is easily identified even at long distance. An example of poor heraldry is Azure on top of Sable. Beyond five feet, the charge would not be easily recognized.


Proper is a catch-all color for charges. It is fairly well abused within the SCA, though it was not typically seen in period armory. I don't recommend using it--good, period-style armory would normally have used a heraldic tincture. Proper refers to the "proper" tinctures of a charge--normally a beast, monster or artifact. Using the normal period heraldic tinctures, you would not be able to use a tiger as a charge--tigers are basically orange, and orange is not a period tincture. However, by using a tiger proper, you can get around that restriction. Ordinaries and fields do not have a "proper" color. For the Rules of Tincture, the primary tincture of the charge is usually considered. Unless the primary tincture is clearly light or dark(metal vs. color) proper is considered neutral and can be used on any field provided there is sufficient contrast.



Superimposed on the field are the charges. The most common charges are called ordinaries, basic geometric bands of color such as the fess (a horizontal band across the central third of the field), the chief (a band across the top), the pale (a vertical band down the central third), the bend (a wide diagonal band), the bar (a horizontal band one-fifth the depth of the shield), and the chevron an inverted V). Also called ordinaries--or by some experts, subordinaries--are such less-common shapes as the cross, the saltire (a diagonal cross), the pile (a triangular wedge from the top), the billet (a small rectangle), the bordure (a narrow border), the orle (a border set in from the edge), and the inescutcheon (an inner shieldlike shape), among many others.

Other simple geometric shapes such as delfs(squares) lozenges (like the diamond pique on a playing card), triangles, pentagons, roundels (solid circles), annulets (rings), are also commonly used in both period and SCA armory.

At right, the most common ordinaries and subordinaries are depicted and labeled.

Other Charges

In addition to the ordinaries are a myriad of other charges that depict both animate and inanimate objects. Animals such as lions, eagles, dolphins, and boars appear in profusion and with many different attitudes. Mythical animals (for example, the dragon and griffin), trees and flowers, ships, and weapons are also common. The SCA restricts the use of some of these charges to people who have received awards, and outright bans others because of offensiveness or not being a period charge. These topics will be covered in another class.

Field Division

By this time you may be realizing that you've seen some SCA armory that appears to violate the precepts that you have been given. To tell the truth, most of them are legitimate! For instance, you may have noticed Duke Olaf Askoldsson's arms: a green and black field superimposed with a horned helmet and a crown in gold. You might be thinking, "Hey, you can't put green on black!" Well, you are right. However, your perception is incorrect. The green and black are next to one another, not one on top of the other.

Division of the field is accomplished by partition lines that often follow the lines of the ordinaries and are called accordingly per pale, per bend, and per saltire, for example. The sections thus formed are of different color, and charges may change color on either side of the line(provided that they do not violate the Rule of Tincture), thus becoming counterchanged.

Therefore, Duke Olaf's arms are: Per pale vert and sable, a horned helmet in chief a crown Or.

Just to make things a little more interesting, the partition lines need not be straight; variations include indented, wavy, engrailed, invected, embattled, and nebule lines. However, there must be sufficient contrast between the tinctures used on either side of the line of division so that the line treatment is visible. Per fess rayonny sable and purpure is much harder to distinguish than Per fess rayonny sable and argent. Use good judgement in your design!

Field Treatments

Field treatments are exactly what you think--a way of making a field more interesting. Some field treatments come from the ordinaries. Many of these charges appear in multiple and diminutive form, in which case they are called barry, bendy, paly, pily, or by the appropriate plural form. At this point, they are no longer considered charges, but field treatments and charges may be placed upon them.

Checky is a popular field treatment. As the name implies, the field is divided up into squares like a checkerboard and two tinctures are applied. Another type of field treatment is the semy. The various ermine furs are considered to be special cases of the semy. A semy is a tincture "charged" with small charges(of any type) that are "too numerous to count". A good rule of thumb is that anything numbering more than eight or nine should be considered a semy. Be very cautious about using a semy, however. If your tiny charges cannot be identified easily, then you should use something simpler in outline.

Other field treatments include scaly(fish scales), plummety(as if from feathers from a bird), masoned (as if mortar between bricks), mullety (lots of little stars), etc.


Arrangement refers to the placement of charges relative to other charges in a single grouping. If you have a group of three charges (e.g. roundels) there are many standard ways in which they can be arranged:

  1. Argent, in fess three roundels sable.
  2. Argent, three roundels in pale sable.
  3. Argent, three roundels, two and one, sable.
  4. Argent, three roundels, one and two, sable.
  5. Argent, in bend three roundels sable.
Note that the arrangement can appear in different positions in the blazon. Sometimes it appears before the number; sometimes it appears after the type. Both positions are legal for phrases that begin with the word "in". Phrases consisting of lists of numbers should only appear after the type.

In many circumstances, there is a default arrangement. For instance, a group of three charges centered on the shield are "two and one" if no other arrangement is specified. Any group of charges on a fess or on a chief are arranged in a horizontal line by default.

Do's and Don'ts of the SCA

This section is intended to help people navigate the Rules for Submission and understand what traps to avoid in the RfS.

Clear/Complete Differences

The mission statement provided to the SCA College of Arms is that each person in the SCA who registers a name (and later, armory) is to have a unique name and unique armory. Under the constantly changing Rules for Submission the criteria for uniqueness is not always clear. At the moment, the RfS requires that there be one complete visual difference (CVD) or two clear differences (CD) between two devices. A CD can be given for a change of tincture, field treatment, or line treatment. A CD can also be given for addition or subtraction of charges or charge groups whether they be primary, secondary, or even tertiary. When all else fails, you can write to the person who owns the arms for permission to conflict.

A CVD constitutes a complete change in the type of primary charge. Examine the series of arms below:

Use the first set of arms as the one that all the others are being compared against.

At this point, I have a comment. These rules are SCA-specific, and do not follow actual historical practice. The SCA rules of armory are loosely based on medieval practice and on modern design principles.


The process by which arms are combined to show matrimonial and other alliances is called marshaling. Marriage is usually shown by impalement, in which the shield is divided vertically, with the husband's arms in the dexter half and the wife's in the sinister. Their children might use both sets of arms on a quartered shield, with the arms repeated diagonally.

Within the SCA, marshalled arms are considered to be pretentious and are not allowed to be registered under the current Rules for Submission. The implication is that you are a noble since your parents both have armory. Within the SCA, everyone is considered to be of gentle birth, but not noble birth(otherwise the concept of our award system falls down).

Forbidden charges


Here's the tricky part. The use of your registered name plus a charge that would imply that you are an historical, famous literary, or religious figure; or a member of a famous order/family/etc. is considered presumptuous. Examples of this would be Tudor roses; crowned shamrocks; crowned roses, etc.


Sorry, but even though the charges may be period, there are many who would find their use offensive. Typically, these charges are offensive due to their meanings in a modern context. Since offense is not one of our goals, don't use them. "In the interest of courtesy, every submission must be such that its use will not offend other Society members."

The College of Heralds does not regulate taste. This ruling prevents the registration of truly offensive armory. The restriction includes designs that are excessively religious, obscene, or morbid; that have strong political or social connotations; and appear to claim honors the bearer has not earned in the Society.

Such charges would include a hand of glory, swastikas, triskelion, etc.

Restricted Charges

Restricted charges are items that would have been used in period armory. However, within the SCA, these items have special meaning and are restricted to use by those who have been given certain awards. They typically are augmentations to the existing armory of the awardee. The recipient of the award can choose to display the augmentation or not--at their own discretion.

The charges include (but are not limited to): laurel wreaths (for Order of the Laurel, and for groups); crowns or coronets (for Royalty); closed loops of chain (for the Order of Chivalry); pelicans in their piety (for Order of the Pelican). Generally, any Kingdom or Society-level award that admits the awardee to an Order will have a symbol whose use will be restricted to those belonging to the Order.


The best idea regarding complexity in heraldry is the K.I.S.S. principle. Keep is simple! A simple device is the easiest to recognize!! Complexity can be judged by the complexity of the outlines of the charges. The ordinaries and subordinaries are extremely simple as they are comprised of lines and arcs. Charges with separate pieces such as heads, limbs, or other appendages, and groups of charges which have outlines made of a number of separate shapes are more complex. For example, a sheaf of three arrows has a more complex outline than a garb(a sheaf of wheat).

Heraldic beasts and monsters are usually depicted in a number of conventional poses which show off the main features of the beast to the best advantage. It is much easier to identify a unicorn rampant than a unicorn dormant. Consider that from 20 feet away a unicorn dormant is visually identical to a horse dormant. To paraphrase Master Arval Benicœur: "any beast dormant looks like meatloaf." Take that as a hint....

A complex charge is most easily identified when used alone. A single charge can use a great deal of the escutcheon to be depicted. A single hydrae is easy to identify. A device with several makes all of them harder to distinguish. Putting several hydrae on a shield with another charge not only makes them even smaller, but adds other distractions that make it more difficult to tell what the little creature is.

A simple way to determine complexity is by the length of the blazon. Each phrase of the blazon describes something different--so the more phrases, the more complex your armory is. This is also a good indicator that your emblazon is becoming difficult to visually parse as well! Note that even the tinctures can play a part in complexity. Unless you want to become known as the "Rainbow Warrior" don't use too many tinctures in your arms. Two or three is about right, and four is the limit under the current RfS.

Slot Machine Heraldry

Quite simply "slot machine heraldry" is the use of three or more unrelated charges on your arms without regard to style. Essentially your armory looks like the result of a losing pull on a slot machine.... Slot machine heraldry is poor style. It is harder to recognize a wheel, a crown, and a dragon on a shield than three of the same type of charge(e.g. three dragons, or three wheels). Be careful of tincture here as well. Using the same charges in a group but each with a different color is also difficult to identify. Or, three wheels sable is easier to comprehend verbally and visually than Or, three lions, one sable, one azure, and one gules. It is also more visually appealling!

Complexity Under the RfS

In order to simplify SCA heraldry, the current RfS places some limits on heraldic design. A basic rule of thumb is that if all the elements are not immediately obvious, then the design is too complex. Use of more than 4 tinctures is considered too complex. Layering is also a consideration when determining the complexity of a device. The field is considered the first layer. The primary (and secondary) charges lie on the field, and therefore make the second layer. Tertiary charges are placed on top of primary charges, thus providing a third layer. No additional layers beyond the third are permissible under the current RfS. The reasoning is simple: elements placed in each successive layer will be drawn smaller than on the previous layer. When you reach the third layer, the elements drawn on top of that layer will normally be too small to identify.

Drawing Style

Mistress Jaelle of Armida constantly reminds us to ensure that heraldic drawings be "BIG, BOLD, and 'butch'." This goes back to the principle of identifiability. If you have a single charge and draw it small, it is hard to identify. A large charge shows off its main features. By drawing small, you've just invalidated the entire reason for having armory! You want to be recognized! A large charge says "Here I am!"

A corollary to this is that the main details of the charge are important, and not the little details. The shape and attitude of a lion is more important than shading and drawing individual hairs and wrinkles. While the latter may be artistically pleasing, it isn't going to be noticed from ten or fifteen feet away!

Now if you do have small charges on your arms, such as a semy, you will need to make sure the small charges are still identifiable, not obscured by the main charges, and not so large as to be confused as a main charge! It can be tough balancing these out. Again, when in doubt, make it simpler if you can.

When drawing your device for submission to the College of Arms, make sure your charges are drawn in a medieval style or at least very simple. Sending in an emblazon of Vert, a beagle rampant argent does not mean you send in a picture of Snoopy dancing on the grass! Getting silly like this may briefly amuse your local herald, but it won't pass muster when it goes through the commentary process. If you really must display it this way after getting it through the College of Arms, that is up to your artistic license--just be prepared for a lot of snide remarks!

Medieval Style

There is still considerable debate within the SCA over what constitutes medieval style armory. There are many opinions and there some specific examples that people will agree are medieval, but they don't cover everything. First of all, early heraldry is very simple and "posed"(e.g. rampant) and uses simple ordinaries whereas Renaissance heraldry would display creatures in more natural postures (e.g. roussant, or salient). and be a bit more complex. Although dragons and griffons appear in early heraldry, many of the more fantastic monsters did not appear until later and many chimerical monsters are outright Victorian inventions.

Animals such as the penguin were known in late period, as explorers found "new" specimens. Since they were discovered so late in period, their use in heraldry is very unlikely. Some animals such as sheep were very common in period, but were not a typical charge. Their use would have been unusual. Likewise, flames are a relatively rare charge in period.

The likelyhood of your design being period style increases with the use of common elements. An example of an unlikely design would be: Purpure, a sheep dormant proper. Although the individual elements of this design would be found in period heraldry, each is relatively rare. Purpure was not a common tincture as the actual pigmentation was difficult create. Dormant is not a common posture for any creature, and a sheep is not a common charge. Proper is an unusual tincture for any heraldry. This creation would therefore be extremely unlikely in medieval heraldry, even though possible. A better design would use more common elements: Azure, a sheep statant argent. Azure and argent being common tinctures, statant a common pose for peaceful animals, and you only end up with one rarity--the sheep.

Proper balance also plays a part. Pretend that your device will balance on the point of the escutcheon. Too much weight on the lower part will cause it to sink. Too much on top or to either side will make it topple. The elements of your design should be distributed evenly over the device--as if to balance out the weight. The size of your elements should also be considered. It is hard to verbally describe, but you should know it is right when you see it....


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