Meanings In Heraldry

The question "What does X mean in heraldry?" often arises, with the expectation that there is a particular symbology and meaning to the things in heraldry.

Sadly, in my view, this isn't really the case for anything in a purely heraldic context. So for example, a particular culture might consider that an image of a Fox represents cunning, or that lions are courageous but these meanings belong to the objects themselves, in any context, and may well have had those meanings long before heraldry developed.

That is not to suggest that colours and objects were chosen without consideration, just that the reasons for each choice were personal and not based on an established canon of heraldic meanings.

Early Heraldry

In the very early days of heraldry I would imagine that arms were chosen to be different, i.e. clearly and separately identifiable from anything that had been used previously. If your neighbour is using azure a bend or you might go for something completely different with sable a fess argent.

In this situation I don't see that there is any need to ascribe "meanings" to any of the shapes or colours, other than the cross, but that of course has a huge symbology that predates heraldry. A cross used in heraldry has no different meaning to a cross used anywhere else; and arguably it was originally the combination of a pale and fess and the original resemblance to a cross was coincidental.

Later Heraldry

In later periods heraldry became more ceremonial and decorative and the use of charges became more common, if for no other reason than most of the combinations of basic colours and major ordinaries had already been used!

So at this point a wider range of charges is introduced, of an increasing range of types: animals, weapons, household objects and abstract shapes. What criteria did the original designers use in selecting an object to include on a coat of arms? My expectation is that it was nothing more (or less) than the personal preference of the armiger, subject to the issue above that the end result needed to be sufficiently different from anything that had gone before.

The keyword here is "personal", yes, it may well be that a particular object had meaning for the armiger, what is important is that this "meaning" was not global, but individual. In many cases the "meaning" was nothing more than an allusion to the family name (A fox for the family Fox).

One which survives only through a knowledge of old English is the arms of the Luce family, who use various combinations of Pike fish in their arms. An old English word for Pike was "Luce", but this has now fallen largely into disuse so the allusion must be explained. This also applies across languages, some French Arms from families with variations of "Pierre" in their name use a rock or stone in their arms, this being the literal translation of the noun "pierre" in French. But this, I think, is as far as we can take the purely heraldic use of "meaning", as just a "play on words" for the family name.

Public and Corporate Arms

Indeed, this rather literal use of symbols extends into corporate and public heraldry. The reader must not be suprised to find that the arms of the Lincolnshire town of Horncastle features a horn and castle and little else. Many of the medeival guilds simply added an "iconic" tool of their trade to their own arms; the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen of London took this to extremes and included pretty much everything they needed for their job - their arms include as charges the boat, the oars and the cushions.

To suggest then that an "Oar" as a charge means anything more than its "face value" would seem silly to me. It is true that some family may have decided that they would adopt an oar in their arms as they felt that it represented some "steering towards the light" but this would not be widely accepted allusion - should a oar be found elsewhere it would almost certainly not have the same allusion, in fact it could just be that the family name was "Oare" or some variation of it.

But, but but! Wade!

"But what about Wade?" I hear you cry, "A entire book on the 'Symbolisms of Heraldry', and it must be right because it's old"[1].

Well, yes, it is old, but it is NOT medieval, rather it is Victorian, a period in which, quite frankly, a huge amount of nonsense was written about heraldry. Although Wade writes with apparant great authority and mentions his source works in the preface (primarily Guillim's "Heraldry") he does build a lot on this shaky foundation and many other statements have no basis offered other than Wade's own ideas. It is mostly nonsense, sorry.

  1. Wade, W. Cecil (1898) The Symbolisms of Heraldry, London, George Redway
  2. Rowling, J.K. (1997) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, P.77, London, Bloomsbury Publishing

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