Written By: Elena Johnston
The Ordinary Charges
Coats of arms frequently feature bold and simple geometrical designs. This is hardly surprising, since the whole point of a coat of arms was to be easily recognized from across a battlefield or amid the commotion of a tournament. In shield design, as in so many areas of life, the simplest solutions are among the most effective, and a handful of simple designs are so ubiquitous as to have earned the name “ordinaries.”
A “chief” consists of a bar across the top of a shield, as in the arms of the Scottish clan Menzies.
A “pale” is a stripe running down the center of a shield. If there are multiple smaller stripes, they are called pallets.
A chief and a pale can also be combined together into a T-shape.
A fess, as seen here in the arms of Austria, is a horizontal band across the shield.
The red cross of St. George, displayed on the arms of the City of London, is formed out of a pale and fess together.
A cross becomes a saltire when it is turned diagonally, as seen on the flag of Scotland. A saltire is also known as St. Andrew’s cross.
A chevron is a bar in the shape of an upside-down “V,” as in the arms of Trans, Switzerland. The arms of Boligen, Switzerland features a chevron interlaced with an inverted chevron. Where several small chevrons are displayed, they are called “chevronelles.”
A bend is a stripe running from the top of the shield, on the dexter side, to the bottom of the shield, on the sinister side, which is to say from the top left of the image to the bottom right. Although a coat of arms is typically a painted image in modern use, the vocabulary of heraldry originally developed in reference to actual coats worn by actual knights. Hence, the words “right” and “left”, or rather, “dexter” and “sinister”, are always used with reference to the hypothetical knight behind the shield, rather than to the viewer.
A bend running in the opposite direction is called a “bend sinister.” This is used much less frequently than its dexterous counterpart, and is not considered an ordinary. It was sometimes used as a mark of distinction, signifying bastardy, as in the arms of Arthur Plantagenet.
The very simplest way to make a shield distinctly recognizable is to divide the field into two parts with a single line, then paint a metal (gold or silver) on one side and one of the five heraldic colors (blue, red, purple, black, or green) on the other. Of course, this method cannot produce very many distinct coats of arms by itself, but when combined with various charges, field divisions multiply the possibilities for unique designs. Divided fields are also used in the marshalling of arms, when multiple coats of arms are combined into one.
The lines dividing the field on a coat of arms go by the same names as the corresponding ordinaries. If a shield is divided by a vertical line running down the middle, it is said to be party per (or parted by) pale. A horizontally halved shield is party per fess, and a shield that is divided into quarters is either party per cross or party per saltire, depending upon the orientation of the lines.
The lines on a coat of arms do not have to be straight, but can be patterned in a variety of different ways, such as this fir pattern displayed on the municipal arms of Ylanaa, Finland.
A shield will often have separate charges on each part of the field, but when a charge crosses over a dividing line, it is an opportunity for counterchanging, as in these lovely arms from Behnsdorf, Germany.