Origins of Heraldry

Designs were invented to help recognise one man from another. How far back this idea was first put into practice is not known but from the first half of the twelfth century (1100-1150) knights began to use designs on their flags and shields to identify themselves in battle and in tournaments. The designs commonly passed down from father to son and became means of identifying an entire family and not just a single person.

Designs were not only used by knights for military purposes. Designs were used by ordinary people for marking their territory or possessions. They were also used as seals on documents to prove their authenticity.

The use of designs in the early twelfth century we now call heraldry. It may have begun at this time because of the popularity of tournaments where a knight in armour could only be recognised by some kind of design on his flag or shield. It may have become popular during the Crusades for identifying those men who associated themselves with a particular knight.


Over time a common set of designs were developed and a grammar of heraldry was defined. This meant that the layout of a shield could be described in words. The description of a shield and its layout is known as the blazon and with the description anyone who understood the grammar could reproduce the design of the shield. The description not only defines the colours and shapes but also defines the way that animals are facing and posed.

Design your own shield

You can either start at the first section (see below) and work your way through or you can jump straight to the section of your choice. You will design your own shield as you go from section to section. You can save your shield and come back to it at any time.


These next series of pages take your through the basics of heraldry and allow you to create your own simple medieval heraldic design.

Section 1: Tinctures

Tinctures in heraldry are the names given to the standard colours, metals and furs that cover the shield or flag. There are four main colours (black, red, blue and green). These are also known as sable, gules, azure and vert respectively.


Start Designing Your Shield →

Section 2: Divisions

Divisions of the Field: In heraldry a shield can be divided into major sections. These are known as Divisions of the field.


Add a division to your shield →

Section 3: More Divisions

Additional divisions of the Field: These divisions are based on combinations of the major sections described in the previous section and provide many more ways of decorating a shield.


Try other divisions on your shield →


Any design on a shield is known as a charge. A charge can be placed on another charge, and a charge that has another charge on it is called charged. Charges are divided into two main groups, the ordinaries, and the common charges.

Section 4: Honourable ordinaries

Ordinaries are basic geometrical shapes that are placed on the shield. There are several ordinaries that are concidered to be the orginal designs used in heraldry and these are known as the Honourable Ordinaries.


Add an Ordinary to your shield →

Section 5: Sub-ordinaries

Sub-ordinaries are variations on the basic honourable ordinaries already detailed above. The variations were invented because so many different shield designed were needed.


Add more Ordinaries to your shield →

Useful Terms

Field: The whole surface of the shield. Charges: Bearings and emblems on the shield. These are divided into ordinaries and common charges. Ordinaries: The well-defined emblems with specific names and positions on the shield. Also includes sub-ordinaries. Common charges: All those emblems that are not covered by ordinaries. Tintures: The colours, metals and furs that cover the field. Blazon: The verbal or written description allowing the shield and surrounding parts to be reproduced.