An Ordinary of Medieval Armorials

ordin_fs_armsBackground and purpose

Which researcher has not been irritated of the unavailability of a source needed for study or reference. Though the recent years has seen a multitude of medieval armorials coming into print or be placed on the internet, it can still be difficult to find a needed item or to identify an unknown coat-of-arms. Except for two publications on English arms and a single index the available reference works are all organised per name, and not per figure-of-arms.[1] Neither do most references provide any documentation on the origin of the information given. The Ordinary of medieval armorials presented below was developed to ameliorate these problems.[2]

When I became seriously interested in heraldry around 1995 and began to study medieval armorials, the first problem was to get to know what arms were recorded in which armorial and who bore those arms. The second problem was how to record my transcriptions and observations. The first problem was solved by being able to travel to visit the relevant libraries and archives, to get some publications and to enlist the help of kind professionals and amateur armorists, who offered to provide me with their transcriptions of various armorials.[3] For the second problem I chose to use a computerised database, which is easy to update and add to.


After solving the structural problems for getting the information into the database, it was used for a decade as my personal notebook for anything related to heraldry. It still have some reminiscences of it, e.g. odd abbreviations and notes in Danish. With time my topics narrowed to comparative medieval heraldry and how armorials were created. The database also grew as more armorials were added and the arms became better documented. By 2006 it was quite comprehensive and had been shared with a few friends. Computer capability had grown too, so I decided to clean the contents, purge it of non-relevant features and make it generally available both as a MS Access based database and as text-tables in pdf-format.The database file is the most comprehensive and versatile version, and it has been updated twice, in 2010 and 2013. The pdf-version has most of the information but the text format cannot include all details and the possiblities of crossreferencing and making select tables. It is also time-consuming to revise. The 2006-version (94 MB, 62.235 coats-of-arms) fills some 10.000 pages, and took a month to make. So it will (I hope) only be updated sometime late in 2014.

Actual state

As of the late summer of 2013, the database (52 MB) presents the coats-of-arms (and some crests) of selected medieval armorials in a standardised searchable format. They are blazoned in English and (for most entries) in French with comments in English. Ownership of arms and documentation of occurence is provided if available. The full contents of all armorials entered can be viewed with the possiblity of cross-referencing to entries in other armorials, comments and documentation. Notes of seals and other references are not searchable. The basic structure of the database and the main form used for viewing are organized per family giving differenced and variant versions of the coats-of-arms as entered in the armorials, and their place in the armorials.

The selection covers 111 armorials fully entered with odd items from another 117 armorials, i.e. most of the armorials currently discussed.[4] The entries represent 83.945 coats-of-arms and 14.510 crests belonging to 16.926 ‘families’ with 31.694 variants of arms. Only armorials with contents mainly collated during the Middle Ages (before c.1500) and made in England, Scotland, France, Germany and the Low Countries are included. ‘Families’ include territories, towns, dioceses, abbeys, heroes and fictitious realms.

It is possible for users to add their own comments, arms, armorials, tables and extracts, and to keep track of such changes. Spelling is according to my whims with names standardised, usually according to local use or as found in the source providing the first bit of information.

Structural features

The key element is the standardised blazon used for coats-of-arms and crest. This separates colours from figures-of-arms. The latter use a dictionary type format like 3 pales & chief & label. The main record summarize information on the ‘family’, which is linked to the variants of arms (‘branch’) recorded, and these to their entries into armorials and, if appropriate, to the crests entered there. Most large armorials have been segmented according to type of contents and/or layout. The segment number, owner, territorial affiliation (if available) and blazon is added to each entry in an armorial. The validity of the connection between blason and owner is indicated.

The information can be displayed as individual records, listings by figure-of-arms (as an ordinary), or by name (as a dictionary). All figures-of-arms are searchable as blazoned in English or (for most) in French. Several of these are annotated. On a ‘what’s came up’ basis the figures-of-arms has been translated into German, Spanish, Italian and the scandinavian languages. Other secondary tables covers a bibliography of references used, collections of seals, knightly orders, heralds, and the abbreviations and terminology used.

The second key feature is a listing of 489 armorials with classification, notes and individual 3-letters sigla and the variants present in 974 manuscripts with reference to their place of deposit.[5]


The records have different origins, usually traceable by record number and the notes to the relevant armorial. Most English armorials, except Willement, were entered from published transcriptions. Some from high-quality publications, others from whatever manuscript the transcriber had access to. A few have been verified and amended while visiting the holding institution. The transcriptions of most French armorials (incl. from the Low Countries) were gifts of friends or from high-quality publications. A large part of these have been verified with the actual manuscript or facsimiles. The German armorials are my own transcriptions, except for the published Miltenberg, Ingeram, Zürich and Gallus Öhem. Identification and notes are all by me, many accepted as proposed by the authors of published editions, some changed according to my own evaluations. For armorials, which have not been edited, the identification must be regarded as provisional. Some early entries have name identifiers rather than transcribed legends.

How can it be used

The first obvious use is for identification of an unknown coat-of-arms. It can be used to differentiate between various possibilities for partly destroyed arms. The searchable crests and legends do help for this. Another obvious use is for making an edition of or analyzing an armorial, which I have done frequently.[6]  Other authors have used it in part or in toto for similar purposes.[7] It provides for easy listing of the armorials which have the arms in question, and give key references, e.g. collections of seals, standard genealogies and territorial affiliation.

As a variant, it can be used to compare armorials in part or in toto, e.g. to place armorials into groups according to certain criteria. Not recognizing that two armorials belong to the same group might cause circular conclusions or doubling of items when counting frequencies or distibutions of figures-of-arms or colours. It may also lead to wrong conclusions on the actual blazon used by a person, branch or family. The records can be manipulated in various ways, extracted and sorted according to specification.

The database may also provide a handy overview to which armorials or manuscripts have certain information and of course any coat-of-arms needed. It was recently used as a key element for assesing rank and precedence of titled nobles.[8] Adrian Ailes has recounted how armorials can be used for studies of affinity.[9]

What are the limitations

The database cannot be used for linguistic studies of blazon or naming. Neither can it be used for detailed reconstruction of coats-of-arms or crests. The dictionary format of blazon does not allow for the necessary details. It neither gives details of variations between different manuscript versions of an armorial, nor always on later additions or modifications. If used for statistical purposes, the user should control the data to be included, and be aware that not all items in an armorial may be entered. Though care has been taken to get entries and citations right, any essential arguments used for publication should be checked with the proper reference. For further caveats on the use of armorials, see the paper by Torsten Hiltmann.[10]

Future plans

In the short term, I will be busy working on information already collected. I hope to finish some work on how late medieval armorials were made in mid-2014, after which I intend to clean the database and complete the various secondary tables and translations. My hope is to have a revised version out late 2014 in both MS Access and pdf-format – for free download.

I will continue to use the master database as my notebook, add new documentation and revise records as needed. Some friends and I have plans for a couple of further editions of armorials, which will undoubtedly lead to amended records, and I want to add just a few armorials, mostly those present only in part. If any would like to donate a transcription or know of one, not already entered, I would be most grateful.

contact:  Steen Clemmensen

[1] Dictionary of British Arms, I-III, H. Chesshyre, T. Woodcock, G.J. Grant, I.D.G. Graham, and S. Flower (Eds.), Society of Antiquaries, London, 1992, 1996, 2009; J.W.Papworth and A.W. Morant: Alphabetical Dictionary .. forming an Ordinary of British Armorials .., London 1874, reprint 2000, CD 2001, Bowie, Md.; Jan van Helmont: Dictionaire de Renesse, Leuven 1992. Several collections of seals do provide a table of arms index, but seals are colourless.

[2] The current 2013 database version Ordinary of medieval armorials can been freely downloaded from . The similarly named folder contain both the file and supporting documents. It requires the MS Access database manager to run. An older (text) version (2006) in pdf-format is available on CD by request.

[3] I am a biochemist and have worked in toxicological reseach and regulation of chemicals before spending my time on heraldry. For their kind gifts and help I express my deepest gratitude to Christiane van den Bergen-Pantens, Jean-Christophe Blanchard, Emmanuel de Boos, William Collins, Jean-Marie van den Eeckhout, Paul A. Fox, Hélène Loyau, Bruce McAndrew, Klaas Padberg-Evenboer, and Michel Popoff.

[4] A list of all armorials with the number of items entered is available on

[5] For manuscripts of English armorials A catalogue of English medieval rolls of arms by Anthony R. Wagner,  London 1950, should be consulted. The full list of sigla is available on

[6] These armorials were all published on the website My analyses were presented at various international conferences, viz. the publication list at the website.

[7] Inter alia Paul A.Fox, Christiane van den Bergen-Pantens and Michel Popoff.

[8] Thorsten Huthwelker: Die Darstellung des Rangs in Wappen und Wappenrollen des späten Mittelalters. (Rank, Politisch-soziale Ordnungen im mittelalterlichen Europa, Band 3). Ostfildern 2013.

[9] Adrian A. Ailes: Research into Medieval English Rolls of Arms. Past, Present and Future, In: T. Huthwelker &al. (Eds.): Princely Rank in Late Medieval Europe. Trodden Paths and Promising Avenues. (Rank, Politisch-soziale Ordnungen im mittelalterlichen Europa, Band 1). Ostfildern 2011, pp.139-155.

[10] Torsten Hiltmann: Potentiallities and Limitations of Medieval Armorials as Historial Source. .., In: T. Huthwelker &al. (Eds.): Princely Rank in Late Medieval Europe. Trodden Paths and Promising Avenues. (Rank, Politisch-soziale Ordnungen im mittelalterlichen Europa, Band 1). Ostfildern 2011, pp.157-198.

Cite this blog post
Steen Clemmensen (2013, November 21). An Ordinary of Medieval Armorials. Heraldica Nova. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from

Steen Clemmensen

born 1948; Danish; retired; biochemist, worked for government, industry and organisation in toxicological research, regulation of chemicals, food safety, occupational health and environmental protection; current interests are medieval and renaissance heraldry, especially armorials from all over Europe, of which I have edited and indexed several, published on my website.

1 Response

  1. Veronique Helmridge-Marsillian says:

    Thank you for your article on the “Rouen” Roll of Arms. It was very helpful for my research on the play “King Henry the Sixth”, purportedly written by William Shakespeare. I could not access James Greenstreet’s article in “Notes and Queries” online, so I was grateful to have you explain everything so clearly. I shall of course cite you in my study. Keep up the good work!

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