Achievement of arms
November 2006 / November 2013

Achievements of arms and blazons

'ACHIEVEMENT of arms' is the technical term for what is is popularly known as a 'coat of arms' or a 'crest'. In a broader sense, the term also includes accessories such as badges and flags.

Achievement of arms

Pietermaritzburg's full achievement of arms : shield, helmet, crest, motto, supporters, compartment

An achievement of arms consists of a shield, and one of more of the following : a crest, a motto, a helmet with mantling and wreath, supporters and a compartment, insignia of office and, sometimes, external embellishments.

Badges and standards are occasionally found in South African achievements, but most of those registered at the Bureau of Heraldry belong to people in other countries.

Shield — The indispensible element of an achievement of arms. Indeed, many arms, especially those of schools and army units, consist only of a shield.

Different patterns of shield Shield shapes : Heater - Round-bottomed - Accolade - Oval ('cartouche') - Lozenge - Nguni - BaTswana - BaSotho.

In addition to the British-style 'heater' shape, the round-bottomed shield, and the 'accolade' shape which is popular in the Netherlands – and among Afrikaners – there are currently three patterns of African shield in general use : the oval or almond-shaped Nguni (Xhosa and Zulu) shield, the BaTswana shield, and the BaSotho shield.

The oval 'cartouche' and the lozenge are often used in the arms of women.

Helmet, mantling, and wreath — It's customary to depict a helmet above the shield (but not an African shield or a cartouche or a lozenge).

There are various patterns of helmet. During the Dutch colonial period, the norm was a barred helmet facing front. British-style helmets were introduced in the 19th century : a barred helmet for peers, an open-visored steel helmet for baronets and knights, and a closed helmet for 'commoners' and corporate bodies. Today, the closed tournament helmet is probably the most popular, but barred helmets are still also used.

No status is attached to any particular pattern of helmet in South Africa.

For many decades, many arms were depicted following the now-discarded English (College of Arms) rule that peers' and commoners' helmets faced dexter while knights' faced front, even if the helmet and crest faced different directions. The Bureau of Heraldry also followed this rule (with a few exceptions) until 1982, but since then it has depicted crests and helmets facing in the same direction.

A cloth covering, known as 'mantling' is draped down the back and sides of the helmet, and is held in place by a circular wreath (a.k.a. 'torse') which is pushed down over the top of the helmet. The mantling usually has jagged edges, and is depicted as though it has been slashed to ribbons (by an enemy sword?) and is flying in the breeze.

The wreath is depicted as two strips of fabric which are twisted around each other so that the tinctures alternate – usually six twists are shown. Many modern arms which are on African shields have traditional headrings of leopardskin or beadwork instead of the European-style wreath.

In the Dutch colonial period, the colour of the wreath and mantling seems to have been arbitrary. Today, they are usually in the principal colour of the shield, lined in the principal metal. However, often if the shield is divided per fess or per chevron, then the tincture of the lower half is used, and if there is a chief, then its tincture is used. In Bureau of Heraldry artwork, the mantling on personal arms usually has a gold or silver tassel hanging from the lower end on each side of the shield.

Crest — A crest is a three-dimensional object attached to the top of the helmet. Personal, corporate and municipal coats of arms usually have crests, but they are less frequent in the academic and official arms, and are seldom if ever found in military arms.

Strictly speaking, a crest should have a helmet to support it, but there are a many emblazonments (including Bureau of Heraldry artwork) which omit the helmet and place the crest and wreath directly on top of the shield. There are also arms whose blazons describe the shields as being ensigned of various charges (without wreaths), which are often referred to as 'crests'.

Coronets are sometimes used instead of crests, or as the basis of crests. You'll find further details here

Motto — Many coats of arms include a motto, which is placed on a scrolled ribbon below the shield (or occasionally above the crest, in Scottish style). The use of mottoes seems to have become popular in South Africa only in the 19th century. Latin is probably the most popular language for mottoes.

Supporters and compartment — Supporters are human or animal figures, or monsters or birds placed on either side of the coat of arms, as if they were supporting it. In line with European and British tradition, supporters are largely confined to official arms, the arms of large municipalities and organisations, and to royalty, the aristocracy, baronets and high-ranking knights.

Animals are far and away the most popular supporters, with springboks, gemsbok, and wildebeest being the top three choices. Among birds, the wattled crane, the blue crane, and the secretary bird are the more popular. Fantasy figures are confined to a few gryphons, dragons and unicorns. Human figures occasionally appear, as do marine creatures such as dolphins and seahorses.

Supporters usually stand on a base known as a 'compartment'. In the 19th century, this often took the form of an elaborate curlicue known as a 'gas bracket'. A simple grass mound became the norm in the early 20th century, the Bureau of Heraldry version, introduced in the 1970s, being a highly stylised green shape. Sometimes the compartment will be designed to represent a particular landscape.

Insignia — The addition of insignia of office to arms seems to be confined to the State Herald and members of the Heraldry Council, who place crossed herald's batons behind their shields, and to senior clergymen, e.g. Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops, who place the symbols of their offices behind their shields, according to the practices in their respective churches.

Some municipal arms which are depicted on African shields have a crossed assegai and knobkierie (war-club) behind the shield as symbols of authority.

High-ranking knights of the Order of St John and the Order of St Lazarus display the insignia of their respective orders on their arms, and the Bureau has registered a few arms with these insignia.

It is common practice in many countries for recipients of orders and decorations to drape the insignia around, or below, their shields, and there seems to be no reason why recipients of South African honours and awards should not do the same.

Embellishments — In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was fashionable to surround the shield of arms with festoons of leaves and flowers, palm fronds, flags and guns, or framework. This was purely decorative, and not part of the blazon.

Since 1804, there have been a few dozen examples of embellishments being granted or registered as part of the blazon. The arms assigned to Cape Town and the district authorities in 1804, for instance, were superimposed on anchors representing Hope.

The arms of some of the 19th-century Boer republics were flanked by flags instead of supporters.

The arms of five of the ten homelands had traditional weapons and symbols of authority behind the shields. The current national arms (BoH 2000) are flanked by two ears of wheat within two pairs of elephant tusks.

A number of modern municipal arms are flanked by leaves or branches, crops, feathers etc.

Mention may also be made of the robe of estate. Traditionally, royalty and nobility displayed the robe behind their arms (and, in some countries, they still do). At one time, the fashion was imitated by people of lower status, an example being the seal of Cape Town lawyer Michiel Smuts, dating from 1817.

Badge — An heraldic badge is a device that is used independently of the arms. In the Middle Ages, it was used to mark property. Servants and retainers would wear their employers' badges on their uniforms.

A badge consists of one or more heraldic charges, which are not displayed on a shield.

The use of badges had more or less died out by the time heraldry was introduced into South Africa in the 1650s. There is no Dutch tradition of using them, and it was not until 1906 that England revived them. The idea did not really catch on in South Africa, although there are some examples of grants of badges, e.g. to Pretoria in 1914 and to Sir Ernest Oppenheimer in 1921. Most of the personal badges that have been registered at the Bureau of Heraldry since the 1960s appear to belong to foreign residents.

The term 'badge' has been very loosely applied in South Africa. Although hundreds of items have been registered under that name since 1935, very few of them are actually badges in the heraldic sense. Many of them are coats of arms, some are corporate logos, some are monograms, some are generic items such as proteas without differencing to make them distinctive.


A blazon is a written description of a coat of arms, and it serves as a technical specification for anyone wishing to emblazon, i.e. draw or paint or sculpt, the arms. There is a centuries-old principle that, irrespective of artistic quality, any rendition of a coat of arms is valid if it meets the specifications set out in the blazon.

In multi-lingual South Africa, blazons are usually written in English and / or Afrikaans. English blazons follow British practice and terminology, while Afrikaans blazons follow the Dutch model.

Many English terms are of medieval French origin, whereas Afrikaans makes much more use of everyday words. There are also some differences in expression, e.g. "between" is translated as "vergesel van", which literally means "accompanied by".

Since 1994, nine African languages have also enjoyed equal official status with English and Afrikaans, but their use in heraldry has been minimal. To date, the only published blazon in any of them is that of the arms of KwaZulu-Natal (2004), which was gazetted in isiZulu as well as in English and Afrikaans.

The Bureau of Heraldry style of blazon differs from the College of Arms and Lord Lyon style in a few respects : punctuation is used ; only proper names (and, in English, tinctures) have capital initials ; and the different elements are itemised under headings instead of being written as a narrative.

References :
  • Bureau of Heraldry Database.
  • Brownell, F.G.; 'Heraldry in South Africa' in Optima (Dec 1984); 'Finnish Influence on SA Heraldic Design' in Arma 116 (1986).

Picture credit :

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