The heraldic achievement consists of up to ten separate elements, known as armorial bearings. The following information should give an idea of the elements, although it is in no way a comprehensive view of the subject. An illustration of the heraldic achievement with the individual elements noted can be found at the bottom of this page.
The Shield. This is the most important element of the achievement, and is centrally located in the overall design. The devices used to decorate the shield are what defines that thing that is commonly called the coat of arms. The shield is often referred to, for that reason, simply as the arms. The shield can be used by itself, and when it was originally utilized for identification purposes by armies, it most often stood alone. As it is commonly used at the present age, primarily for genealogical purposes, the shield is usually included in the achievement, rather than alone.
The shape of the shield, from one achievement to another, tends to be uniform with a horizontal line forming the top edge and two curving lines proceeding from the ends of the top edge, which extend downward to meet at a point, forming the two sides and bottom. The lines of the shield, in ages past, tended to be fancy and complex, while still maintaining the basic shield shape. At the present time, most armigers favor simple, bold outlines which are more easily reproduced in printing techniques.
The shape of the shield for a woman’s achievement has traditionally been that of a lozenge or oval.
The shield normally is depicted in an upright, full frontal position. The shield may also appear in a tilted position, as if hanging from one strap, but such variant positioning has no bearing whatsoever on anything, and is done simply for artistic purposes.
The blazon, or written description of the arms, describes the elements that comprise the design of the shield as if the describer was positioned behind the shield. Therefore, an element that is described as being on the sinister, or left, side would appear to be on the right according to normal viewing.
Any object may be used as the primary subject matter for the shield, ranging from animals and human beings to plants to manmade objects. The object chosen may then by positioned in a number of ways in order to make it unique, and therefore suitable for an individual's arms. Examples of the types of objects and positions they may be shown in can be found in the section of this website titled: The Language Of Heraldry.
The Helm. The word helm is a shortened version of the word helmet and may be used interchangeably. In the medieval ages, the helmet was a very important piece of armour; it protected the head from injury. The helmet was constructed to cover the entire head, covering even the face with a visor that could be opened when danger was not present. Because of its importance to the well being of the wearer, the helmet and how it is represented in the heraldic achievement in the form of the helm, denotes status and distinction. The metal of which the helm is represented as being composed denotes rank: a sovereign's rank would be denoted by a helm of gold; a prince's rank would be denoted be a helm of silver, and so forth.
The position of the helm, whether it be represented in a frontal view, or in a profile view, also denotes certain things, such as rank and bearing of the owner of the achievement. Likewise the representation of the helmet’s structure is used for denoting certain things about the owner. For example, a helm represented in profile, with the visor solid and closed, is appropriate for gentlemen and esquires, but would never be used in the achievement of a peer, whose helm should be represented in profile, but with a grated visor.
In regard to the helm that is represented in a profile view, it is nearly always positioned facing toward the left, never toward the right. The only exception to this is found in the case of achievements in which more than one helm is included. In such cases of multiple helms, they may either all face toward the left, or aimed toward a center point.
The helm is often replaced by a crown or coronet, especially in English heraldic achievements. It is used primarily to denote royal rank. It has also been included in a position atop the helm, and underneath the crest.
The Crest. The crest is an ornament that sits atop the helm. The crest may consist of any object, irrespective of the primary subject of the shield.
In Scottish achievements the crest is more often than not the subject of the badge of the clan of which the individual would belong. For example, the crest for an achievement for a member of the Sutherland clan would consist of 'a cat sejant erect guardant', or rather a cat sitting up on its hind quarters with its head aimed toward the viewer.
The subject of the crest nearly always faces toward the left, unless specified to face otherwise.
The crest evolved from the custom of shaping the peak of the knight's helmet into a ridge from the forehead and over the crown, so as to help to strengthen it against the blows of an enemy's sword or lance. Through the 12th and 13th Centuries, the ridge, or comb, began to be decoratively painted. That evolved into the attaching of feathers to the comb in a cluster that was known as a panache. The panache evolved into shapes of various objects sculpted in leather and cloth and reinforced by sawdust and sponge.
In reality, the addition of a fanciful crest on the peak of a helmet was not something that would be worn into battle. It was reserved for show in tournaments and fairs.
In most cases, only a single crest would be included in an heraldic achievement. There have been instances, though, where multiple crests are included. In England the greatest number of crests approved by Royal License has been five In Germany crests were linked to territorial holdings, and upwards of thirteen crests might appear in an achievement. . (For example, the achievement of the margraves of Brandenburg-Ansbach included thirteen crests.)
The Wreath. Placed between the crest and the helm is the element called the wreath. The wreath (or torse) is represented either as a skein of silk held together by gold or silver cord wound around it, or as two different colored skeins of silk interwound. The wreath essentially serves the function of creating a buffer between the crest and the helm, and is usually depicted in the colors of the principal metal and the tincture of the shield. (The word, tincture refers to the designs representing the five colors, three stains, two metals and various furs that are part of the language of heraldry.)
Romantic tradition states that the wreath originally represented a handkerchief or scarf which was given to a knight by a lady for whose honor he was jousting.
When, in the case of an achievement for a member of royalty, a crown surmounts the helm, the wreath is not included.
The Crown or Coronet. A symbol of royalty, the crown is often placed overtop the helm, and the crest is then placed on top the crown. The design of the crown is used to indicate the rank and bearing of the owner, and may be represented in a number of styles.
The coronet, a symbol of the heir apparent to the crown, is shown as resting on the shield with the helm above it.
The Mantle. In the days when knights wore helmets of metal, a piece of fabric was sometimes worn over the helmet in order to provide a certain measure of insulation from the heat of the sun. It also may have served the function of protecting the helmet from becoming stained and dirtied in the melee of battle. Variously known as the lambrequin, the mantle provides an excuse for the heraldic artist to fill the otherwise awkwardly empty space between the various other elements of the achievement with fanciful flourishes.
The mantle is generally represented in the color of the principal metal of which the shield is represented. But the mantle's depiction may also be used to denote rank and status. The sovereign's achievement will invariably include a mantle represented as or doubled ermine (i.e. gold with a lining -doubled- of ermine fur), while the mantle of a peer's achievement is often represented as gules doubled ermine (i.e. red with a lining of ermine fur). For a long period of time it was the standard practice to represent the mantles in the achievements of all Scottish subjects as gules doubled argent (i.e. red with a lining of silver).
The Supporters. The shield may be supported by a single or two figures. Such figures, or the supporters, may be either human or animal. The supporters are variously called the bearers.
The supporters are considered to be in a state of activity by holding up the shield; therefore they are shown in standing or rampant poses.
Achievements granted in England permit supporters to be included only for members of the nobility or members of certain knightly orders. In Scotland, supporters are permitted to be included in the achievements of persons who are peers, chiefs of clans, gentlemen who can prove their usage in their families from prior to the year 1672, or anyone in particular upon whom the sovereign confers the right by royal warrant.
The subject(s) of the supporters are, like the shield, granted to an individual, and therefore, are unique and hereditary.
The Escrol. The Escrol, or variously Escroll, is a riband of parchment on which the motto would be written. It may be represented in a very fanciful manner, or it may be designed as a simple strip. Its primary function in the achievement is to provide a surface for the motto.
The escrol usually appears in the achievement at the very top of the design, although it may also be placed below the shield and its supporters. In the latter placement, the escrol may serve the function normally assigned to the compartment ~ to provide a footing for the supporters. It should be noted, however, that an escrol that appears below the shield and its supporters is placed in that position because another escrol and motto may already exist above the crest. The 'motto' which appears on the escrol below the shield and supporters generally is a clan's slogan rather than true motto.
The Motto. The predominant tradition is that the motto evolved from battle cries. That tradition has been questioned by some authorities. It has been stated that many of the mottoes used in heraldic achievements do not lend themselves to practical or sensible 'war cries', and for that reason, such an origin is suspect. But the tradition has many adherents; certain mottoes, such as King Richard I's motto, Dieu et mon droit, are acknowledged to indeed have originated as war cries.
Mottoes did not appear with any regularity in the heraldic achievement until the 18th Century.
The motto is hereditary in Scotland, although it is not elsewhere. The motto, for the Scottish clan, is a thing of great pride and usually attributed to the clan's founder. For many clans, the motto that is used for the heraldic achievement is derived from the clan's slogan, a unique phrase to which the clan held some personal attachment.
The Compartment. The supporters need some sort of base or footing on which to stand, and the compartment serves that purpose. In some early cases an earthen or grassy mound was depicted on the achievement, on which the supporters would stand. As time went on, and the elements of the achievement became more fanciful and less naturalistic, the compartment took forms such as scrollwork or fanciful flourishes mimicking the mantle.
It should be noted that the subject and design of the compartment has no bearing on the 'meaning' of the achievement; it is purely a matter of artistic design.
The Plant Badge. The plant badge is an optional element in the heraldic achievement, and is primarily a Scottish invention. It evolved from the times prior to the 13th Century, when Scottish clansmen would afix a sprig of a plant or tree which held some personal meaning for the clan to their clothing. The image of the plant the clan had chosen later became the primary subject of a badge worn as a brooch on their tartan. It was a means for them to recognize others of their clan, especially in the melee of a battle. As such, the plant badge was the precursor of the coat of arms in that it identified the wearer.
Although the name for this element is the plant badge, almost any object has been employed as the primary subject for the badge. And, as noted above, the subject of the badge is often translated into the subject of the crest.
The plant badge is often employed in the design of the heraldic achievement as the compartment. A very good example of this is the use of the rose and the thistle for the achievement of King Charles II, utilized in the example below.
The Insignia. Although not generally noted as an unique element of the achievement, the insignia is, nonetheless, present in many achievements, and therefore deserves mention.
Armorial insignia is primarily devoted to honoring knighthood in its various forms. In the heraldic achievement, insignia is represented in numerous ways, but consistently is positioned as surrounding the shield.
Some of the forms that the insignia of may take include: a strap and buckle, used to denote Scottish heritage; a garter, used to denote a Knight of the Garter; and a wreath of laurel, used to denote a Knight Grand Cross and Knight Commander of the Bath. These are only a few of the possible forms of insignia that are permitted to encircle the shield.
In some cases an insignia might take the form of an object such as keys, a crozier, a baton, or even a ship's anchor depending on the symbol of the office the owner holds in either a royal, civil or ecclesiastical manner. In such cases, the object is represented as positioned behind or beside the shield.
To provide a bit of the history and usage of an armorial insignia, the strap and buckle is an excellent example. A Scottish invention from the times when a clan chief's followers would wear a rendition of his crest as a necklace medallion, the clan badge emerged as a standard part of the Highlander's wardrobe. The crest was often represented in the middle of a circle, and that circle came to be defined by the outline of a strap closed by a buckle. The surface of the strap, surrounding the crest, provided an ideal place to inscribe the clan's motto. The strap and buckle may be found in the heraldic achievement surrounding, and fully enclosing, the shield. The supporters are often depicted as holding on to the strap and buckle rather than the shield itself. The strap and buckle may or may not hold a motto.
Please note: The images used for the graphics on this page
were derived from the book, A Display Of Heraldry,
by John Guillim, printed in London in the year 1679.