‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be Master — that's all.’
Lewis Carroll (1871). Through the Looking-Glass.
The following aims merely to explain the arcane terms referred to on this site; it is not intended to be a comprehensive glossary of English heraldry. A caveat: the writer is neither an historian nor an expert in heraldry and has cobbled this together from various sources.*
Label: (from Old French, lambel, a strip of cloth) a cadency mark (q.v.): a narrow transverse band with points (pendant vertical tabs) placed in chief (that is, in the uppermost third) of arms. First used in the mid-twelfth century, it is an early cadency mark and remains the only one widely applied in English arms. Five points was usual in early labels, although their number was then arbitrary and without significance. Later three points are presumed, otherwise the number is specified in the blazon. Henceforth, with three points it differenced (differentiated) the arms of an eldest son from those of his father (Fig. 4); on the death of the father the label was removed from the arms of his son. The eldest son of an eldest son — or the eldest son of an eldest daughter, if she had no living brother, that is, she was an heraldic heiress — had a label of five points set on the arms of his then living grandfather. Even so, labels with five points continued to be used in the arms of both younger sons and other grandsons, with small charges added to some or all of the points for further differentiation.
The label is also customarily applied to the crest (Fig. 5) and supporters (q.v.), especially to the neck (when shown as a collar it is blazoned as gorged with a Label …) or chest of any beast or bird thereon.
Tincture (see 3: The rule of tincture): an heraldic colour, metal or fur — the latter are represented as stylized patterns. Charges in their natural colours are blazoned as proper. The colours and metals are:
1. For instance, Japanese mon (紋) emblems serve a similar function to heraldic badges. However with kamon (家紋) and mondokoro (紋所) their display is restricted to members of a family, hence these more closely correspond to both the arms and crests in European heraldry — although the maedate (立物) borne on samurai helmets were the strict equivalents to heraldic crests, except that they served no other purpose but for identification in battle.
2. Etymology. Mullet derives from the Old French term for the charge, molett, but its further etymology is obscure. The often claimed derivation from molette (molette d'éperon) or spur rowel is disputable, since the term was used in blazons long before rowel spurs were introduced to Europe in the thirteenth century. In early arms the mullet and estoile (star) were not distinguished and some depictions of the same arms show either. Later, in a few arms from the late-thirteenth and mid-fourteenth centuries, the pierced charge was even blazoned as rouele/rouwel/rouwell (rowel).
3. The rule of tincture. In arms, the metals (Argent and Or) may not be placed on each other; nor may a colour be placed directly on another colour. The rule does not apply to badges, crests or supporters, but there are other exceptions:
— as were the arms of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem (1099–1291), which had gold crosses on a silver field (blazoned: Argent a Cross potent between four plain Crosslets Or). This is an apt instance of the signifier matching the signified: both were transgressions of civilized order, although only the latter was truly barbarous.
Figure 1: the banner of arms
Azure semé of Mullets of six points appointé Argent.
Figure 2: an earlier form of the arms
A typical form of early blazon:
d'azur poudre a molets d'argent.
Translated into a post-medieval English blazon this would be:
Azure semé of Mullets Argent.
The preponderance of Old French in early blazons is striking, as is the irregularity of spelling, which is often inconsistent even within the same document. Many terms for precise configurations were absent from these blazons; for instance, niceties such as “of six points” and “appointé” were later refinements.
Figure 3: the arms as blazoned
A later form of blazon (describing the accoutrements: crest, mantling etc):
Azure semé of Mullets of six points appointé Argent and for the Crest upon a Helm with a Wreath Argent and Azure out of a Circlet of Chain broken Argent an Eagle wings expanded Or grasping in the talons the Chain Mantled Azure doubled Argent.
Figure 4: an early label: the arms of the Lord Edward (the future Edward I), as heir to Henry III of England
goules trois lupards [leopards] d'or ovecque ung labell d'azur.
Gules three Lions passant guardant in pale Or a Label Azure.
Note: The blazon does not describe the lions as “armed and langued Azure” (with blue claws, fangs and tongues), this was implicit: lions were presumed to be “armed and langued Gules” unless on a field gules (red), in which case, the former was implied. Nor does it set the number of points on the label, these were arbitrary during the period (1239–72) and various renderings of these arms display labels with three or five points.
Without the label, these were the Royal Arms of England from 1198 to 1340, whose first recorded use is in the second Great Seal of Richard I, Cœur de Lion.
Figure 5: a label on a crest
Figure 6: Norman ‘kite’ shields in the Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1077).
Figure 7: the setting-out of a typical late 13th century heraldic shield.
Derived from the Dering Roll (c. 1270–80).