Heraldry For Chestertonians

 Overview   Geography   The Colors   The Ordinaries   Charges   An Achievement   Samples from GKC's writings   Samples from FBC's writings   Other samples 

An Introductory Overview

I do desire to help the reader to see Christendom from the outside in the sense of seeing it as a whole, against the background of other historic things; just as I desire him to see humanity as a whole against the background of natural things. And I say that in both cases, when seen thus, they stand out from their background like supernatural things. They do not fade into the rest with the colours of impressionism; they stand out from the rest with the colours of heraldry; as vivid as a red cross on a white shield or a black lion on a ground of gold. So stands the Red Clay against the green field of nature, or the White Christ against the red clay of his race.
GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:151

Heraldry is a very special branch of art: the art of a coat of arms. But heraldry can also be called a "science" since it has very definite rules, unlike most other kinds of art. There are two main reasons for this. First, heraldry deals with family and inheritance - a coat of arms can tell the history of its owner. Second, a coat of arms always has a precise description called a "blazon" which tells exactly what is on the shield: every item, its color, and its placement are spelled out using a technical language, almost as special as the graphical languages used in computing or engineering. By reference to this blazon, any heraldic artist is able to reproduce the same coat of arms.

Furthermore, heraldry is strongly bound to the Family. In countries where arms are granted by official decrees, the right to those arms is usually inherited. Moreover, there is a regular system of indicating one's family heritage by means of impaling arms, by which multiple generations can be represented in one design.

Why are there coats of arms anyway? Simply for identification. You've seen those big motorcycle helmets which conceal the driver's face - in the Middle Ages, the knights also used helmets which hid their faces. So they decided to paint their shields with bright colors, so their teammates would know who's who. (Just like a football team wears colored jerseys.) It was also handy since not everyone could read - so nametags or numbers (like in football) wouldn't be any help - but it was very easy to spot the color codes, even from a good distance. As this idea caught on, the knights began using their "colors" and "arms" on all sorts of things, even their clothes. But the usual way of showing one's "arms" is on a shield, which is drawn as a sort of triangular thing, like a garden spade.

At important events - banquets, weddings, State functions - there would be a herald: the person who "heralded" or announced a guest, as he could "read" the arms on the person's clothing, weapons, or carriage. As you can see in the plays of Frances Chesterton, the herald first recited the blazon of the shield, then stated the name or title of that person.

For futher information, consult the following books:

Heraldry Julian Franklyn
The Dictionary of Heraldry Joseph Foster
Heraldry: Sources, Symbols and Meaning Ottfried Neubecker
Heraldry In America Eugene Zieber
How Far Is It To Bethlehem? Frances B. Chesterton