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Castles & knights


Knights distinguished by their coats of armsKnights distinguished by their coats of armsKnights looked the same when clad in full armour. So, to ensure they were not attacked by their own men, or so that they could be easily identified at a tournament, the knights decorated their shield, armour—and sometimes even their horse—with the distinctive design of their own noble family, called arms. The surcoat a knight wore over his armour became known as his coat of arms. The design was contained within the shape of a shield. The system used for designing and recording these coats of arms was called heraldry.

Colours and patterns

Colours used in heraldry were either metals—or (gold) and argent (silver or white)—or tinctures: azure (blue), gules (red), purpure (purple), sable (black) and vert (green). The simplest designs were called ordinaries. These could be divided, subdivided, or varied by having their edges patterned.A chart of heraldic colours and patternsA chart of heraldic colours and patterns

A coat of arms (top); divided shields (above)A coat of arms (top); divided shields (above)

Rules of heraldry

Complex patterns, such as furs and semés, were also used. Pictorial symbols, called charges, were frequently added. They often had meanings associated with the person who bore the arms. A rule of heraldry was that a metal charge could only be placed on a tincture field (background), or a tincture charge on a metal field. When noble families became linked by marriage, the escutcheon (the heraldic shield) was divided between the two coats of arms. When their children married, the shield was divided again, or quartered.

A person entitled to use a coat of arms was called an armiger. At first, only kings, nobles or knights were armigers. Later, towns, guilds and important citizens could be granted coats of arms.

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