Understanding the Art of Hearldry

A diagram identifying the components of a coat of arms.
A diagram identifying the components of a coat of arms.

Most fans of the popular Game of Thrones television show and book series can tell you the sigil of House Stark and the motto of the Lannister family, but did you know that your own family might have similar identifying emblems? Heraldry, which is the practice of designing, displaying, describing, and recording coats of arms and heraldic badges, does not exist solely in fantasy fiction, but actually dates back over 900 years and is still in use today.

Special Collections is home to the Temple Heraldry Collection which consists of more than 1200 bound volumes, has texts ranging from as early as 1572, all the way up until the modern era. The original gift of 700 pieces was donated to the University Libraries by Col. Harry D. Temple, who graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1934. While a majority of texts relate to British heraldry, the collection is constantly being expanded to include works on the heraldry of other nations, such as France, Germany, Poland, Russia, and Spain. Also included are works on related topics of arms and armor, flags, uniforms, and military decorations. These materials are listed in the University Libraries’ online catalog system.

The origins of heraldry stretch back into ancient times. Warriors often decorated their shields with patterns and mythological motifs. Army units of the Roman Empire were identified by the distinctive markings on their shields. These were not heraldic in the medieval sense, as they were associated with military units, not individuals or families. Truly heraldic devices seem to have been first used in Europe during the reign of Charlemagne (768814 AD).

The emergence of heraldry as we know it today was linked to the need to distinguish participants quickly and easily in combat. Distinguishing devices were used on coats of arms, shields, and caparisoned horses, and it would have been natural for knights to use the same devices as those already used on their banners and seals. A formal system of rules developed into ever more complex forms of heraldry to ensure that each knight’s arms were unique (at least within the same jurisdiction).

The system of blazoning arms that is used in English-speaking countries today was developed by the officers of arms in the Middle Ages. This includes a stylized description of the escutcheon (shield), the crest, and, if present, supporters, mottoes, and other insignia. Understanding heraldic rules, most importantly the Rule of Ticture, is the key to the art of heraldry. In the Temple Collection are several encyclopedic texts that offer descriptions of family crests. By following the guidelines of heraldry, one would be able to create a visual representation from the written outline.

Does your familys moniker depict a dragon symbolizing that you are Valiant defender of treasure? Or perhaps a stag to show that you are One who will not fight unless provoked? It is orange to represent your familys ambition or blue, showing that you value truth and loyalty? Every aspect of a coat of arms is symbolic, from the coloring and patterns, to the shapes and layout.

Corps of Cadets Coat of Arms
VT University Seal
VT University Seal

Heraldry flourishes in the modern world; institutions, companies, and private persons continue using coats of arms as their pictorial identification. Members of the VT community will likely recognize the official coat of arms of the Corps of Cadets, shown here. Designed in 1965 by Col. Harry D. Temple when he was commanding officer of the Army’s Institute of Heraldry, the coat of arms was granted to the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets by the U.S. Army. The symbols are as follows:

  • Flaming grenade = preparation for war
  • Four gold stars = four major wars in which Tech cadets had fought before 1965 (Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Korean War)
  • Laurel wreath = the presidential citation given to the cadet band for Spanish-American War service
  • Color red = strength and courage
  • Sword = command

Similarly, the University has an official seal containing a shield divided into four quadrants depicting the obverse side of the Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the surveyor’s level and leveling rod superimposed over a scroll, a partially husked standing ear of corn, and a chemical retort and graduate. Above the shield is the left side of the flaming lamp of learning with a right hand suspended above it. Created in 1896 and officially adopted by the board of visitors in 1963, the seal has remained unchanged (with the exception of the name of the institution and the alteration of the commonwealth portion) for more than 11 decades and reflects the agricultural/mechanical emphasis in the Virginia Tech curriculum during its first century.

Special Collections is open to researchers looking to better understand the symbolism of coats of arms connected with particular family names, churches, universities, fraternal orders and organizations, as well as those who simply wish to learn more about the governing rules of the art form and design a crest of personal meaning.