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Heraldic Dictionary: 3. Ordinaries

Last modified: 2013-12-09 by rob raeside
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HERALDRY III: The Ordinaries

There is a set order to the BLAZONING or description of a coat of arms in English heraldry.

First comes the FIELD (background), then the principal CHARGES (objects placed on the shield), other charges, minor charges placed upon other charges, MARKS OF CADENCY. These are special markings designed to indicate that the arms bearer is a descendant of the holder of the arms of a family or peerage.

Next comes details of any overall charge, covering all the parts of the shield. NEXT, details of any HELM, WREATH, CREST and/or MANTLING are listed. These all sit on the top of the shield (although the mantling, stylised folds of material, surrounds the shield at the sides as well). Finally, details of a MOTTO and SUPPORTERS are listed.

In keeping with this, and having described the FIELD in previous sections, I'll now move on to the CHARGES. These are objects placed upon the shield and fall into three broad categories, ORDINARIES (more formally called HONOURABLE ORDINARIES), SUB-ORDINARIES and other CHARGES. Ordinaries and Sub-Ordinaries are large objects, many of which overlap in meaning and name with the partitions mentioned in the last section of this series. Thus, for example, where PER BEND means divided diagonally, a BEND is a wide diagonal band running from one edge of the shield to another.

The other Charges, which I will deal with in a future part of this series, include such objects as MONSTERS (eg, Dragons), BEASTS (animals), BIRDS, PLANTS, PEOPLE or INANIMATE OBJECTS such as castles, wheels or crowns.

There are quite a large number of Ordinaries and Sub-Ordinaries, many of which, as I have said, are very similar in name to the partitions mentioned in part II of this series. The Ordinaries include (with an example from a flag where possible):

[chief] CHIEF: This is a broad band across the top of the shield or flag (e.g., Canada's province of New Brunswick)
See also: Chief in IV: Sub-Ordinaries.

[fess] FESS: A broad horizontal band across the middle of the shield/flag (e.g., Spain, Austria). Note that although these flags could be described as Tierced in Fess, the central band technically is seen as sitting on a continuous background, unlike the flag of the Netherlands, say, where three different colours are involved. Thus Spain's flag is Gules, a Fess Or.

[bar] BAR: This is a smaller (thinner) version of a Fess, and is rarely found singly, although the flag of Nauru is one instance where a single bar is found. Again, as in the note on the Fess, if the flag or shield can be pictured as being a series of bars of a single coloured background, then this is how it is described (for example, the American flag, excluding the canton, should theoretically be described as Gules, six Bars Argent).

[pale] PALE: As with the Fess, but the broad band is vertical rather than horizontal (Canada would be an exemplar flag for this). Again, see the note on Fess.

[pallet] PALLET: What the Bar is to the Fess, so the Pallet is to the Pale. Pallets are relatively uncommon - I can find no flag featuring them, but the former arms of South Vietnam (the same as the former national flag turned on its side) were Or, three Pallets Gules.

[bend] BEND: A Bend is a broad diagonal stripe from the top left to the bottom right of a shield/flag (as seen from the front), as in the flag of Trinidad and Tobago.
[bend] BEND SINISTER A diagonal band in the opposite direction is a BEND SINISTER, as in the flag of Tanzania. Again, there are smaller versions, analogues of the bar and the pallet, called the BENDLET and the BENDLET SINISTER.

[chevron] CHEVRON: This is another band across a shield, but is in the shape of an inverted letter V. Again, I can find no example of it, or its bendlet/bar/pallet analogue, the CHEVRONEL, in the world of flags.

[cross] CROSS: There are many different forms of cross found in heraldry, so many so that I will probably need a whole section of this dictionary just detailing these varieties. if a charge is simply described as a CROSS, then it is as in the form we know it from flags like the national flags of England and Greece.

[saltire] Similarly, the SALTIRE can be found in many varieties, although it is rare to find it in a form different to the diagonal cross stretching from edge to edge of shield or flag, as in the flag of Scotland or Jamaica.

Other Ordinaries found in heraldry, but rarely encountered in vexillology include the PILE, PALL and SHAKEFORK.

[pile] The PILE is a large filled V shape extending from the very top of the shield/flag to near its foot. Antigua is the only nation I know of to have a flag featuring a Pile, although the shield on the flag of the British Antarctic Territories also contains a Pile.

[pall] [pairle] A PALL is a large Y shape stretching from the edges of a shield, and a SHAKEFORK is similar, but does not reach to the edges. The 'shakefork' is a 'pall couped' with the three ends coming to a road point.

[pennon] Unfortunately, since Heraldic Blazonry was not designed for flags, there are several features common on flags not seen (or named) in Heraldry. These include the triangular area at the hoist - like a Pile turned 90 degrees, seen in such flags as the Czech Republic or Guyana. A blazon might be 'Tierced in Pairle from dexter to sinister Argent Gules and Azure'

We are now at the stage of being able to describe such flags as the following:

  • [Jamaica] Jamaica - Party per Saltire Vert and Sable, a Saltire Or " -  'Saltorel' is the diminutive of a Saltire.
  • [Netherlands] Netherlands - Tierced in Fess, Gules, Argent and Azure
  • [Czechia] Czechia - 'Tierced in Pairle from dexter to sinister Argent Gules and Azure'.
  • [Finland] Finland - 'Argent a Cross offset to dexter Azure'
  • [Nigeria] Nigeria - Vert, a Pale Argent
  • [Libyr] and, of course, Libya - Vert

Editor's Note: This page was originally the result of information sent to FOTW by James Dignan. Until November, 2003, it has was hosted at Željko Heimer's Flags and Arms of the Modern Era webpage. The work is incomplete, but presented as a very basic primer for heraldry. Additional information and corrections by Geoff Kingman-Sugars are in italics, dated 31 December 2003.