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The Family Crest Colors

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The colors or hues of the shield and its charges are seven in number - gold or yellow, silver or white, red, blue, black, green and purple. Medieval custom gave, according to a rule often broken, "gules," "azure" and "sable" as more high sounding names for the red, blue and black. Green was often named as "vert," and sometimes as "synobill," a word which as "sinople" is used to this day by French armorists.

The song of the siege of Carlaverock and other early documents have red, gules or "vermeil," sable or black, azure or blue, but gules, azure, sable and vert came to be recognized as armorists' adjectives, and an early 15th century romance discards the simple words deliberately, telling us of its hero that:

"His shield was black and blue, sanz fable,
Barred of azure and of sable."

But gold and silver served as the armorists' words for yellows and whites until late in the 16th century, when, gold and silver made way for "or" and "argent," words which those for whom the interest of armory lies in its liveliest days will not be eager to accept. Likewise the colors of "sanguine" and "tenne" brought in by the pedants to bring the tinctures to the mystical number of nine may be disregarded.

A certain armorial chart of the duchy of Brabant, published in 1600, is the earliest example of the practice whereby later engravers have indicated colors in uncolored plates by a powdering of dots; silver is left plain. Azure is shown by horizontal shading lines; gules by upright lines. Diagonal lines from sinister to dexter indicate purple; vert is marked with diagonal lines from dexter to sinister. The practice, in spite of certain convenience, has been disastrous in its cramping effects on armorial art, especially when applied to seals and coins.


Besides the two "metals" and five "colors," fields and charges are varied by the use of the furs ermain and vair. Ermine is shown by a white field flecked with black ermine tails, and vair by a conventional representation of a fur of small skins sewn in rows, white and blue skins alternately. In the 15th century there was a popular variant of ermine, white tails upon a black field. To this fur the books now give the name of "ermins" - a most unfortunate choice, since ermines is a name used in old documents for the original ermine. "Ermines," which has at least a 15th century authority, will serve for those who are not content to speak of "sable ermined with silver." Vair, although silver and blue be its normal form, may be made up of gold, silver or ermine, with sable or gules or vert, but in these latter cases the colors must be named in the blazon. To the vairs and ermines of old use the heraldry books have added "erminois," which is a gold gield with black ermine tails, "pean," which is "erminois" erversed, and "erminites," which is ermine with a single red hair on either side of each black tail. The vairs, mainly by misunderstanding of the various patterns found in old paintings, have been amplified with "countervair," "potent," "counter-potent" and "vair-en-pooint," no one of which merits description.

No shield of a plain metal or color has ever been borne by an Englishman, although the knights at Varlaverock and Falkirk saw Amaneu d'Albret with his banner all of red having no charge thereon. Plain ermine was the shield of the duke of Brittany and no Englishman challenged the bearing. But Beauchamp ofr Hatch bore simple vair, Ferrers of Derby "Vairy gold and gules," and Ward "Vairy silver and sable." Gresley had "Vairy ermine and gules," and Beche "Vairy silver and gules."

Only one English example has hitherto been discovered of a field covered not with a fur but with overlapping feathers. A 15th century book of arms gives "Plumetty of gold and purple" for "Mydlam in Coverdale."

Drops of various colors which variegate certain fields and charges are often mistaken for ermine tails when ancient seals are deciphered. A simple example of such spattering is in the shield of Grayndore, who bore "Party ermine and vert, the vert dropped with gold." Sir Richard le Brun (14th century) bore "Azure a silver lion dropped with gules."

A very common variant of charges and fields is the sowing or "powdering" them with a small charge repeated many times. Mortimer of Norfold bore "gold powdered with fleurs-de-lys sable" and Edward III. quartered for the old arms of France "Azure powdered with fleurs-de-lys gold," such fields being often described as flowered or flory. Golden billets were scattered in Cowdray's red shield, which is blazoned as "Gules billety gold," and bezants in that of Zouche, which is "Gules bezanty with a quarter ermine." The disposition of such charges varied with the users. Zouche as a rule shows ten bezants placed four, three, two and one on his shield, while the old arms of france in the royal coat allows the pattern of flowers to run over the edge, the shield border thus showing halves adn tops and stalk ends of the fleurs-de-lys. But the commonest of these powderings is that with crosslets, as in the arms of John la Warr "Gules crusily silver with a silver lion."