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What are the traditional symbols on a shield?

What are the traditional symbols on a shield?

Shields have been used for protection in combat since ancient times. Over the centuries, unique symbols and designs have been painted or embossed onto shields to communicate messages. These shield symbols serve both practical and decorative purposes. Practically, symbols help distinguish friend from foe on the battlefield. Decoratively, they express the bearer’s lineage, rank, or affiliation. Some common traditional symbols seen on shields throughout history include crosses, lions, eagles, and coats of arms.


The cross is one of the most ancient and widely used symbols in heraldry. Since the time of the First Crusades in the 12th century, knights and soldiers have borne shields featuring crosses to symbolize their Christian faith. The simple Latin cross has a long upright staff crossed by a shorter horizontal bar. Heraldic crosses come in many elaborate shapes and styles such as the pointed cross pattée and the cross fleury with elaborate floral ends.

Some distinctive crosses seen on shields include:

The Saint George’s Cross – This red cross on a white background was the earliest recorded cross used in Crusader shields during the First Crusade. It was named after Saint George, the patron saint of England, and eventually became the national flag of England.

The Scandinavian Cross – Also called a Nordic cross, this symbol has the crossbar shifted to the left to form a slanted + shape. It was frequently painted on round Viking shields and later became part of the national flags of Nordic countries.

The Jerusalem Cross – Featuring one large cross surrounded by four smaller crosses, this emblem was used by crusading knights who captured Jerusalem. The five crosses represent the five wounds of Christ during the Crucifixion.

The Templar Cross – The Knights Templar marched into battle with iconic shields bearing a large red Latin cross to symbolize their Christian warrior mission. This cross pattée design later became associated with crusading knights.


The lion is known as the king of beasts and the fiercest hunter, making it a popular heraldic symbol conveying attributes like courage, strength, and royalty. Stone relief carvings show ancient Assyrian warriors marching with shields embellished with lion motifs. In the medieval era, lion symbols were splashed across knight’s shields to invoke fearsomeness.

Types of lion symbols in heraldry include:

The Rampant Lion – Depicted in profile standing erect with forepaws raised to strike, the rampant lion was a common heraldic symbol used by ruling noble families. Richard the Lionheart featured three golden lions on his shield.

The Passant Lion – Illustrated walking horizontally with one forepaw raised, the passant lion symbolized a cautious warrior. The passant lion was the emblem of the English Beauchamp family.

The Couchant Lion – Lying with its head erect, the couchant lion represented being alert and ready for action. It was the symbol of the Scottish Murray clan chiefs.

The Lion’s Head – Symbols like lions’ heads and dewclaws conveyed strength and valor. The lion’s head was one of the earliest symbols used by ancient Mesopotamian rulers on their shields.


With its keen vision, aerial prowess, and deadly talons, the eagle is the king of the birds and a popular charge emblazoned on shields. Soaring eagles symbolized qualities like courage, independence, and military might. Roman legionary shields often featured the aquila eagle standard. Medieval knights bore shields with single- and double-headed eagles.

Well-known eagle symbols in heraldry are:

The Double-Headed Eagle – Representing dominion over two realms, the double-headed eagle was the emblem of the Byzantine and Russian emperors. It later became associated with Austria and Germany.

The Spread Eagle – Depicted with wings spread as if in flight, the spread eagle symbolized power and strength. It was featured on shields of Holy Roman Empire knights and continues to be used in American heraldry.

The Martlet – Lacking feet and beak, the stylized martlet bird symbolized continuous activity and tirelessness. It was the heraldic emblem carried by fourth sons in medieval England.

The Wings of an Eagle – Just the wings and talons of an eagle conveyed courage and ferocity. Wings of eagles appeared on Viking shields and Italian family crests.

Coats of Arms

Coats of arms are distinctive arrangements of charges that identify knights, nobles, clans, and families. By the 12th century, knights painted personalized symbols called charges, such as crosses, lions, and eagles, onto their shields. These charges were combined into a unique coat of arms passed down through generations.

Elements of a coat of arms commonly seen on shields include:

The Field – The background color or pattern sets the stage for the main charges. Common fields include red, blue, black, or patterned with checks or stripes.

The Charge – The central emblem is the iconic symbol, like a rampant lion or eagle, associated with the bearer.

The Ordinary – Geometric charges in stripes or bands framing the edges aid identification. Common ordinaries are pale, fess, chevron, and chief.

The Motto – A short phrase or war cry written on a banner accompanying the shield expresses ideals. “God and my Right” was the motto of English kings.


The tradition of painting identifying symbols onto combat shields originated thousands of years ago and continues today in the form of family crests. Although shields are no longer carried into battle, their heraldic symbols endure as expressions of history, lineage, and values. The cross, lion, eagle, and coat of arms remain among the most iconic and recognizable symbols across cultures. Their symbolism carries on the time-honored tradition of using images on shields to identify warriors, instill courage, and proclaim honor.