Rule of tincture

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Arms of FitzAlan (c.1200-1215): Gules, a lion rampant or, metal on colour, a basic and ancient illustration of the application of the rule of tincture FitzAlan arms.svg
Arms of FitzAlan (c.1200–1215): Gules, a lion rampant or, metal on colour, a basic and ancient illustration of the application of the rule of tincture

The most basic rule of heraldic design is the rule of tincture: metal should not be put on metal, nor colour on colour (Humphrey Llwyd, 1568). This means that the heraldic metals or and argent (gold and silver, represented by yellow and white) should not be placed on each other, nor may any of the colours (i.e. azure, gules, sable, vert and purpure, along with some other rarer examples) be placed on another colour. Heraldic furs (i.e. ermine, vair and their variants) as well as "proper" (a charge coloured as it normally is in nature although that may be as defined by heralds) are exempt from the rule of tincture.


The rule seems to have operated from the inception of the age of heraldry, i.e. about 1200–1215, but seemingly was never written down. It was rather deduced by later commenters as a rule which must have existed, based on the evidence it produced. Although the vast majority of coats of arms ever used across the whole of Europe follow the rule, a very few coats which contravened the rule were borne in the mediaeval era by certain families or corporate bodies for many centuries without effective censure by the heraldic authorities. [1] The reason for the original contraventions [2] and for the toleration of them is unknown, although in the case of the arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, clearly extremely high status was involved.

The coat of arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, blazoned, "Argent, a cross potent between four plain crosses or", a well-known contravention of the "metal on metal" rule of tincture. Arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.svg
The coat of arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, blazoned, "Argent, a cross potent between four plain crosses or", a well-known contravention of the "metal on metal" rule of tincture.


The main duty of a heraldic device is to be easily recognisable. Certain tincture pairs are difficult to distinguish when placed atop or over each other. Specifically, a dark colour is very difficult to distinguish if it is placed on top of another dark colour, and likewise a light metal is very difficult to distinguish on top of the other light metal. Though this is the practical genesis of the rule, the rule is technical and appearance is not used in determining whether arms conform to the rule. Another reason sometimes given to justify this rule is that it was difficult to paint with enamel (colour) over enamel, or with metal over metal.[ citation needed ]

Lawful exceptions

The rule of tincture does not apply to furs, nor to charges blazoned "proper" (displayed in their natural colour, which need not be a normal heraldic tincture). [3] The blazoning of a charge “proper” is not a loophole when its natural coloration equates to or approaches another heraldic tincture. When an animal, plant, weapon, or any other object appears in colours perceived to be their natural colours, they must always be blazoned as proper. Hugh Clark’s An Introduction to Heraldry states that “In the blazoning of charges, be they of what nature or kind soever, whether animate or inanimate, if you perceive them to be of the natural and proper colours of the creatures or things they represent, you must always term them proper, and not argent, or, gules, or by the like terms of this science.” [4] As such, if the blazon for the historical coat of arms of Samogitia were to term the black bear as “a black bear proper,” a colour on colour violation would not exist by the bear appearing on a field gules. Another example would be a white horse proper, since without breaking the rule of no metal on metal it could be placed on a field Or (gold), but a horse argent (silver horse), although visually indistinguishable, could not.

Furs and charges blazoned as proper can be placed on colour, metal, fur, or charges blazoned as proper.

The coat of arms of Szczecin, Poland, blazoned as, "Azure, a griffin gules, armed and crowned or" POL Szczecin COA.svg
The coat of arms of Szczecin, Poland, blazoned as, "Azure, a griffin gules, armed and crowned or"

The rule of tincture does not apply, as well, when a charge is described in heraldic tinctures and those heraldic tinctures include both colour and metal. Fox-Davies wrote that “A charge composed of more than one tincture, that is, of a metal and colour, may be placed upon a field of either.” [5] As such, while the coat of arms of Szczecin, Poland appears to violate the colour on colour rule, it instead adheres to the exceptions to the rule of tinctures - as long as the griffin’s head is blazoned proper, or it is blazoned in tinctures so that the arms (beak) are termed Or (gold), the charge may lawfully appear on a field of either colour or metal.

The rule of tincture does not apply in regards to the arms (claws and tongue) of beasts of prey, and presumably to the arms of birds of prey, as well. Fox-Davies wrote that “A lion rampant and any other beast of prey is usually represented in heraldry with the tongue and claws of a different colour from the animal. If it is not itself gules, its tongue and claws are usually represented as of that colour, unless the lion [or beast of prey] be on a field of gules. They are then represented azure, the term being ‘armed and langued’ of such and such a colour.” [5] Hugh Clark’s An Introduction to Heraldry states the same, yet in more depth. [4]

The rule of tincture does not apply when a colour which represents a metal in heraldry, such as white representing argent, is blazoned as the colour and not as the metal. Fox-Davies wrote that “the distinction between white and silver is marked, and a white label upon a gold lion is not metal upon metal.” The same is true of a white charge upon an argent charge, when blazoned as such, even though argent is depicted as white in heraldry. [5]

Simple divisions of the field are considered to be beside each other, not one on top of the other; so the rule of tincture does not apply. In practice, however, fields divided into multiple partitions, such as barry or checky, use (with extremely rare exceptions) an alternating pattern of metal and colour for adjacent units.

Coat of arms of the Sitwell family, blazoned as "Barry of eight or and vert, three lions rampant sable". Blazon of Sitwell Baronets (1808).svg
Coat of arms of the Sitwell family, blazoned as "Barry of eight or and vert, three lions rampant sable".

The rule also does not apply to charges placed upon party-coloured (divided) or patterned fields; a field party or patterned of a colour and metal may have a charge of either colour, metal, or party or patterned, placed on it (and there is a small body of precedent that a field party of two colours or two metals may have a charge or charges of either colour, metal, or party or patterned on it; examples of this certainly exist [6] ). Likewise, a party-coloured (of colour and metal) charge may be placed on either a colour or metal background. Neither does the rule apply to the tongue, horns, claws, hoofs of beasts (for instance, a lion Or on an azure field could be langued [with his tongue] gules) when of a different tincture than the rest of the animal, or other parts of charges that are "attached" to them; for instance, a ship sable on an Or field may have argent sails as the sails are considered to be attached on the ship rather than charged on the field.

One important distinction, according to Fox-Davies, is that the rule of tincture also does not apply to crests or supporters, except in such cases as the crest or supporter itself is treated as a field and charged with one or more objects. [7] For instance, a gold collar about the neck of an argent supporter is common, but if eagle wings are used as a crest and charged with a trefoil (such as the coat of arms of Brandenburg), the trefoil must conform to the rule of tincture.

Another apparent violation that is not regarded as such is the "very uncommon" practice of a bordure of the same tincture of the field being blazoned as "embordured"; while well known in former times this is unusual in the extreme today. [8] How technical the rule is can be seen by the fact that if this were blazoned as Gules... a bordure of the field..., though of identical appearance, it would be considered a blatant violation.

The colours bleu celeste and the U.S. Institute of Heraldry-invented buff have sometimes been treated (with respect to the rule of tincture) as if they are metals, though such a treatment is certainly of debatable propriety.[ citation needed ]

Marks of cadency (whether bordures, [9] the marks of the English cadency system, or any other mark), and presumably marks of distinction, can be exceptions to this rule. For example, many members of the French royal house had a red border or bend against the blue field. [10] Also, in Great Britain, cantons added to indicate baronetcy of Ulster (argent, a hand couped gules) ignore this rule; otherwise they could be displayed by no one with a metal field. Augmentations and abatements do not have to conform to the rule.

Another violation which is usually not worried about is a green mount on a blue field representing the sky, and some of the methods of depicting the sea, waves or the like are similarly treated. A green trimount also appears in the coat of arms of Hungary (shown below). In this case the field is gules (red); the rule of tincture should therefore exclude this use of a vert (green) trimount. Instead, there is a trimount vert used in violation of the rule. However, it has been argued by some that the mount vert or trimount issues from the base of the shield rather than being a charge on it, causing the rule not to apply.[ citation needed ]

Fimbriation, the surrounding of a charge by a thin border, can obviate what would otherwise be a violation of the rule, as in the Union Jack (which, although a flag rather than a shield, was designed using heraldic principles). The divise, a thin band running underneath the chief in French heraldry, can also obviate a violation, as can the parallel fillet in English heraldry.


This rule is so closely followed that arms that violate it are called armes fausses (false arms) or armes à enquérir (arms of enquiry); any violation is presumed to be intentional, to invite the viewer to ask how it came to pass.

Metal on metal

One of the most famous armes à enquérir (often erroneously said to be the only example) was the Jerusalem cross said to have been chosen by Godfrey of Bouillon [11] in 1099 (pre-heraldic and thus strictly speaking attributed arms) and later used by his brother Baldwin of Boulogne when he was made King of Jerusalem. These attributed arms of "Argent, a cross potent between four plain crosslets or", displayed five gold crosses on a silver field. A use of metal on metal is also seen on the Bishop's mitre in the arms of Andorra and in the arms of the county of Trøndelag in Norway, based on the arms of St. Olav as described in the Sagas of Snorri. It may indicate the exceptional holy and special status of this particular coat of arms.

Colour on colour

Arms of Le Viste: Gules, on a bend azure three crescents argent, tapestry of The Lady and the Unicorn (Paris, c.1500) The Lady and the unicorn Smell.jpg
Arms of Le Viste: Gules, on a bend azure three crescents argent, tapestry of The Lady and the Unicorn (Paris, c.1500)
Arms of Denys of Siston, Gloucestershire (14th-18th c.): Gules, three leopard's faces or jessant-de-lys azure over all a bend engrailed of the third. The bend is a "colour on colour" and thus contravenes the rule of tincture Denys OfGloucestershire Arms.png
Arms of Denys of Siston, Gloucestershire (14th-18th c.): Gules, three leopard's faces or jessant-de-lys azure over all a bend engrailed of the third. The bend is a "colour on colour" and thus contravenes the rule of tincture

An example of "colour on colour" is the arms of Albania, with its two-headed eagle sable on a field gules. However, some writers in Central and Eastern European heraldry consider sable to have properties of both a metal and a colour, [13] not exclusively a colour as it is in Western Europe, so that black-on-colour combinations are not uncommon.

This rule is perhaps most often violated by a chief, leading some commentators to question whether the rule should apply to a chief, or even whether a chief should be considered a charge at all rather than a division of the field. These violations usually occur in the case of landscape heraldry and augmentations. French civic heraldry, with its frequent chiefs of France (i.e. "Azure, three fleurs-de-lys or", anciently "Azure, semée-de-lys or"), often violates this rule when the field is of a colour. The coat of arms appearing on the famous tapestry of The Lady and the Unicorn (Paris, c.1500) [14] was attributed until now by specialistes to the older branch and to the chief of the family Le Viste, Jean IV Le Viste, but it blatantly breaks the rules of French Heraldry. A new study of the tapestry suggests the probability of the intervention of a descendant of the younger branch, Antoine II Le Viste, as a sponsor of the tapestry, and indicates that the incorrect superposition of colours could have been a mere difference. [15] An example of a contravention from medieval England quoted by John Gibbon in 1682 is the arms of Denys of Siston, Gloucestershire, "Gules, three leopard's faces or jessant-de-lys azure over all a bend engrailed of the third". [16] A modern contravention of the rule is in the arms of Harvard Law School, "Azure, a chief gules".


In French heraldry, the term cousu ("sewn") is sometimes in blazon used to get around what would otherwise be a violation of the rule; though this is used generally, occasionally a distinction is drawn between the cousu of colour on colour and the soudé ("soldered") of metal on metal, though this has fallen from fashion to a large degree. In Italian heraldry terms such as per inchiesta are used in the blazons of the extremely rare violations of the rule, to acknowledge their exceptionality or impropriety. [17] [ citation needed ]

Modern design principle

The rule of tincture has had an influence reaching far beyond heraldry. It has been applied to the design of flags, so that the flag of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach was modified to conform to the rule. [18] Pragmatically, it is a useful rule of thumb for the design of logos, icons and other symbols.

Related Research Articles

Heraldry Profession, study, or art of creating, granting and blazoning arms and ruling on questions of rank or protocol

Heraldry is a discipline relating to the design, display and study of armorial bearings, as well as related disciplines, such as vexillology, together with the study of ceremony, rank and pedigree. Armory, the best-known branch of heraldry, concerns the design and transmission of the heraldic achievement. The achievement, or armorial bearings usually includes a coat of arms on a shield, helmet and crest, together with any accompanying devices, such as supporters, badges, heraldic banners and mottoes.

Gules Tincture of red in heraldry

In heraldry, gules is the tincture with the colour red. It is one of the class of five dark tinctures called "colours", the others being azure (blue), sable (black), vert (green) and purpure (purple).

In heraldry, tenné is a "stain", or non-standard tincture, of orange, light brown or orange-tawny colour.

Tincture (heraldry) Metal, colour, or fur used in heraldic design

Tincture is the limited palette of colours and patterns used in heraldry. The need to define, depict, and correctly blazon the various tinctures is one of the most important aspects of heraldic art and design.

Division of the field

In heraldry, the field (background) of a shield can be divided into more than one area, or subdivision, of different tinctures, usually following the lines of one of the ordinaries and carrying its name. Shields may be divided this way for differencing or for purposes of marshalling, or simply for style. The lines that divide a shield may not always be straight, and there is a system of terminology for describing patterned lines, which is also shared with the heraldic ordinaries. French heraldry takes a different approach in many cases from the one described in this article.

Variation of the field Heraldic term

In heraldry, variations of the field are any of a number of ways that a field may be covered with a pattern, rather than a flat tincture or a simple division of the field.

Bleu celeste Tincture

Bleu celeste is a rarely occurring and non-standard tincture in heraldry. This tincture is sometimes also called ciel or simply celeste. It is depicted in a lighter shade than the range of shades of the more traditional tincture azure, which is the standard blue used in heraldry.

Ordinary (heraldry)

In heraldry, an ordinary is a simple geometrical figure, bounded by straight lines and running from side to side or top to bottom of the shield. There are also some geometric charges known as subordinaries, which have been given lesser status by some heraldic writers, though most have been in use as long as the traditional ordinaries. Diminutives of ordinaries and some subordinaries are charges of the same shape, though thinner. Most of the ordinaries are theoretically said to occupy one-third of the shield; but this is rarely observed in practice, except when the ordinary is the only charge.

Torse Exterior ornament of the shield, depicted as a roll of fabric laid about the top of helmet and base of crest

In heraldry, a torse or wreath is a twisted roll of fabric laid about the top of the helmet and the base of the crest. It has the dual purpose of masking the join between helm and crest, and of holding the mantling in place.

In heraldry, sable is the tincture black, and belongs to the class of dark tinctures, called "colours". In engravings and line drawings, it is sometimes depicted as a region of crossed horizontal and vertical lines, or else marked with sa. as an abbreviation.


In heraldry and vexillology, fimbriation is the placement of small stripes of contrasting colour around common charges or ordinaries, usually in order for them to stand out from the background, or perhaps just because the designer felt it looked better, or for a more technical reason to avoid what would otherwise be a violation of the rule of tincture. While fimbriation almost invariably applies to both or all sides of a charge, there are very unusual examples of fimbriation on one side only. Another rather rare form is double fimbriation, where the charge or ordinary is accompanied by two stripes of colour instead of only one. In cases of double fimbriation the outer colour is blazoned first. The municipal flag of Mozirje, in Slovenia, show an example of fimbriation that itself is fimbriated.

Ermine (heraldry) "fur", or varied tincture, in heraldry

Ermine in heraldry is a "fur", a type of tincture, consisting of a white background with a pattern of black shapes representing the winter coat of the stoat. The linings of medieval coronation cloaks and some other garments, usually reserved for use by high-ranking peers and royalty, were made by sewing many ermine furs together to produce a luxurious white fur with patterns of hanging black-tipped tails. Due largely to the association of the ermine fur with the linings of coronation cloaks, crowns and peerage caps, the heraldic tincture of ermine was usually reserved to similar applications in heraldry.

Portuguese heraldry

Portuguese heraldry encompasses the modern and historic traditions of heraldry in Portugal and the Portuguese Empire. Portuguese heraldry is part of the larger Iberian tradition of heraldry, one of the major schools of heraldic tradition, and grants coats of arms to individuals, cities, Portuguese colonies, and other institutions. Heraldry has been practiced in Portugal at least since the 11th century, however it only became standardized and popularized in the 16th century, during the reign of King Manuel I of Portugal, who created the first heraldic ordinances in the country. Like in other Iberian heraldic traditions, the use of quartering and augmentations of honor is highly representative of Portuguese heraldry, but unlike in any other Iberian traditions, the use of heraldic crests is highly popular.

Bordure Heraldic ordinary or subordinary

In heraldry, a bordure is a band of contrasting tincture forming a border around the edge of a shield, traditionally one-sixth as wide as the shield itself. It is sometimes reckoned as an ordinary and sometimes as a subordinary.


In heraldry, an ordinary componée,, anglicised to compony and gobony, is composed of a row of squares, rectangles or other quadrilaterals, of alternating tinctures, often found as a bordure, most notably in the arms of the English House of Beaufort.

Blazon Art of describing heraldic arms in proper terms

In heraldry and heraldic vexillology, a blazon is a formal description of a coat of arms, flag or similar emblem, from which the reader can reconstruct the appropriate image. The verb to blazon means to create such a description. The visual depiction of a coat of arms or flag has traditionally had considerable latitude in design, but a verbal blazon specifies the essentially distinctive elements. A coat of arms or flag is therefore primarily defined not by a picture but rather by the wording of its blazon. Blazon is also the specialized language in which a blazon is written, and, as a verb, the act of writing such a description. Blazonry is the art, craft or practice of creating a blazon. The language employed in blazonry has its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax, which becomes essential for comprehension when blazoning a complex coat of arms.

Tricking Method for indicating the tinctures (colours) used in a coat of arms

Tricking is a method for indicating the tinctures (colours) used in a coat of arms by means of text abbreviations written directly on the illustration. Tricking and hatching are the two primary methods employed in the system of heraldry to show colour in black and white illustrations.

In heraldry, a stain is one of a few non-standard tinctures or colours, which are only known to occur in post-medieval heraldry and may be used as part of a rebatement of honour. Almost none of these rebatements are found in fact of heraldic practice, however, and in British heraldry the stains find only exceptional use, other than for purposes of livery.

Coat of arms of Oxford

The coat of arms of Oxford is the official heraldic arms of Oxford, used by Oxford City Council.

Roundel (heraldry) Heraldry term for a circular charge

A roundel is a circular charge in heraldry. Roundels are among the oldest charges used in coats of arms, dating from the start of the age of heraldry in Europe, circa 1200–1215. Roundels are typically a solid colour but may be charged with an item or be any of the furs used in heraldry. Roundels are similar to the annulet, which some heralds would refer to as a false roundel.


  1. For example the coat of Denys of Gloucestershire was recorded regularly by the Heraldic Visitations, and in the case of Hugh Denys was well-known within the royal household of King Henry VII.
  2. Possibly where an extremely high status person, such as a bishop, granted arms to a follower inadvertently in contravention of the rule, the grant was deemed immutable and beyond the authority of a secular court to alter
  3. Fox-Davies, p. 86.
  4. 1 2 Clark, Hugh and J. R. Planché (1866). An Introduction to Heraldry. With nearly one thousand illustrations; including the arms of about five hundred different families. Eighteenth Edition. Bell & Daldy. London. pp. 32–34.
  5. 1 2 3 Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles (1909). A Complete Guide to Heraldry. T. C. & E. C. Jack. London. pp. 71, 86, 173.
  6. "Ortenburger Wappenbuch" . Retrieved 2007-06-15.
  7. Fox-Davies, p. 87.
  8. Balfour Paul, p. xiv.
  9. Boutell (p. 43), mistakenly, extends the rule to all bordures.
  10. "The Rule of Tinctures". Heraldica. François R. Velde. Retrieved 2009-03-11.
  11. Woodcock, p. 7.
  12. Musée national du Moyen Âge (former Musée de Cluny), Paris
  13. William Dwight Whitney & Benjamin Eli Smith (eds.) The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, revised ed., volume IX (New York: The Century Co.) page 6345.
  14. Musée national du Moyen Âge (former Musée de Cluny), Paris
  15. Carmen Decu Teodorescu, "La tenture de la Dame à la licorne : nouvelle lecture des armoiries", in Bulletin Monumental n° 168-4, 2010, pp. 355-367, Société française d'Archéologie. While underscoring the weakness of the arguments in favour of the name Jean IV Le Viste, a new reading of the documentary sources appears to lend credence to Decu Teodorescu's hypothesis in favour of Antoine II Le Viste as a sponsor of the Lady and the Unicorn
  16. John Gibbon in 1682 in his Introductio ad Latinam Blasoniam, pp.150-1, of "No colour on colour, no metal on metal". He quotes the Denys blason saying "Now for my reader's diversion & delight I will insert what hath fallen under my observation".
  17. Mendola, Louis. "Distinguishing Characteristics of Medieval Italian Heraldry". Regalis. Retrieved 1 January 2012.
  18. "Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach 1813-1918 (Germany): Großherzogtum Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach" . Retrieved 2018-09-28.