Symbols of Honor: Heraldry and Family History in Shakespeare's England children's exhibition

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This article collects the children's exhibition material featured in Symbols of Honor: Heraldry and Family History in Shakespeare's England, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

When creating a coat of arms, English heralds in Shakespeare's day used certain designs to tell a particular family's story. A family famous for its courage might choose a lion to represent it; a hard-working family might choose an industrious bee as its symbol.

These designs could reflect the family's lineage, homeland, traditions—whatever the family members wanted other people to know about them.

How to Decipher a Coat of Arms


A full achievement of arms consists of a crest, helm, supporter, mantling, shield, and motto.

Elements of the Shield

The primary focus of an achievement is the coat of arms, or shield. Heralds were able to create a nearly infinite variety of patterns by using different combinations of elements and making a wide range of minor ornamental variations.

The various colors, patterns, and shapes that appear on the shield are known by their Anglo-French names. The formal written description of an achievement, using the same Anglo-French terminology, is called a blazon.

Tinctures are colors, metals, and furs that provide the field (background color or pattern) and the colors of the charges. See first two images below.

Charges consisted of ordinaries and figures that appeared inside the shield. Ordinaries are simple geometric shapes running side to side, top to bottom, or diagonally. The ordinaries shown here are just a few of the many used by heralds. See third image.

Ordinaries could also be varied to include engrailed, wavy, indented, or embattled lines, instead of straight lines. See fourth image.

Arms are marshalled to depict rank, marriage, or descendants. The two main types of marshalling are impalement and quartering. Impalement combines two coats of arms side by side—usually a husband’s and wife’s arms—by shrinking the arms so that each fits into one-half of the shield. Quartering divides the shield into four or more compartments in order to include the arms of ancestors who were heraldic heiresses. See fifth image below.


All About Me: Identity and Design Contest

As part of the Folger's exhibition on heraldry and family history, the Folger invited students in grades 2 through 6 to participate in the "All About Me: Identity and Design" contest.

Students who entered the contest used heraldry principles to create their own coat of arms to represent their family. See the winning entries below, then give a try at designing your own coat of arms.

First Place

First Place Coat of Arms Winner

Nathan Fishman, Grade 4

Nathan’s motto is "Defend Don’t Attack."

He explains:

"My family’s traits are demonstrated in our coat of arms. I use this wheat bundle because of our luck of being plentiful. They are gold, for generosity, because we use our good fortune to help, not hurt. The eagle represents our protection to others and the golden chevron represents the roof over us and others.

These symbols were chosen because my family is noble at heart. Even though we are not knights, we have been protectors of our communities for generations. My ancestors were the people in their communities who people looked to for guidance, for care, and for support. The laws that guided us are similar to the oaths of a knighted brotherhood."

Second Place

Second Place Coat of Arms Winner

Kevin LeVering, Grade 5

Kevin explains:

"My shield is designed to represent me and my family’s heritage. As the oldest and only son of an only son, I would inherit my shield from my father and grandfather. I chose the eagle as my charge because the eagle stands for Germany and my last name is German. The eagle is also a symbol of America.

The dexter side [the right side from the viewpoint of the shield bearer] stands for what I like to do. One of my favorite hobbies is cooking and baking so I put a spatula representing my love for it.

The sinister side [the left side from the viewpoint of the shield bearer] represents my father’s accomplishments. My dad was in the Navy, so I put an anchor to show his service. I chose the colors blue and green because blue stands for trust loyalty, wisdom, and confidence and green stands for growth, harmony, freshness, and wealth."

Third Place

Third Place Coat of Arms Winner

Don Hun (Jeff) Lee, Grade 4

Jeff explains:

"My motto is speed, soccer and Korea.

In soccer, I have speed and I can play offense and defense.

Soccer is my life and it is my dream.

Korea is where I am from."

Honorable Mentions

Create Your Own Coat of Arms

Print out these pages to create your own!