Arms of Mössingen, Germany


Granted 1952

Blazon: Sable a bend wavy between in chief three escutcheons in pile argent, charged with 1 three antlers fesswise in pale, 2 two quarters, and 3 an eagle displayed of the field; in base a fountain of the second

The bend wavy represents the river Steinlach, while the fountain represents the local sulfur springs. The tinctures, as well as the second of the escutcheons in the dexter chief, refer to the house of Hohenzollern, which ruled the city until the early 15th century, when it was mortgaged to the house of Württemberg. The two houses continued fighting over the territory until 1441, when Württemberg finally won out. (Their arms are displayed on the first escutcheon in the dexter chief.) The final escutcheon shows the arms of Fürstenberg, and the arrangement of the three escutcheons represents the nearby mountain Dreifürstenstein, which borders the three territories of Hohenzollern, Württemberg, and Fürstenberg. There are also some representations of the arms that only show three escutcheons, without the details depicted here, which, though incomplete, would have been considerably easier to blazon.



Arms of Hamon Bonet

Hamon Bonet

From the Dering Roll (c. 1270-1300)

Blazon: Chequy gules and or a chief azure

The Bonets were a family of knights hailing from Sussex. In addition to Hamon, we also have records of a Sir Robert Bonet as owning Wappingthorn Manor in Steyning. The family continued to hold the manor until the mid-1360s, when it passed to the Wilcombe family, who had married into the Bonets. By 1399, the Wilcombes had lost possession of Wappingthorn to the Codingtons, though it was back with Alice Wilcombe and her husband John Leeds by 1427.

Arms of France moderne

France moderne

In use 1376 – 1804

Blazon: Azure three fleurs-de-lis or

In an effort to double down on the Catholic symbolism of the French national arms, Charles V of France reduced the number of fleurs-de-lis on the arms from undefined but large (blazoned as semé, or “strewn”) to three. This was an allusion to the Trinity as well as the Virgin Mary; the lily is one of her symbols. Napoleon discarded the former royal arms when he became emperor in 1804, and though the three fleurs-de-lis were briefly restored along with the Bourbons in 1814, they did not survive the July Monarchy. The traditional supporters of the arms of France were two angels proper.

What is the True Use of Arms?

The title of Wyrley’s text necessarily begs the question: what is the true use of arms? What is their purpose? What, exactly, is the point of this entire discipline? (Full disclosure: this is a question near and dear to my heart, as evidenced by a passionate, if not particularly well-written, graduate paper I completed titled “What Is Heraldry For?”) Later on, we’ll get into the how of heraldry, and the ways in which Wyrley asserts that arms should be used, but for now, let’s take a look at the question implied by his title.

We can find the short answer to this question on the very first page, where Wyrley addresses his text to “the professors of martiall discipline.” (1) His argument, here and in the rest of the text, is going to be couched in explicitly militaristic terms. He begins by laying out a tiered argument for the necessity of heraldry: war is (sometimes) necessary and just, therefore it needs to be conducted as effectively as possible; wars are fought by people, often in large groups, who need to be able to identify each other and their leaders in order to be effective combatants, therefore they need a simple, easy-to-read system of identification, preferably in multiple forms (eg. the tabard, shield, and crest). (4-5) I appreciate that Wyrley doesn’t assume any of these precepts. He takes the time to go through each point, even briefly, to make sure his argument for the purpose of arms as markers of identity is on solid ground.  

This is, so far, not a particularly controversial or unique stance. Virtually all heraldic texts from pretty much every era emphasize the military origins of arms and their use in identifying virtually identically clad combatants. What I find fascinating about Wyrley is how he draws out the implicit assumption in that historical fact: arms are for everyday people, in the person of “the meanest & simplest common Soldier.” (4) Armory does not have a point, and in fact, is borderline illegitimate if it is not easily legible to someone who doesn’t know a fess from a pale. Arms that do not fulfill this cardinal purpose are hardly deserving of the name.

Take Wyrley’s screed against quartering as an example. It’s fairly common for heraldic writers of this period to condemn overly-quartered shields. Wyrley’s “thirty or forty” quarters isn’t an exaggeration; I’ve seen coats with dozens of quarters. (7) Again, though, Wyrley couches his objections to quartering in terms of legibility to common people. The problem with quartered arms isn’t (just) that they are foolish or vain; it’s that they’re hard to read. Nobles who prioritize their assertion of multiple titles over the ability of their followers to identify them end up with confusing arms, of which Wyrley says, “I see not to any use in the world they serve.” (8)

His objections to the English system of differencing follow much the same pattern. He’s not against the idea of differencing per se, but he advocates large, easily visible changes to arms instead of the tiny markers commonly used in English heraldry. He engages in a few scare tactics on this topic, citing an unnamed author’s account of a company of soldiers confusing one brother’s banner for another’s and subsequently being slaughtered. It’s unclear whether this actually happened, but again, we see the emphasis on the common soldier as the intended audience of arms. (13)

For obvious reasons, heraldry typically tends to center around the upper classes and nobility – the people who own enough land and/or money to command soldiers in battle. But Wyrley repeatedly insists on the lower classes as the ultimate audience for armory. The fact that they belong to nobles is almost incidental. I haven’t run across this particular take on the subject before, and I think it merits notice (if maybe not necessarily credit.) Next week, we’ll consider differencing, genealogy, and how it has always been better in the Old Days.

Arms of Torralba de Calatrava, Spain

Torralba de Calatrava

Granted 1975

Blazon: Per fess argent a cross of Calatrava gules and azure a tower of the first

Whatever kind of shade some ancient writers throw on canting arms, I love them. It’s like all the best parts of puns and linguistics put together! It’s especially satisfying when every element of the arms matches a component of the name in question. The “de Calatrava” clearly corresponds to the cross of Calatrava, from the military order that occupied much of the south of Spain during Reconquista. The first part of the name is covered in the base half of the arms – “torre alba” being a rather poetic way of saying “white tower” in Spanish. It’s possible the white tower in question is a direct reference to the town’s old fortress (which had a church built on it more than 500 years ago), but that’s pure speculation.

Arms of Donnersbach, Austria


Granted 1979

Blazon: Azure a chief gules, the partition line surmounted by five thunderbolts or

The arms are intended to be canting, with the azure field representing “bach,” or water, and the thunderbolts representing “donner,” or lightning. (While thunderbolts are usually drawn as zigzag lines terminating in arrowheads, they are also sometimes rendered as bundles of lightning, as here. I believe these are intended to be more similar to the linked depiction.)

History of the US Flag

I know this blog has a very specific focus on European heraldry, but it’s good to branch out sometimes, right? I thought I’d take a quick dip into the semi-related field of vexillology in honor of US Independence Day, and look at the evolution of the United States flag.

During the Revolutionary War, various commanders and militia groups flew their own flags. The Gadsden flag was used by the Continental Navy starting in December 1775, possibly borrowing the symbolism and motto from the flag of the Culpeper Minutemen, established earlier that year. The rattlesnake was a fairly common symbol of the colonies, being both a native and extremely dangerous animal. The pine tree also appears pretty frequently, in both the Continental flag reportedly used at Bunker Hill and the eponymous Pine Tree Flag used by a small naval squadron under George Washington’s direct authority as well as the Massachusetts state navy.

Once the Second Continental Congress got properly up and running, they adopted the Grand Union Flag, possibly based on the flag of the British East India Company. If you take a look at that first link, you’ll notice the red saltire is missing from the Grand Union’s version of the British flag; it wasn’t added until Ireland joined the UK in 1801, and by then, the US flag had moved on. Putting the then-contemporary British Union Flag in the canton seems like an odd choice for a country trying to declare independence, but both Massachusetts and New York had been doing the same thing.

The Grand Union flag lasted for about two years before the Second Continental Congress adopted the first stars-and-stripes pattern in 1777, consisting of “thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” It’s not entirely clear where the stars came from. There’s a legend that they were adapted from the Washington coat of arms (argent two bars, in chief three molets of five points gules), but this seems unlikely. While the cult of personality that grew up around George Washington, especially after his death, could get pretty intense, the widespread cultural disdain for monarchy in early US history makes me doubt that they would adapt an individual’s personal arms for a national flag.

In 1795, two additional stars and stripes were added to represent the new states of Vermont and Kentucky. The fifteen stripes persisted until 1818, when Congress decided to add a new star for every state, but also to revert to 13 stripes for the original colonies. While the pattern of one new star per state has been consistent throughout US history, I find it fascinating that the specific arrangement of the stars wasn’t set until 1912. Throughout the 1800s, we see a wide variation of star arrangements – I think my personal favorites are the Great Star flags, though the snowflake is also pretty neat.

(Quick tangent – this is why describing the positioning of charges is so important in blazon. “Thirteen molets of five points, 3, 2, 3, 2, 3” is not the same as “a circle of thirteen molets of five points,” and writing only “thirteen molets” doesn’t help other heralds, artists, and historians distinguish between the cases.)

The last change to the flag was made in 1960, when the 50th star was added for Hawaii, making the current design the longest-lasting in US history at 59 years. Both Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have held statehood votes in the past few years, and American Samoa also explored the possibility of becoming a state, so a 51-star design may be necessary someday.