Heraldry is a highly symbolic and stylised art with a language all its own. Blazon, or heraldic description, is a combination of Norman French (the language used when heraldry became codified), Anglicised Latin and Old English.
Since the original purpose of the shield of arms was to be clearly recognized across a battlefield or tournament ground, only a limited number of contrasting tinctures (or colors) – namely: Sable (black), Gules (red), Azure (blue), Vert (green), Purpure (purple) - and metals - Argent (silver/white), Or (gold/yellow) - were used for maximum contrast. It is basic rule or heraldry that no color should be on another colour, or a metal on another metal.
The surface of a shield is called the field and it may be all of one colour or have small designs scattered across it. Any design placed on a shield is called a charge. The most widely used charges are simple geometric shapes known as ordinaries. Some common ordinaries are the:
Fess - a wide horizontal stripe dividing a field
Chief - a wide stripe across the top of the field
Bend - a diagonal stripe slanting from top left to bottom right
Bend sinister - a diagonal stripe slanting from top right to bottom left
Bar - a thick horizontal stripe
Pale - a vertical stripe
Chevron - an inverted "V"
Saltire - a diagonal cross
With the growth of heraldry, charges of a more pictorial and symbolic nature were adopted, including birds, lions, boars, leaves, weapons, crescents, stars (called mullets), and scallops (escallops). Practically any object, animate or inanimate, can be and has been used as a heraldic charge.
Once the language has been mastered it is easy to translate such precise heraldic descriptions as Sable a cross Or, which means a golden cross on a black field.
Arms can be used to show marriage alliances, the holding of two or more lordships or the acquiring of important offices by the arms holder. This is done by the practice or marshalling, which takes two forms. Impaling is dividing a shield down the middle and having each side show the original coat of arms in its entirety. Quartering is the division of a shield into two or more parts; an extreme example of this is the coat and crest of Lloyd of Stockton, which contains some 350 quarterings.
Heraldic art is full of wit and humour. Canting is the use of emblems that are puns or rebuses of the name or title. For example, the crest of Sir Edmund Bacon has a decidedly porcine motif and the arms of Sir John Islip show an eye and a man falling from a tree (i.e., eye-slip). The crest that was given to William Shakespeare's father shows a falcon gripping a lance (spear) in one of its talons.