Sunday, 16 September 2012

Heraldry 101, part 4 - ordinaries, and the Rule of Tincture

A key thing to be aware of in part 3 is that everything described there is a division of the shield into two or more parts. What we're going to cover in this part are ordinaries, simple geometric shapes placed on the shield. A term often used to refer to the background colour of a portion of a shield is the field, and things placed on it are also termed charges, so we can speak of placing charges on a field.

The names of the most common ordinaries should actually already be familiar to you:
Bend sinister
The first of these, then, would blazoned azure, a pale argent. And so on.

A couple of things to be aware of: first off, the distinction between per fess and a chief. Per fess is a division of the shield, a chief is a charge placed on it - the same is also true of per quarter vs a quarter. You'll also note that a chief occupies roughly the top third of the area of the shield, whereas a division per fess is much closer to halfway.

Secondly, I've deliberately left the various forms of cross out of this particular article, because the cross and its derivatives merit a post all to themselves. Also, many of these ordinaries have diminutive forms, or different names when there's more than one of them. I'll cover these too in a later post.

Finally, be aware once again that charges are placed on the field, rather than being divisions of it, and as such, a very important rule of heraldry applies, called the Rule of Tincture. This rule basically states:
A colour may not be placed on a colour, nor a metal on a metal.
Simple, really. But, as they say, honoured as much in the breach as in the observance. The rule of tincture first pops its head up in around the 14th century, and one may guess that it's a formalisation of earlier conventions, largely about picking contrasting colour combinations that were clearly visible at a distance.

Things to be aware of about the rule of tincture:
Arms of Geoffrey of Boulogne
and Baldwin of Boulogne, King
of Jerusalem.
  • it doesn't apply to furs or to things blazoned as proper. Technically, then, "or, a horse argent" breaks the rule, but "or, a white horse proper" does not!
  • it doesn't apply to charges placed across divided fields, the details (claws, tongues) of things like lions etc, and marks of distinction or cadency (of which latter, more in several posts time).
  • its application becomes more rigorous as one gets closer to the present.
One of the most famous breaches is that of the arms of the Crusader Kings of Jerusalem, blazoned as argent, a cross potent or between four crosslets or. One theory is that this was allowed to break the rule at the time, as it was a coat of arms of an exceptional holy and special nature.


  1. Very informative. I'm already learning new stuff (and I thought I knew a bit). I have read somewhere that the British Isles colleges of heralds tended to observe the colour/metal 'rule' rather more than did the Continental. Personally, I've always rather liked it, colours and metals complement each other so well.

  2. I was curious about your vanished posting about probabilities. I you are still wondering, it takes 4 rolls of 1D6 to obtain better than a 50-50 chance of scoring at least one 6. It isn't much better (671:625 i.e. between 53 and 54%).

    1. Vanishing posting? Dunno what you mean :D

      Don't worry, it'll reappear eventually as part of a new series, and I did have the answer...


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