A Layman’s Intro to Heraldry

What is Heraldry?

To put it simply, it’s the art of creating and interpreting coats of arms: the famous designs found on the shields and flags of the Middle Ages.



Heralds, Heralds of arms or Coats of arms were popular from the twelfth century until 1789, with the abolition of the privileges of the nobility and all that represented. Heraldry has been relevant for nearly 600 years (twenty generations).

Coats of arms could be used in many context, not just  for cities, as is the case today. Lords, companies or trades could have a coat of arms. In the case of lords, they often represented a lineage more than a person in particular. Heraldry allowed to transmit, through its symbols, the achievements of a family over several generations – each generation can change its coat of arms to add its personal exploits.

The equivalent in the 21 st century would be to make a big fresco of selfies taken at all the most important moments in your family’s life.

The term “Heraldic” comes from “Heralds”, which refers to those who undertook to transmit the important messages relating to wars in the Middle Ages. They are the ones who enacted the rules of heraldry in the language of the time, and who created a language to describe them, the so-called Heraldic language or Blazon . This language remained frozen since, and can project a coat of arms almost exactly from its description. It’s a bit like HTML / CSS, except that it’s easier to remember.

The shield and its forms

Before embarking on the design of the coat of arms itself, we must first look at its support. In painting, we choose the support material (canvas, wood..). In heraldry, we choose the shield’s shape

  • The Coat of arms designates the drawing itself.
  • The shield designates its support and is often an armor.
  • Heraldry is the art of drawing the coats of arms and their interpretation.

It should be known that at the time when coats of arms were topical, each people had their own form of shield, adapted to the shape of their traditional shield. Here are a few.


By F l a n k e r [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Therefore, if you want to create a coat of arms for a people or a fictional city for example, you will have to start by deciding to which people this shield will refer. That said, if it’s for a fictional universe, nothing prevents you from creating a new form of shield. Before getting to the design, I must introduce the theoretical:  the positioning of objects on the coat of arms.

As I said in the first part, the language of the blazon has remained frozen in time. So we will have to speak in old French. We will no longer say ” right and left ” but ” Dexter and Sinister ”

A coat of arms will always be emblazoned in relation to the position of the knight who holds it, ie behind it. Therefore, the Dexter (the right side) of a coat of arms is on our left when looking at it from the front . The top of the blazon is called the Chief and the bottom is called the Base. The sides are called the flanks, a corner is called a Point. Finally, the center can be called the center (good?).

for more precision, one can split a coat of arms into nine parts (not necessarily equal, a coat of arms being rarely square).

Shield Diagram


Metals and Enamels

There are three types of Tinctures in heraldry: Stains, metals and furs. Each color is supposed to have a connotation or meaning. However, this is not a rule, aesthetics prevail at this point. Here are the main colors of each category:


The stains bring together dark colors.

Current name Heraldic name Symbolism
Red Gules Love, courage, blood, war.
Blue Azure Loyalty, perseverance, loyalty, heaven or water.
Green Vert Hope, honor, joy, charity and abundance.
Black Sable Simplicity, wisdom.


Metals bring together bright colors.

Current name Heraldic name Symbolism
White Argent (silver) Humility, purity, temperance, and openness.
Yellow Or (gold) Royalty, nobility, wealth, generosity.


These colors are a little special, in the sense that they are not really colors but rather patterns. There are two, both of which evoke royal dress.







There are other colors, such as Purpure, Sanguine, -andTenny. Their uses are much rarer.

In principle, it is forbidden to superimpose two colors of the same category. Thus, we should not (in practice, we can afford it occasionally) put a gold flower on a silver background, because it would superimpose two metals.

Study of historical Blazons


Nantes – France

Nantes Coats of Arms


The blazon is quite simple. The shield is gules, we see a gold boat with sails endowed with ermines. The water below is vert, goes to the point and we see ripples of silver.  The chief is decorated with ermines.


First of all, Nantes was one of the most influential cities in the duchy of Brittany, before it was annexed by France in 1532 and went to become a French region in 1790. The city kept a fort attachment in this region, as evidenced by ermines that are seen on the sails of the ship and on the leader.The flag of Brittany ( Gwenn ha Du in Breton) is mainly recognizable by its black and white ermines (sand and silver, therefore).

The city also has a strong commercial past. From the beginning of the common era (around the year 0), the city is already a large fishing port, and will later become one of the largest ports in Western Europe. In the 18 th century, it is growing in wealth and prosperity with the infamous triangular market, that is to say, the slave trade. The boat on the coat of arms is there to recall this strong commercial past, all the more connoted that the boat is golden, synonymous with wealth.

Finally, the green(Vert) water is the symbol of the Loire, a very active river in France at the time, and which passes to Nantes. At the time, Nantes was also nicknamed the Venice of the West because of the many rivers that go through it.

Province of Quebec – Canada 

Quebec Coats of Arms

This one is already more complex. First, it has frills, which we have not talked about. It happens that some coats of arms are surrounded by decorations, which may be lions, people, fabrics or scrolls.

The blazon is tierce in fess, which means that it is divided into three by a piece called fascia, which is a horizontal strip. The first third is azure and has three fleurs-de-lis (or lilies) of gold.

The second third is a gule with a golden leopard, whose claws and tongue are azure.

The last third is gold and decorated with a green maple branch  (its natural color in this case) with three maple leaves. These indicate indicate a new nation of many peoples. The maple leaf has the same color as the background: gold.

The coat of arms is stamped – that is to say, capped or surmounted – with a crown. Finally, there is a rim (a ribbon) of silver edged with azure (white with a blue edge  ), where is written with the same colors “I REMEMBER”.


From 1534, French settlers settled in New France, a large territory in North America, extending more or less into the eastern half of present-day Canada and the United States. They will later be repulsed by the English and will keep for a time only a small territory that stretched from Lake Nipissing to the St. Lawrence estuary, which is about 700km long (a quarter of the size of the New – France). In fact, the seven-year war between England and France will lead the latter to yield territory to England, which will make it the province of Quebec.

In 1774, the French colonists were finally granted a vast territory, and a cultural mixture began to flourish. Later, with the independence of the United States, the Loyalists arrive in the English lands of present-day Canada, which will cause a great split between Anglophones and Francophones. Finally, the two territories unite again between 1841 and 1867, to give the Canada we know today.

This blazon tells the story of Canada in three parts.

  • The past on the English side, symbolized by the lion, from the coat of arms of England.
  • The past on the French side, symbolized by the blue (color of royalty) and the lily flowers.
  • The present and the Canadian culture, symbolized by the Maple branch, an emblematic tree of Canada that can be found on its flag.



Create your own Coats of Arms:

If you are interested in making yourself a Coat of arms, here are some tools that will help you.

  • When it comes to software, I recommend Inkscape. It is a free vector drawing software, available on the three main OS. Most basic images for heraldry being in SVG, the use of such software is recommended.
  • DrawShield
  • Inkwell Ideas Coat of Arms Design Studio
  • Drawshield.net
  • You can also find SVG images to customize on Pixabay and Clker .
  • If you do not find your happiness among the available furniture, you can also try to search “heraldic ” on Wikipedia Commons.



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