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Heraldic Dictionary: 4. Sub-Ordinaries, part 1

Last modified: 2006-05-06 by phil nelson
Keywords: heraldry |
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There are a group of divisions or objects found on the field of a coat of arms that do not quite count as ordinaries, but which are of too great an importance to merely be described as charges (objects) placed on a background. These are the SUB-ORDINARIES. As Anton Sherwood pointed out, the French have merely two divisions, "pieces" and "meubles" - "pieces" being pieces of the field, ordinaries, anything whose definition depends on its position; and "meubles" being mobile charges. This saves the problem that English Heraldry has where lesser "pieces" and more important "meubles" are called Sub-ordinaries. The exact dividing line at which you can say that an object is a Sub-ordinary is fairly vague, and some of the objects considered as sub-ordinaries by some may be called ordinaries by others. There are a large number of sub-ordinaries - it will take at least two sections of this dictionary to describe them all.


We have already seen the Bend, the Pale, the Pile and the Fess, but there are other sections of a shield which are often used in both heraldry and vexillology. These include:

As their name suggests, the GYRON and the QUARTER are each identical to one of the sections of a coat of arms that is Gyronny or Quarterly.
[gyronny] In the case of Gyron, this is a broad wedge tapering to a point at the centre of the shield and usually forming an angle of 45 degrees. The 45 degrees would only apply in a square flag - it is actually half of a dexter chief quarter that has been parted per bend. If it is more than a Gyrony of eight, the minor angle will be smaller than 45 degrees.
[quarter] A Quarter, of course, occupies one of the quarters of the shield.

Technically, in Heraldry, a CANTON is smaller than a Quarter, and is always located in dexter or sinister chief, It is thus slightly different from the Cantons we know in vexillology, which often occupy one quarter of the flag. However, in its usage, the flag enthusiasts Canton is more like the heraldic Canton than the heraldic Quarter. Whereas a quarter is seen as being a part of the total design of the arms, the Canton is seen to be an addition denoting an AUGMENTATION - a mark of honour or denoting ancestry or noble connection - which sits on top of the design of the flag. Thus the British white naval ensign has a Union Jack obliterating one quarter of the St. George's cross - clearly a Canton, despite its size making it technically a Quarter. The boundary between the Quarter and the Canton is a thin one, and for vexillological purposes, it may be as well to describe them all as Cantons. If an object is described as being IN CANTON, it occurs in the top right of the arms, as seen from the reverse. Heraldically, a Quarter covers one fourth of the field whereas a Canton covers one ninth of the field.

[inencutscheon] An INESCUTCHEON is simply a small shield placed on top of a larger one. As with the Canton, this is often as a mark of Augmentation, although there are many other reasons for its use. The most well-known use of the Inescutcheon in modern flags is probably the flag of Bosnia-Herzegovina: Argent, and Inescutcheon Azure a Bend of the first between six fleurs-de-lys Or. Note: the plural of INESCUTCHEON is often seen as ESCUTCHEONS.

[chief] A CHIEF is similar to a Fess, but whereas a Fess horizontally covers the middle third of a shield, a Chief covers the top third or thereabouts.
[base] Similarly, an horizontal area at the foot of a shield is called a BASE.
In practice, a Base is rare, and is most often seen with a slightly curved top and in Vert, representing land on which some object is standing.
[mount] In this instance, it is often called a MOUNT.
It should be noted that the terms IN CHIEF and IN BASE are very commonly found, referring to positions towards the top and towards the bottom of a shield. Thus the flags of the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island both have, a Chief Gules, a Lion passant guardant Or.

Fairly rare in heraldry, and virtually non-existent in vexillology, are FLANCHES - pairs of curved "shoulders" found on either side of a shield. These are designs such that they reflect the curved sides of the shield, so their use on rectangular, swallowtailed and pennant shaped flags is minimal.


Several types of sub-ordinary are made up of circular objects placed on the field. These are the ANNULET, the CHAPLET and the ROUNDEL.

[annulet] An ANNULET is simply a ring, a circular shape with a central hole.

[chaplet] A CHAPLET is similar to an Annulet, but consists of a circular garland of flowers.

[plate] A ROUNDEL (or ROUNDLE) is a solid coloured circle.

To confuse matters, whereas, say, a green ring would simply be called an Annulet Vert, roundels have different names depending upon their colour, according to the scheme below:

  • [bezant] A Roundel Or is a BEZANT
  • [plate] A Roundel Argent is a PLATE
  • [torteau] A Roundel Gules is a TORTEAU
  • [hurt] A Roundel Azure is a HURT
  • [ogress, pellet or gunstone] A Roundel Sable is an OGRESS, a PELLET or a GUNSTONE
  • [pomme] A Roundel Vert is a POMME or POMEIS
  • [orange] A Roundel Tenne is an ORANGE
  • [golpe] A Roundel Purpure is a GOLPE
  • [guze] A Roundel Sanguine is a GUZE
  • [fountain] Finally, a Roundel Barry-Wavy Argent and Azure is a FOUNTAIN or (rarely) a SYKE

Less formally, it is possible to describe Roundels in the same way as other charges/ordinaries, by simply saying "a Roundel Gules" rather than "a Torteau".
[torteau] A prominent example of a flag featuring a Torteau is the national flag of Japan: Argent, a Torteau.

Editor's Note: This page was originally the result of information sent to FOTW by James Dignan. Until November, 2003, it has was hosted at Željko Heimer's Flags and Arms of the Modern Era webpage. The work is incomplete, but presented as a very basic primer for heraldry. Additional information and corrections by Geoff Kingman-Sugars are in italics, dated 31 December 2003.