An audience with heraldist Stefan Bede – on the occasion of the International Heraldry Day

International Heraldry Day occurs on June 10, with the purpose of highlighting heraldry as an art form and science. The idea for this day came from a Polish heraldic society. The date was chosen in remembrance of the day—June 10, 1128—when Geoffrey of Anjou, in preparation for his marriage to the daughter of Henry I of England, received a specially decorated shield from the king: a blue shield with six golden lions arranged three over two over one. This is often considered the beginning of the heraldic tradition

H.S.H. Prince Frei granted an audience to one of the West Coast’s heraldry experts—Stefan Bede—in the lead-up to International Heraldry Day. The conversation revolved around heraldry, the study of how coats of arms are composed and adopted in accordance with nearly 900-year-old traditions. A family coat of arms should be unique to the family and consist of a shield with a coat of arms, a helmet, a mantling and a torse (often featuring the most prominent colors from the shield), and a crest. Additionally, heraldry requires that a coat of arms must be blazoned, meaning it must be described so clearly in text that an artist can recreate the coat of arms based on the blazon. Unlike a modern logo, it is not the individual depiction that must be reproduced in an unchanged form: a coat of arms can be rendered in a thousand and one different ways, as long as the established components are included. Here is Stefan Bede’s coat of arms as an example, illustrated by Davor Zovko and Björn Fridén:

Sable, a siege ladder Or on each side a mullet of six Or, mantling Sable lined Or, crest two oxhorns Sable.

The graphic design language of heraldry has evolved to achieve the greatest possible contrast, using a palette with four different “tinctures”: Colors, Metals, Furs, and Proper. Ideally, one should avoid placing an object on a field of the same tincture; for example, it is generally not “permissible” to place a gold key on a silver field (metal on metal), or a green oak tree on a red field (color on color). Instead, it is better to place a gold key against a color such as red, green, blue, black, or purple (though the latter is a contentious issue in heraldic circles). Heraldic furs like ermine, vair, and feathers are “amphibious” and work with both metals and colors. Similarly, a figure can be depicted in its “natural colors,” which are also considered “amphibious” against the other tinctures. To those who wish to adopt their own coat of arms, Stefan advises: “think traffic sign—it should be visible from a distance.” Many who begin the process of adopting arms want to include too many elements, which results in clutter. The elegance of heraldry lies in its simplicity and striking effectiveness.

In the conversation, Stefan points out the widespread misconception that coats of arms are reserved for royalty and nobility. As early as the mid-14th century, the Italian lawyer Bartolus de Saxoferrato wrote the heraldically guiding treatise Tractatus de insigniis et armis. This treatise has been significant in heraldry and heraldic law since its publication, likely in 1355. Bartolus writes:

Quilibet potest sibi assumere arma et insignia, illa portare et in rebus propriis impingere.”

“Everyone has the right to assume a coat of arms, bear it, and mark their possessions with it.”

Another strong advocate for everyone’s right to adopt arms, Stefan explained, was the Swedish insurance official and heraldist Arvid Berghman. With his book Borgerliga släktvapen (1939) – “Civic Coats of Arms”, he introduced the concept of “bourgeois” heraldry. By this, he did not mean the term as used in politics, but rather as we use it in “civil marriage” or “civil funeral”—a civilian but official alternative. Previously, the term “commoner” was used, which is unfortunate and somewhat diminishing as it defines people by what they are not. However, it is worth noting that certain heraldic components (e.g., a coronet, barred helmet, or supporters) are clearly associated with nobility and should not be used in newly composed bourgeois arms according to good heraldic practice. Prince Frei himself, and the House of Lorenzburg, bear arms with nearly all the heraldic attributes of high nobility—but such is only fitting for monarchs of fairy-tale nations…

So how should one think if they want to adopt a coat of arms for themselves and their bourgeois family? Stefan advises starting with the family name and researching the family history. What elements can be drawn from that? A direct depiction of the name, or a heraldic rebus that refers to it, called “canting arms,” can be a fun option: for example, if the Swan family includes a swan in the coat of arms. If the family has many bakers, lawyers, or priests among its members, then symbols such as pretzels, law books, or crosses might be appropriate. An important thing to keep in mind is that family coats of arms are intended to be borne by future generations. Therefore, a symbol representing the armiger’s personal interest in an obscure hobby might not be a good choice. The best approach is to contact a heraldist who can guide a prospective armiger through the process.

On a final note, the audience focused on the joy of sharing a common interest. Stefan offered Prince Frei a heraldic overview and informed him about current issues in the field.


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