Simple Medieval Heraldry

[by Brian Wainwright]

I say ‘simple heraldry’ because this is a complex subject, and I am not a real expert; I just have a rough working knowledge of medieval heraldry. One or two people have asked for explanations of terms I thought were well-known – I was wrong!  The object of the article is just to explain the basic principles – if you need more, then you can always read books on the subject or, better still, talk to a herald!

The focus of this little article is on the middle ages, so I have left out later developments. For example a woman of these days may be granted arms in her own right; this was unheard of in medieval times, when she would invariably use her father’s arms, or in rare cases, a version thereof. (The only rare case I can think of off hand is Katherine Swynford, whose arms were slightly different to those of her father’s, the wheels of Roet being shown broken in reference to St Katherine.)

The original objective of heraldry was recognition in battle. Early knights did not have individual ‘coats of arms’ but simply rallied around their lord’s banner, which might itself be no more than a piece of coloured cloth.

From round about the 12th century onwards, knights start to have individual devices painted on their shields. (Later they were also worn on the body on a jupon that covered the armour.) Over time these became identified with particular individuals – trade marked if you like – and it was necessary to evolve a system where no two were exactly alike. Further, as the arms became hereditary, it became important to distinguish between a man and his sons, uncles and cousins. So marks of cadency or difference were invented, to make quite subtle changes to the basic design that show a relationship but also make it clear which individual is which.

(If you read a modern book of heraldry it will often tell you that the third son has this difference and the fifth son that. This sort of detailed codification had not been worked out in the Middle Ages, and beyond a certain point they did as they liked!)

As time went by, coats of arms weren’t just used on battle shields. For example, they got put onto seals, and were used as decoration of tombs, to show off noble kinship. Thus it became important to accommodate such things as marriages. Eventually shields and jupons fell out of fashion and these secondary uses became the principal ones.

In its most basic form, the arms of a husband and wife are impaled on a shield. In other words, the shield is divided in half down the middle. The man’s arms go on the heraldic right or dexter – and the woman’s on the heraldic left or sinister. (Heraldic left or right is determined from the point of view of the knight holding the shield, not yours as you look at it.)

If the woman is an heiress, then the arms are quartered instead of being impaled. This means the shield is divided into four quarters. Normally the man’s arms then go into the top left and bottom right quarters as you look at it – the first and fourth quarters as they are known. The woman’s arms go into the other two quarters – the second and third. If they have a son, these quartered arms descend to him – impaled arms are specific to the couple only and their son takes his father’s arms.

If the woman’s inheritance is judged more important than the man’s then her quarterings go in the first and fourth, and his in the second and third. What about a woman’s arms? Well as a maiden lady she normally uses her father’s, but in a lozenge (a rhombus, or diamond shape), not on a shield. As a married woman or widow she normally impales or quarters her husband’s arms with her father’s, again carrying them on a lozenge.

You may think that for something that promised to be simple this is all pretty complex – and you are right, it is. So let’s look at some worked examples, using as a resource a photograph of the York Window at Fotheringhay. This window is one of the features of Fotheringhay Church, and it’s even more interesting once you understand exactly what it represents. (Photo reproduced courtesy of Bill Benstead and the Worcester Branch of the Richard III Society)
Window from Fotheringhay Church
Edmund of LangleyThe top shield on the left is the matrimonial impalement of the arms of Edmund of Langley, first Duke of York, and Isabel of Castile. Edmund’s arms, the ones on the left of the shield as we look at it, are basically those of his father Edward III, France and England quartered. (France was regarded as the more important kingdom, so the lilies of France are in the first and fourth quarters.) The white markings across the top half of the shield are Edmund’s mark of cadency, a label of three points – which in real life have three red roundels (balls) on each of the tabs, distinguishing Edmund from his brothers. Marks of cadency come in various forms, but one of the most common is a label which is a white horizontal line from which three or more smaller lines (tabs) descend. Its purpose is to distinguish one (male) family member from another. Isabel’s arms are those of her father, Castile and Leon, quartered. (I don’t think you will need telling which quarters represent which!)

Edward, 2nd Duke of YorkImmediately below this shield is a very similar shield, representing Edmund and Isabel’s son, Edward, the second Duke of York, with his wife, Philippa Mohun. You may note, that Edward’s shield has a reduced number of lilies compared to his father. This represents the change from France Ancient to France Modern, which in England took place about 1403, in France a little earlier. Philippa’s arms are those of her father, Lord Mohun of Dunster.

fetterlock cognizanceBelow these two shields is the famous Falcon and Fetterlock of York, in this case with a closed Fetterlock, as used by the family prior to Edward IV’s accession in 1461. This is a cognizance, as opposed to a coat of arms. The arms were only worn by their owner, but the cognizance could be worn by any York servant or retainer, as well as being blazoned on such things as horse-furnishings and buildings.

R3 Royal ShieldThe top middle shield is the royal arms of Richard III – you can tell it’s the King’s arms because it doesn’t have any mark of cadency, or difference. The royal arms were sometimes displayed on buildings as a sign of loyalty, but anyone who used them in any other context was effectively claiming that he was the king! This was not generally a wise move.


boar cognizanceBelow is the famous White Boar cognizance, and below that Anne Neville’s quarterings. This is example of the more Anne Neville quarteringelaborate arms that developed from the 15th century onwards, used by people who wanted to emphasise their impressive ancestry. These complex devices are effectively a family tree expressed as heraldry. Clare, Beauchamp, Montagu and Despenser are among the families represented. (Isabel Neville’s arms would have been identical, assuming they both chose to use a complex version of their father’s arms.)

white rose cognizanceBeneath this shield is the White Rose, another family cognizance, one that came from the Mortimers.


ConisbroughThe top shield on the right hand side is the impaled arms of Richard of Conisbrough, Earl of Cambridge, the second son of Edmund of Langley, and his wife Anne Mortimer. Interestingly, Richard’s difference is a border to the shield – probably because he was a younger son of a younger son in a very big family and they were running out of differences. Anne Mortimer’s arms are those of her father, the Earl of March, and are another example of quartering. Why are Cambridge and Anne’s shields themselves not quartered, given that she was an heiress? Well, I can only think it is because she was not an heiress in her lifetime, and that they would have (correctly) used this impalement during their marriage.

Richard, Duke of YorkThe final impaled shield is that of Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville. Richard’s shield is identical to that of Edward, Duke of York, but this is OK because a) Richard was Edward’s successor in title and b) by the time Richard used this shield Edward was no longer alive. Cecily’s shield is shown here as the full, undifferenced – that is without a mark of cadency — arms of Neville because her father was the Earl of Westmorland. If you look at the similar Neville arms in Anne Neville’s quarterings you’ll see that there’s a bar of cadency – because her father, Warwick, was the son of a younger Neville son!

Mortimer cognizanceBelow this shield is another cognizance, the White Lion of Mortimer.



I hope this helps you understand the basics of medieval heraldry.