Heraldry had and has very specific rules as to how a coat of arms is made up. The most basic part of a coat of arms was the achievement. An achievement in terms of heraldry and a coat of arms was the complete display of arms, crests and accessories. An achievement was made up of eight parts and there were very specific rules as to what colours could be used in a heraldic device.

The eight parts of an achievement were:

  1. The shield
  2. The helmet
  3. The mantling
  4. The wreath
  5. The crest
  6. The supporters
  7. The coronets
  8. The mottoes

A shield was considered to be the most important part of a coat of arms. Symbolic of its importance to a family’s coat of arms, a shield could appear by itself without any other part of an achievement. A helmet appeared above the shield and the type of helmet and its position indicated the rank of the owner. A mantling swept round from the top of the helmet and draped round the sides of a shield. It is thought that a mantling was meant to resemble the mantle worn by Crusader knights while in the Middle East to shield them from the sun. The wreath was a piece of twisted silk that covered the joint of the helmet. A crest in a heraldic shield was originally an object that knights used to wear attached to their helmet especially at jousts. A supporter was either a model of an animal or person that appeared to be holding up the shield. Coronets were on the achievements of peers only – dukes, earls, viscount and barons – and were symbolic of their rank. A motto was usually placed at the bottom of a shield within a scroll but occasionally it could be seen above it.

Heraldic colouring was also very specific. A shield was made up of tinctures, metals, colours and furs.

Tinctures were either a metal or colour. A metal colour was either gold (or) or silver (argent). Colours were red (gules), blue (azure), black (sable), green (vert) and purple (purpure) while furs consisted of ermine (black ‘spots’ on white), ermines (white spots on black) and vair (black and silver). A general rule was that a colour should not appear immediately on another colour, or a metal on another metal.

Shields were also designed on patterns called ordinaries. These were usually some form of band that went across a shield, be it vertically, horizontally or diagonally. It is thought that the origin of ordinaries came from when a band of metal was put across a shield to add strength to it for combat. Each style had a name. A chief or fess had a bar that went horizontally across a shield, be it at the top (chief) or in the middle (fess). A pale was a bar that ran vertically down a shield. Other patterns were pall, chevron, pile, cross and saltire. More complicated designs were known as subordinaries. Whereas ordinaries were basic shapes that would be recognised outside of heraldry, patterns such as a fret, flinches or inescutcheon would not be.

Whereas knights would have had a helmet above their shield, peers of the realm would have had some form of crown that denoted their rank. A baron would have had a crown that only had silver balls on the pattern. An earl would have had strawberry leaves with silver balls above them; a marques would have had a strawberry leaf followed by a silver ball that was followed by a strawberry leaf while an earl has a pattern only of strawberry leaves.

The description of a coat of arms was known as blazoning. The painting of arms was known as emblazoning. A shield invariably had three important parts to it. The top section was known as in chief, the middle section was known as in fess while the lower section was known as in base.