Military history


When a knight entered the lists at a tournament, he was announced by the sounding of a trumpet and the calling out of his coat of arms. This was known as blazoning. Thus the principal terms and order of description employed in blazon have been in existence since the early 13th century, by which date heralds were finding it necessary to describe a coat of arms in such a way that there could be no shadow of doubt as to what and whose it was, and they are readily understood throughout western Europe. The language of the early blazons was French or Latin, but this was later replaced by the language of each nation, and in English heraldry the language of blazon has become anglicized except for a few technical terms.

Some attention to fine detail has been applied in the following description of blazon, as it is essential that the reader be able to interpret blazon if he is to be able to study more complex books on heraldry, where the arms are frequently described in this manner. However, it should be remembered that blazon was invented in order to describe arms precisely, clearly and briefly, and is therefore reasonably easy to understand.


To write or read a blazon it is necessary to know the order in which the description is set out. This order is therefore listed fully here.

The Field

(1) Describe the tincture of the field.

(2) If the field is divided into two or more tinctures, describe the line or lines which divide it, followed by the tinctures: Quarterly, or and gules, the arms of Sir Geoffrey de Say (baron 1313) and his son Geoffrey at the siege of Calais in 1348.

(3) If the partition lines are not straight, describe them: Per pale indented, argent and gules, the banner of Simon de Montfort.

(4) If the field is semé with small charges this must also be mentioned: Azure billety, a fess dancetty or, the arms of Sir John D’Eyncourt.

The Principal Charge

(1) Describe the principal charge on the field and its tincture.

(2) If the charge is an Ordinary and it has irregular lines, describe the lines—engrailed, nebuly, etc.

(3) If the charge is placed in the centre of the field and faces the dexter, no further description is necessary, otherwise the position (in chief, in fess, in base) and whether affronté (showing full face) or contourné (facing sinister) must be stated.

Other Charges

If there are any secondary charges these must be mentioned in order of importance, stating position on the shield and the tinctures used: Or, a cross gules between sixteen eaglets azure, the arms of the lords of Montmorency.

Charges upon Charges

Describe any charges placed upon an Ordinary, upon a principal charge, or charge.


Describe any charges used for differencing or cadency, such as the bordure, label, canton, crescent, mullet, etc.

Over all Charges

When an Ordinary is placed across a coat of arms it is preceded by the word surtout or over all, i.e. over all a bend azure.


If a shield is quartered this fact is stated before all the above categories, and mention is made at the end of this list only because quartering, except for royal alliances, was comparatively rare in the period with which we are concerned. Quarters are numbered 1 to 4 thus: top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right, as viewed. If the 4th quarter is a repeat of the 1st, and the 3rd a repeat of the 2nd, as in the arms of England circa 1400–1603, this is blazoned as Quarterly 1st and 4th France modern; 2nd and 3rd England.

The normal reading and writing rules of working from left to right and top to bottom apply in heraldry, so that per pale gules and or means the left side is red, and per fess argent and azure means the top half is argent. Gyronny commences with the top left-hand segment and the number of gyrons is stated: Gyronny of 8, or and sable, the arms of the Campbell family.

If a tincture is used more than once in a coat it is usual not to repeat its name but refer to it as ‘of the first’ or ‘of the second’, depending when it first occurred in the blazon. This practice was dropped over a hundred years ago because of the many ambiguous translations. For example, in the Luterell arms the colour of martlets and bend is only mentioned once: Azure, a bend between 6 martlets or. This could equally be blazoned Azure, a bend or between 6 martlets of the second.

When a charge is repeated the number of such charges must be stated and their arrangement on the shield described. Thus nine roundels, 3, 3, 3. It is not necessary to blazon six roundels 3, 2, 1, as this is the standard arrangement for such a number of charges.

Correct punctuation is not vital and many authorities disagree over the way blazon should be punctuated, but it helps to remember that there should be no internal commas in a blazon.

The natural colouring of animals, birds, plants, etc., is always referred to as ‘proper’, but if they vary from their natural colours then the tinctures must be named. Birds and beasts having claws, beaks and teeth in a different tincture to that of their bodies are blazoned Armed. If their tongues protrude they are Langued. Animals such as the bull and unicorn, which also have horns and hooves, are blazoned Armed and Hoofed, but stags and deer are Attired, not Armed. Birds without claws are blazoned Beaked and membered. There are many more such complications, but the majority arose after the period with which we are dealing, when arms had become complex and heraldry was mainly decorative.


There is another method of describing a coat of arms, found in Rolls of Arms dating back as far as the mid-13th century. In this method the coat is drawn in outline in ink and the various tinctures indicated by words or abbreviations of those words. Such a coat, known as tricked, is illustrated to indicate the simplicity of this method: Fig 50, the arms of Sir John Fortescue, circa 1394–1476. Neatness and accuracy are, of course, vital with this method to prevent confusion.


At the beginning of the 14th century it was common practice for knights to wear a surcoat over their armour. On the front and back of this coat would often be displayed their arms, though other heraldic devices might also be used: for example, Edward II of England (1307–27) wore four lions on his surcoat, while at Poitiers Sir John Chandos had the figure of Our Lady, dressed in blue, within a golden mandorla, embroidered on his surcoat. Lord Jean de Clermont, one of the French marshals at the battle, bore the same device on his surcoat.

At this date the surcoat was full length, reaching almost to the ankles, but sleeveless, and was split at front and back almost to the waist to allow the material to hang freely when the wearer was in the saddle. These gowns, typical examples of which are illustrated by Figs 51 and 52, were gathered at the waist by a belt or cord.

This full-length surcoat remained popular until about 1320–30, when the front skirts were cut off at mid-thigh level, as in Fig 53. This edge was sometimes straight, sometimes scalloped or embattled. Prior to this change, introduced for practical reasons, the ends of the front skirts had frequently been tucked through the belt to loop them up and so allow greater freedom of move-ment when on foot. Some examples of surcoats at about this date appear to have had the skirts cut back at an angle, as in Fig 54. The rear skirts were cut off in about 1340–50, reducing the length here to level with the back of the knees. This shortened version is referred to as the cyclas coat, and an example occurs on the effigy of Henry, Duke of Lancaster, dated 1347, on the Hastings brass at Elsyng in Norfolk: Fig 55.


Some time between 1350 and 1360 the shortened surcoat or cyclas began to be replaced by the jupon, another hip-length garment but much more close-fitting and often of leather, or of padded or quilted fabric, to provide extra protection for the wearer in battle or tournament. Its lower edge was usually scalloped or fringed. The jupon was also sleeveless, laced up at the sides, and in England almost invariably bore the arms of the wearer on front and back. In Europe the wearer’s arms did not normally appear on the jupon. A number of jupons are illustrated in the colour plates.

That the long form of surcoat had continued to be worn alongside the cyclas and jupon is illustrated by the fact that as late as 1370 the now elderly Sir John Chandos, whilst attempting to dismount to fight on foot, caught his spur in the skirts of his surcoat and was slain whilst thus rendered helpless. This event, and perhaps others like it, did more to end the wearing of the long surcoat than the fashion for the jupon. From this date no more examples of the surcoat appear in the sources consulted.

The jupon was in turn discarded about 1425, although isolated examples continue to occur as late as the end of that century, and for some considerable time armour was as a general rule uncovered. Some knights had their heraldic devices engraved and gilded on their plate armour, but this was a comparatively rare occurrence, governed by the cost of producing such armour.

The tabard, a short, loose-fitting garment, open at the sides and with broad, short sleeves, had been worn in isolated examples from about 1425, and coats of arms continued to be embroidered on these and on cloaks, but both these garments were more for parades and tournaments than warfare. The tabard became more popular at the end of the century and remained in general use until the middle of the 16th century, when it went out of fashion. The tabard has survived in the form of the herald’s coat, embroidered with heraldic devices on front, back and sleeves. Examples of the tabard occur in the colour plates.


Ailettes (little wings) were small pieces of leather or sometimes parchment, usually rectangular or square but occasionally round, diamond- or even cross-shaped, which were laced to the point of each shoulder so as to stand upright above the shoulders. Some sources state that they were designed to prevent a sword cut to the side of the neck, but many of the examples studied were much too flimsy for this, and they are more likely to have been purely heraldic or ornamental, serving as extra identification ‘panels’ to identify the wearer from the sides. As such they were superfluous, since the curved shield and the crest already fulfilled this rôle, and the ailette was probably more of an affected fashion than anything else.

Ailettes first appear about 1270, and it is known that leather ailettes were used at a tournament held in Windsor Park in 1278. This surely indicates their true rôle. During the first quarter of the 14th century ailettes appear to have reached the peak of their popularity and many examples of them being worn may be seen on monuments and in documents. However, by about 1340 they seem to have declined in popularity and they do not appear much after 1350.


(40) William de Fortz: argent, a chief gules. (41) Walter de Colville: or, a fess gules. (42) Hugh de Grentmesnil: gules, a pale or. (43) Gorrevod: azure, a chevron or. (44) Guillaume de Trie: or, a bend azure. (45) Neville, Earls of Warwick, also of the Van Eyck, Van Jutphaas, Borgharts, Oultre and other Low Country families: gules, a saltire argent. (46) Teixeira and Oluja: azure, a cross argent. (47) Sir John Chandos: argent, a pile gules. (48) Bertram de Crioll: or, a canton and two chevrons gules. (49) Henry de Grey: barry of six, argent and azure.

If a man’s shield bore, say, six cinquefoils, then one cinquefoil might be painted on each ailette, but this was not always the case and in the Luterell Psalter (circa 1340) Sir Geoffrey Luterell is portrayed bearing his full coat of arms on his ailettes: see photograph elsewhere in this book.

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