The English authorities began their system of armory with the employment of full body armour. This system set down the rules and the laws that govern the use, display, and meaning of the drawings placed upon the shield, helmet, or banner. The following post will try to outline some basic terms and abbreviations used to record the coat of arms. Hopefully this will help the reader to better understand the description and appearance of the "coat of arms".
The major component is of course the symbol [emblems or charges] place upon the shield. This symbol, like the "lion", is the image that the individual [or family] wanted to represent. In Wales this often came from the concept of the "totem", from which the family would trace their lineage. [It symbolized the special character or strength of the tribe.] The symbol or charge was place upon the shield that had a basic color. In some cases, only a color with special shapes would be used. [The previous post show these symbols for the surname JONES before 1840.]
There were some basic rules and principles which pertain to the use of colors and figures upon a shield. Only five colors [tinctures] are allowed. These are:
1) red, "gules", abbreviated gu.
2) blue, "azure", az.
3) black, "sable", sa.
4) green, "vert", vert.
5) purple, "purpure", purp.
There are also two metals used:
1) gold, "or", or.
2) silver, "argent", ar.
In addition, there are symbols for animal furs based on the weasel, called "ermines":
1) ermine (white field with black spots)
2) ermines (black field with white spots)
3) erminois (gold field with black spots).
You can imagine how complicated it becomes, but basically, color is not placed on another color, nor metal on metal. A "charge" of one color [like red, blue, or green] is not placed upon another color, only a metal [ gold or silver]. Thus, a "gold" [metal] lion, can not be place upon a "silver" [metal] shield. Likewise, a "blue" [color] lion can not be place on a "red"[color] shield.
The steps in describing a coat of arms are as follows:
first : name the field, i.e. the background color or metal of the shield,
second: name the principle charge, i.e. the special symbol or arrangement place upon the background color,
third: name lesser charges on the field (if any),
fourth: name any lesser devices (symbols) place on the principle charge.
Read the following arms: "or. a lion ramp az."?
It would be, a blue lion [rampant = standing] placed upon a gold shield.
Let's try another: "ar. a lion ramp sa."?
It would be, a black lion [standing], on a blue shield.
A complete description of Heraldry is given in the glossary starting on p. xxviii, of Burke's General Armory.
The following post has been summarized from, The Jones Genealogist, Vol. VII, No. 2, July/August, 1995.