In the past, heraldry was the art form used to identify military and arms bearers; now it is used to fulfil our inherent desire to 'belong' somewhere, to be an essential member of something significant, by proudly displaying the coat of arms of our kinfolk.
This page doesn't attempt to cover even a rudimentary history of heraldry; rather it focusses instead on heraldry's most common element, the cross, which appears in a dazzling range of shapes and designs.
Heraldry was employed in the feudal ages to display the exploits of chivalry, and to reward as well as commemorate triumphs over perceived oppression and violence. Amidst the imperfections of uncultivated eloquence and a general ignorance of written language, the ensigns of heraldry were peculiarly significant and became a symbolical language of Europe.
Today heraldry is used by what has now become non-military, such as family crests, colleges, Masonic lodges, ecclesiastical heraldry), etc. A Heraldic Cross can be any of the designs shown in our cross reference.
The original reason for marking a symbol on a shield or clothing was to recognise which side the warrior was on. A single colour and/or shape would have sufficed in most situations. These identification markings were later enhanced to show the rank of the bearer, and it wasn't long before logos became popular.
One such logo was the cross, especially for Franks fighting in the Crusades, which puts the cross as one of the earliest heraldic ensigns. Military divisions would distinguish themselves with specific variations and/or colours of the cross.
In Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, published in 1590, is a description of the breastplate and shield of St. George, borne in remembrance of Christ's suffering on the Cross:
"But on his brest a bloudie1 Crosse he bore,
The deare remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead as liuing euer him ador'd:
Vpon his shield the like was also scor'd,"
Nobody doubts the legendry St George was a God-fearing man and Spenser's epic poem uses suitably endearing language2. It is perhaps a similarly endearing idea that all Crusaders were devout Christians, who somehow felt it was God's will that they should go out and kill people (Saracens, Pagans, Jews and even fellow Christians) and grab their possessions.
Whether the motive was religious, economic or political, the fact remains that they needed something that would identify which side they were on. And the Crusaders' logo was the cross.
As mentioned, there are innumerable designs, some being more popular than others.
When the arms of the cross extend to the edge of the shield (quartered or throughout3), it loses some of its identity as a cross, and acts more like a device to divide the shield into four quarters. To retain its identity, therefore, the cross arms are often shortened (humetty).
There are several descriptive terms which can be used for the different forms. For example fitched means the lower arm of the cross is pointed – shaped like a sword so it can be thrust or fixed into the ground as a makeshift shrine or marker.
The cross on the right is named as a St. James's Cross in a religious context but adopts a French-inspired name, fitched, when used in heraldry. Even colours have heraldic names (red = gules) and since each arm is floriated, we could call this cross a Fleuried Fitched Gules Cross (or with some other permutation of the adjectives).
Welcome to the muddled world of heraldry!
Things have become even move confuddled over the past couple of centuries. What once started life as a basic Pattée Cross, for example, might have been enhanced over the years to become something quite different, but the name tag remains unchanged as "Pattée".
Why say 'fitched' when we mean 'pointed'?
Because that's the way it is.
Heraldic vocabulary and syntax tends to be French or French-like, historically because today's heraldry stems from the Renaissance period when French was de rigueur. Even now it sounds more authentic if we use posh words.
Alternative spellings of fitched are fitchy and the French fichée. Many heraldic terms have alternative spellings, which is NOT designed to flummox the uninitiated. There is no secret society of heraldologists who want to keep their subject known to just an elite few. On the contrary; the whole point of heraldry is to advertise.
Heraldry took off in the Middle Ages in France at a time when there was little consensus of spelling (in French or English). Who knows, maybe the fitchy cross, which is fixed into the ground, was originally fixy, and the spelling mistake has been fixed ever since.
Other Heraldic Crosses
Most cross names are self-explanatory, for example the Fleur-de-lis Cross.
See Alphabetical Index of Crosses for a complete list. Well OK, maybe the list is not complete, but we have over 2,000 entries so there's a good chance you'll find what you're looking for.
The number of different heraldic ordinaries and charges fill several volumes of heraldic reference books, some of which no doubt are featured in the random advertisements placed on this page by Google Ads.
See All Cross Images for several hundred designs in our Cross Reference.
|1:||bloudie = "blood red". Spenser was notorious for inventing new vocabulary.|
|2:||... unlike Marriott Edgar's monologue George and the Dragon ...!|
|3:||Arms are extended throughout, to the edge of the field.|