Military history

The Shield

Because the shape and construction of the shield so clearly played an important part in the development of heraldic designs, it is necessary to take a brief look at the types of shields used in Europe during the period 1150–1550. The kite-shaped shield always associated with the Normans remained in use throughout the 12th century, when heraldry was evolving, but soon after the middle of the century the curved top was replaced by a straight one. Infantry continued to use this type of shield in Italy until as late as the 15th century. The kite shield was not flat, as it appears in books on heraldry, but semi-cylindrical, ‘so as to embrace the person of the wearer’. This meant that not much more than half the shield could be seen from any one angle, and this greatly influenced the way in which insignia were placed upon the shield, since a man might need to be identified in battle or at the tourney by only half of his coat of arms.

At the beginning of the 13th century the kite shield was shortened to form what is now called the heater shield, so named in the 19th century because it resembled the base of the flat iron or heater then in general use. This shield, Fig 1, 13th century, and Fig 2, 14th century, also curved round the body for greater effectiveness. The heater was the commonest type of shield in most parts of Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries, but was unknown in Spain and Portugal. In these two countries shields were more rectangular, with a curved base, Fig 3, and this so influenced the number and placing of insignia in medieval times that the arms used in these countries often had their charges arranged in a completely different manner to other parts of Europe.


Shields had begun to diminish in size in the 13th century, as plate armour was introduced to protect arms and legs, and in the following century they were employed less frequently by mounted men as the use of plate armour increased. Thus the all-enveloping plate armour of the 15th century made shields obsolete for knights at least, and in the 1360–1400 period the shield gradually went out of use by knights in battle. By the 15th century knights rarely used the shield except for display purposes in parades and at tournaments. As a consequence the shields of the 15th century had more fanciful shapes, as shown by Figs 4 and 5. Fig 4 shows a typical 15th-century tournament shield, called à bouche, the notch on the right side being for the lance. Fig 5 shows a purely decorative shield of the same century. Late 15th- and early 16th-century shields were of a similar design but often had a central ridge or a number of flutings at top and bottom. These more decorative shields became popular for ornamental purposes, particularly in architecture; but the simple lines of the 13th- and 14th-century shields remained popular for the display of heraldic art, and are still used in heraldry to this day.

In heraldry the face of the shield, on which the arms are painted, is known as the field or ground. In order to determine exactly whereabouts on the field the various colours and devices should be placed, and to be able to blazon a coat of arms correctly (that is to describe it verbally) the field is divided into a number of points. It is necessary here to know only that the top part of the field is called the chief, the central area the fesse, and the bottom the base. Because the shield is always viewed as seen from the position of the bearer, the dexter (right) side of the shield is that which coincides with the right side of the bearer, and the sinister (left) side is that which coincides with the left side of the bearer.

Although I have already stated that it is not the intention of this book to describe the rules of heraldry, it is important that the reader be able to distinguish between those rules and practices which were particularly applicable in medieval times, and those which were not in use at this early stage. The next headings therefore provide brief summaries of the basics of heraldry as used in the 14th and 15th centuries.


The field of the shield and all devices painted upon it are coloured, and the different colours employed in heraldry are referred to as tinctures. In the medieval period the designs on shields were simple and the colours employed were bold, the aim being to create arms which were clearly visible and identifiable at a distance. The principal tinctures used are divided into metals (silver and gold), colours (red, blue and black), and furs, ermine (Fig 6) and vair (Fig 7). Both the furs were based on furs in use at the time, ermine being the white winter coat of the stoat, with the black tips of the tails sewn on, and vair (from the Latin varus, various or varied) being the name given to squirrels’ fur, much used for the lining of cloaks, which was bluish-grey on the back and white on the belly. As the coats of western European stoats do not normally turn white in winter, these skins had to be imported from as far away as Muscovy, at great expense, and were consequently used only by the great nobles, such as the Dukes of Brittany, whose coat was ermine.

The following table shows the colours, their heraldic name, and the abbreviation normally found on drawings of arms:


Heraldic name


Gold or yellow



Silver or white


Arg or Ar*






Gu or G*



Sa or S*



Vt or V*



Purp or P*

* These contractions are normally used for tricking: see under Blazon.

There was an antipathy towards green until well into the 15th century and although it occurs in arms as early as the 13th century, it was not in common use until the late 15th century. So far as purple is concerned, there was no distinction made between it and red in early medieval times and therefore we are not really concerned with it here.

As heraldry became established, more coats of arms were recorded and it became necessary to increase the tinctures in order to avoid duplication of arms. Thus by the 15th century tenne (orange) and murrey (a mulberry or reddishpurple colour) had been added to the colours. These new colours were mainly confined to continental heraldry, though they do occasionally appear on English flags or liveries; for example the livery colours of the House of York were murrey and azure, while the pages of the Earl of Nottingham wore tenné edged with sable during the reign of James I. The colour russet is also found on rare occasions in continental heraldry from the 15th century on, and appears in English heraldry on the flags and livery of the great Percy family.

The number of furs was also increased in the 15th and 16th centuries by depicting ermine and vair in different colours: ermines, white tails on black; erminois, black tails on gold; pean, gold tails on black. Vair was termed vairié if colours other than argent and azure were used: for example, vairié of or and gules.

Divisions of the Shield

In addition to the tinctures there are also several methods of dividing the field by a single line in order to increase the number of coats of arms possible without duplication. A field thus divided is described as ‘parted’ or ‘party’, although the word party is often omitted in blazon. There are eight main divisions of this nature: per pale, fess, bend (dexter and sinister), chevron, saltire, quarterly, and gyronny. These divisions have been illustrated for clarity and appear in the order listed: Figs 8–15. In the early days of heraldry ‘party’ meant simply the division of the field per pale, and other division lines had to be named in full.


Another example of ancient heraldry still being used—the white hart badge of Richard II as an inn sign.

Continental, and particularly German heraldry contains many other field divisions unknown in England. One of the divisions most commonly used, especially in Italy and Germany, is a tripartite division of the field by two lines running horizontally, vertically, diagonally from top left, or diagonally from top right, across the shield. These are referred to as tierced in fess, pale, bend and bend sinister respectively. Fig 16 illustrates tierced in fess, the arms of the Venetian family of Franchi; and Fig 17, tierced in bend, the arms of the Amici family, also Italian. Another variant of this style is tierced in pairle, best described by the illustration of the arms of the Saxon family of von Briesen, Fig 18. Another curious partition, unique to Germany, is that of tierced in gyron gyronnant, known in German heraldry as Schneckenweise. This is illustrated by the arms of the von Megenzer family, Fig 19.

The divisions known in English heraldry are also occasionally employed in a different form on the Continent. Quarterly, for example, sometimes appears as a most curious arrangement, best described by Figs 20 and 21, the arms of the Brunswick family of von Tule and the Löwenstein family respectively. Party per fess in German heraldry sometimes has a left or right ‘step’, known as mit linker stufe. This is illustrated by the arms of the Aurberg family of Bavaria, Fig 22. Other continental partition lines are difficult to blazon in English, nor can they really be categorized. Examples of these unusual divisions are shown in Figs 23–27, the arms of Lang von Langenau, Stauffeneck, Marshalck von Stuntsberg, Kirmreitter, and Altorf.

Varied fields are made by further divisions which always consist of an even number of pieces, for example, barry, bendy, paly, per pale and barry, paly wavy, chequey, lozengy, and fusily, illustrated in that order by Figs 28–35.

Partition Lines

So far it has been assumed that all the lines dividing the field are straight, but in fact irregular partition lines were soon introduced to provide scope for more coats of arms. In the very earliest Rolls of Arms only three such variations are listed: Engrailed, Indented or Dancetty, and Undy or Wavy, and of these Engrailed was by far the most common. Fig 36 illustrates the use of an engrailed line: Or, a cross engrailed sable, the arms of John de Bohun, temp. Edward I. Fig 37 is Or, a chief indented azure, the arms of John Butler, Earl of Ormond, killed at Tewkesbury in 1471. Nebuly and Embattled (or Crenelle) were added later, within the period which concerns us here: Fig 38, Barry nebuly of 8, or and sable, the arms of Sir Humphrey Blount, 1422–77; and Fig 39, per fess embattled or and azure, the Barons von Preysing.


Charges are the devices used upon shields. In the 14th century by far the commonest types of charges were those listed in all books on heraldry as Ordinaries and Subordinaries. The Ordinaries are known as the Chief, Fess, Pale, Chevron, Bend, Saltire, Cross, Pile, and Quarter or Canton. The Chief is rare in Spanish and Portuguese arms. Each of these Ordinaries is illustrated here by a coat of arms: Fig 40 (Chief) the arms borne by William de Fortz of Vivonne in France. Fig 41 (Fess) the arms of Walter de Colville.Fig 42(Pale) the arms of Hugh de Grentmesnil, Lord of Hinckley, High Steward of England in the time of Henry I. Fig 43 (Chevron) the arms of the French family of Gorrevod, Dues de Pont de Vaux and princes of the Holy Roman Empire. Fig 44 (Bend) the arms borne by the French knight Guillaume de Trie. Fig 45 (Saltire) the arms of the great house of Neville. Fig 46 (Cross) the arms of the Portuguese family of Teixeira, also the Spanish family of Oluja. Fig 47 (Pile) the arms of Sir John Chandos, Knight of the Garter, died 1370. Fig 48 (Canton) the arms of Bertram de Crioll. Of these Ordinaries the most popular in the early period was the Fess and its diminutives, namely the Bar, Closet and Barrulet, which were almost always used in series; i.e. Fig 49 Barry of 6, argent and azure, the arms of Henry de Grey of Codnor, who fought at Falkirk (1298) and at the siege of Caerlaverock in 1300. A Seigneur de Grey also bore these arms at the siege of Rouen in 1418.


(16) Franchi: chief vert, fess argent, base gules. (17) Amici: sinister chief or, bend gules, dexter base azure. (18) Von Briesen: dexter or, sinister gules. (19) Von Megenzer: the upper part of the shield is gules, the lower is or. (20) Von Tule: upper dexter and lower sinister divisions are gules. (21) Lowenstein: sable and or. (22) Aurberg: argent and sable. (23) Lang von Langenau: a ‘chief’ or, lozengy argent and gules. (24) Strauffeneck: a ‘chief’ argent, barry argent and gules. (25) Marshalck von Stuntsburg: gules, a ‘chevron’ argent. (26) Kirmreitter: sable and or. (27) Altorf: sable and argent.

In modern heraldry the Chief, Fess, Pile, Chevron, Bend and Pile all occupy one-third of the area of the field, but during the period with which we are dealing they were somewhat smaller, unless they bore a charge, and the Fess of ancient heraldry would now probably be termed a Bar. The Canton occupies a third of the Chief, always on the dexter side, except in Spanish heraldry, where it appears on either the dexter or sinister side.

The Subordinaries include the bordure, in-escutcheon, orle, tressure, flanches, gyron, lozenge, fusil, mascle, rustre, fret, billet, annulet and roundels: these may be found illustrated in any book on heraldry.


The reverse of the sixth Great Seal of Edward III, used between 1340 and 1372, showing shield, surcoat and trapper bearing the quartered arms of England and France, and the lion crest of the kings of England.

Next in popularity after the Ordinaries and Subordinaries came what are known as the animate charges, the various animals, with the lion rampant well ahead of all others, followed at a considerable distance by the lion passant. Less popular still in our period was the eagle, which was the most common charge in the bird category, and was followed by a relatively few examples of martlets, popinjays, crows, swans and herons.

The inanimate charges were mostly everyday objects from medieval life in Europe, such as staves, water buckets, arrows, axes, horseshoes, spurs, hammers, various flowers, stars and crescents, etc. It was not until around 1500 that the human body, monsters and fabulous beasts, birds and reptiles became common in heraldry, and by then the science had already begun its decline into ostentatious ornamentation.

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