Shield Colours and Meanings

The use of shields in the coat of arms became a popular practice in Europe during the High Middle Ages.

Medieval Shields and Heraldry

Medieval Shields and Heraldry The Segar’s Roll

It primarily evolved in response to a need for knights to recognise each other on the battlefield. However, over time, the coat of arms came to be used by the royalty, nobility and the knightly class.

Initially, the coat of arms comprised of a simple symbol on a banner or the surcoat but this gradually expanded to include the full heraldic achievement.

The shield was the central piece of complete heraldic achievement and in this position, it was of vital significance. The size, shape, colour and designs of a shield each signified some quality or trait of the owner.

Shield Colours

A wide range of colours was used in the shields of the coat of arms. In some cases, a plain colour was used as a background and then different-coloured patterns or stripes were used in the foreground. In other cases, multiple background colours could be used.

Coat of Arms Gérard de Ridefort

Coat of Arms Gérard de Ridefort

The background of a shield was termed the “field” upon which further heraldic elements were drawn. The colour of a shield was typically called a “tincture”, so a shield with a single-coloured field was called a single-tincture shield.

Medieval knights coat of arms

Medieval Knights Coat of Arms

When using multiple tinctures on the background of a shield, the field was typically divided into multiple sections which would then each be individually treated.

Knights-Coat-of-Arms-of-the-Duke-of-Beaufort

Shield Colour Categorizations

In general, the colours used on heraldic shields were categorised into three types. These are called metals, furs and colours.

Metals refer to colours that are typically associated with notable metals, such as gold and silver.

Coat of Arms of Elizabeth Woodville

Coat of Arms of Elizabeth Woodville

Colours refer to the regular and most frequently used tinctures in heraldic shields, including shades such as azure, green, purple, black and red. Finally, furs refer to coloured patterns which include ermine and vair.

Coat of Arms Geoffrey of Anjou

Coat of Arms Geoffrey of Anjou

Ermine is the use of powdered black dots on a white field while vair refers to a shield with blue-grey and white colours. These patterns are called furs because they resemble the furs of specific animals.

Medieval Coat of Arms Black Eagle

The black eagle was widely used as a medieval coat of arms

Shield Colour Meanings

Every tincture, or colour, used on a heraldic shield signifies some quality or trait, reflecting the personality or family of the owner. While most colours were generally accorded a universal significance, such as purple which denoted royal majesty, the meaning of most heraldic colours varied from one region of medieval Europe to another.

Some broad generalisations on the meanings of shield colours are as follows

  • White is a colour that signified purity, innocence and sincerity of the owner, often also denoting peace
  • Gold is a colour that reflects grandness in terms of wisdom, glory and the generosity of the owner
  • Green in heraldry frequently symbolises joy, love and an overflowing abundance of well-being
  • Red denoted the warrior-like traits of the owner and his martial strength
  • Purple is a colour of regal majesty and sovereignty, also denoting justice which was the prerogative of the king in the medieval period
  • Black colour signifies wisdom or in some cases, grief; blue signifies truth, chastity and strength