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What do coat of arms symbols mean?

What do coat of arms symbols mean?

Coats of arms are heraldic symbols that convey information about their bearer. They originated in medieval Europe as a way for knights and nobles to identify themselves in battle and tournaments. Though no longer used on the battlefield, coats of arms continue to be used by countries, cities, families, organizations, and individuals today.

History of Coats of Arms

Coats of arms first appeared in Europe during the 12th century. As knights began wearing armor that covered their entire body, it became difficult to identify friend from foe on the battlefield. To solve this problem, knights painted symbols onto their shields so they could recognize their allies. These painted shields evolved into the elaborate coats of arms we know today.

At first, coats of arms were assumed by individuals rather than passed down through families. But by the 13th century, coats of arms began to be hereditary, passing from one generation to the next. The oldest extant English coat of arms is that of the House of Guelders, which dates back to 1213.

As time went on, a complex system of rules and regulations developed around the use of coats of arms. Armorial authorities were established to grant and regulate arms. The exact rules and granting bodies have varied by country throughout history.

Elements of a Coat of Arms

While no two coats of arms are exactly alike, they all share some common elements and principles of design:

  • Shield – The focal point of the coat of arms. The shield displays the primary symbols or charges.
  • Charges – The images displayed on the shield, such as lions, crosses, chevrons, etc. These are the main symbolic elements of the arms.
  • Tinctures – The colors used, mainly divided into metals (gold and silver) and colors (red, blue, black, green, purple).
  • Crest – An emblem above the shield, often atop a helmet. May include feathers, animals, wreaths, etc.
  • Supporters – Figures that flank and support the shield, such as animals or human figures.
  • Motto – A phrase that expresses the coat of arms bearer’s motivations or ideals.

There are also basic rules of heraldry that govern the design of coats of arms. Some key principles include:

  • Metals must not touch other metals, and colors must not touch other colors.
  • Charges should be identifiable at a distance.
  • Simplicity is preferred over complexity in the design.
  • Elements should be balanced and have symbolic significance.

Common Charges and their Meanings

Heraldic charges are rich in meaning and symbolism. Here are some of the common figures and their generally accepted meanings:

Charge Meaning
Lion Courage, strength, royalty
Eagle Nobility, vision, power
Bear Strength, ferocity in protection
Snake Wisdom, rebirth, healing
Tower Safety, security, isolation
Anchor Hope, steadfastness, maritime
Crown Sovereignty, reward, glory
Heart Charity, sincerity, compassion
Crescent Hope, growth, exploration
Rose Love, beauty, balance
Oak leaves Strength, endurance, liberty
Palm leaves Victory, success, righteousness
Unicorn Purity, innocence, magic
Dragon Valor, protection, perseverance
Phoenix Renewal, rebirth, immortality
Crosses Faith, sacrifice, Christianity
Chevron Protection, architecture, construction
Crescent Hope, growth, exploration

The same charge can have very different meanings in different contexts. The visual appearance of the charge also impacts its meaning. For example, a lion rampant (reared up) may suggest more aggression than a lion passant (walking).

Tinctures and Meanings

In heraldry, tinctures refer to the colors used in a coat of arms. The tinctures are divided into metals and colors:

  • Metals
    • Gold (Or) – Generosity, elevation of the mind
    • Silver (Argent) – Peace, sincerity
  • Colors
    • Red (Gules) – Warrior/martyr, military strength
    • Blue (Azure) – Truth, loyalty, perseverance
    • Black (Sable) – Constancy, grief
    • Green (Vert) – Hope, joy/love of nature
    • Purple (Purpure) – Royal/justice, sovereignty

Special heraldic rules govern the use of tinctures. For instance, metals must never touch other metals, and colors must never touch other colors. Hatching and patterns are sometimes used to get around this rule.

The Meaning Behind Shape and Placement

Beyond the charges and tinctures used, the shape and placement of elements in a coat of arms can have meaning:

  • Shapes with sharp points signal readiness for battle.
  • Circular shapes represent eternity and continuity.
  • Symmetrical designs symbolize balance and equity.
  • Top placement indicates honor and superiority.
  • Bottom placement relates to support and foundation.
  • Center placement focuses on the essence of the symbol.

Dividing a shield diagonally or vertically can also symbolize the union of two houses or lineages being brought together in marriage.

Putting it All Together

When interpreting a coat of arms, one must consider the totality of the symbols and design. The charges, colors, placement, shapes, and style all work together to create a symbolic picture.

For example, a shield divided vertically with a lion on one side and an eagle on the other could represent the alliance between two noble houses. The lion rampant in gold against a red background conveys fierce courage. The silver eagle with spread wings represents a house with high ambitions.

Over time, coats of arms accrue layers of meaning as achievements are added to augment the original arms. Understanding the history behind a coat of arms provides context to analyze the symbolism.


Coats of arms continue be meaningful symbols of identity and heritage today. While frequently associated with Europe, heraldic traditions exist worldwide, including in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Whether belonging to a country, city, or family, a coat of arms expresses core values through symbolic images and design.

With knowledge of common charges and meanings, anyone can begin deciphering the cryptic language of heraldry. Coats of arms offer a colorful glimpse into a region’s history and what its bearers hold dear.