Polish heraldry

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Coat of arms of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Polish heraldry is a branch of heraldry focused on studying the development of coats of arms in the lands of historical Poland (and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), as well as specifically-Polish traits of heraldry. The term is also used to refer to the Polish heraldic system, as opposed to systems used elsewhere, notably in Western Europe. As such, it is an integral part of the history of the szlachta, the nobility of Poland.

Due to the distinct manner in which feudal society evolved in Poland, the heraldic traditions of Poland differ significantly from those in German lands, France or the British Isles.


Unlike the case of Western Europe, in Poland, the szlachta did not emerge exclusively from the feudal class of knights under Chivalry, but stemmed in great part from an earlier Slavic free warrior class. Rulers often hired these warriors to form guard units (Polish Drużyna) and eventually paid them in land. However, much written evidence from the Middle Ages demonstrates how some elements of the Polish nobility did emerge from the ranks of the knightly class under the terms of chivalric law (ius militare).

Only a small number of szlachta families or clans (Polish: Rody) can be traced all the way back to the traditional clan system. Most szlachta, from at least the 12th century, were not related and their unions were mostly voluntary and based on followership and brotherhood rather than kinship.

A leaf from the "Łaski's Statute" depicting the Polish Senate.

However, in regards to consanguinity, the matter is far from settled, and the question matters because of historiographical concern to discover the origins of the privileged status by membership in the knights' clan. In the year 1244, Bolesław, Duke of Masovia, identified members of the knights' clan as members of a genealogia:

"I received my good servitors [Raciborz and Albert] from the land of [Great] Poland, and from the clan [genealogia] called Jelito, with my well-disposed knowledge [i.e., consent and encouragement] and the cry [vocitatio], [that is], the godło, [by the name of] Nagody, and I established them in the said land of mine, Masovia, [on the military tenure described elsewhere in the charter]."

The documentation regarding Raciborz and Albert's tenure is the earliest surviving of the use of the clan name and cry defining the honorable status of Polish knights. The names of knightly genealogiae only came to be associated with heraldic devices later in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period. The Polish clan name and cry ritualized the ius militare, i.e., the power to command an army; and they had been used some time before 1244 to define knightly status. (Górecki 1992, pp. 183–185).

According to Polish historian Tadeusz Manteuffel, a clan (ród) consisted of people related by blood and descending from a common ancestor, giving the ród/clan a highly developed sense of solidarity (see gens). The starosta (or starszyna) had judicial and military power over the ród/clan, although this power was often exercised with an assembly of elders. Strongholds called gród were built where a unifying religious cult was powerful, where trials were conducted, and where clans gathered in the face of danger. The opole was the territory occupied by a single tribe. (Manteuffel 1982, p. 44).

Since Poland emerged almost at once as a relatively unified duchy in the 10th century, it was the prince or, later, the King who was considered the patron of all the clans. He granted privileges and land to clan members rather than to clans as such and was allowed, in theory to assign new knights to the clans of his choice. In practice, however, such a means of entering an existing noble clan would require a formal adoption from the bloodline members of a clan. In any event, this route to clan membership was later forbidden. As a result, a stable system of strong and wealthy groups of relatives never developed in Poland, as in Scotland. The Polish clans, perhaps, were much more like the Norse clans, with the result that they were much more unstable than their western counterparts. Historic evidence, however, shows clans even fighting wars one against the other like the famous domestic war between the Nalecz and the Grzymala in Greater Poland of the late 14th century.

Heraldic symbols began to be used in Poland in the 13th century. The generic Polish term for a coat of arms, herb, dates from the early 15th century, originating as a translation of the Czech erb, which in turn came from the German Erbe - heritage.

Under the Union of Horodło (1413), the noble families of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were adopted en masse into the various Polish noble clans and began to use Polish coats of arms.


Coat of arms of Ostrogski clan.

Although the Polish heraldic system evolved under the influence of French and German heraldry, there are many notable differences.

The most striking peculiarity of the system is that a coat of arms does not belong to a single family. A number of unrelated families (sometimes hundreds of them), usually with a number of different family names, may use the same, undifferenced coat of arms, and each coat of arms has its own name. The total number of coats of arms in this system was relatively low – ca. 200 in the late Middle Ages. The same can be also seen in Western Europe, when families of different surnames but sharing clan origin would use similar coats-of-arms, the fleur-de-lis of the many Capetian families being perhaps the best known example.

One side-effect of this unique arrangement was that it became customary to refer to noblemen by both their family name and their coat of arms name (or clan name). For example: Jan Zamoyski herbu Jelita means "Jan Zamoyski of the Jelita coat of arms" (though it is often translated as "of the clan Jelita" or herbu is Latinized de armis). From the 15th to 17th centuries, the formula seems to have been to copy the ancient Roman naming convention: praenomen (or given name), nomen gentile (or Gens/Clan name) and cognomen (surname), following the Renaissence fashion. So we have: Jan Jelita Zamoyski, forming a double-barrelled name (nazwisko złożone, literally "compound name"). Later, the double-barrelled name began to be joined with a hyphen: Jan Jelita-Zamoyski. (See Polish names).

The Polish émigrés of the 19th century sometimes used adaptations of their names according to the Western European (mainly French) style, becoming e.g. Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (Balthus), Jean de Bloch (Jan Gotlib Bloch), or Tamara de Lempicka. Some would also keep the Latin forms of their surnames, as Latin was the official language of the Kingdom of Poland, hence the popularity of Late-Medieval or Early-Modern forms such as "de Zamosc Zamoyski".

A single coat of arms could appear in slightly different versions, typically in different colours, depending on the custom of the family using it. Such variations (odmiany) are still considered as representing the same coat of arms.

One of the most visually striking characteristics of Polish heraldry is the abundance of gules (red) fields. Among the oldest coats of arms in Poland, nearly half use a red background, with blue (azure) coming in a distant second. Nowhere else in Europe is there seen such a strong bias towards a particular colour scheme. It follows however the well-known heraldic custom of all Europe, of the vassals following the colour-scheme of their overlord, which found practical use on the battlefield.

Other typical features used in Polish heraldry include horseshoes, arrows, Maltese crosses, scythes, stars and crescents. There are also many purely geometrical shapes for which a separate set of heraldic terms was invented. It has been suggested that originally all Polish coats of arms were based on such abstract geometrical shapes, but most were gradually "rationalized" into horseshoes, arrows and so on. If this hypothesis is correct, it suggests in turn that Polish heraldry, also unlike western European heraldry, may be at least partly derived from the Tamgas, marks used by Eurasian nomads such as the Sarmatians, Avars and Mongols, to mark property. However, evidence of the origins of the system is scanty, and this hypothesis has been criticized as being part of "Sarmatism" (the Polish tradition of romanticizing their supposed Sarmatian ancestry).[citation needed]

A Polish coat of arms consists of: shield, crest, helm and crown. Mantling became fashionable during the 18th and 19th centuries. Supporters, mottos and compartments normally do not appear, although certain individuals used them, especially in the final stages of the system's development, partly in response to French and German influence. Preserved medieval evidence shows Polish coats-of-arms with mantling and supporters.


Polish coats of arms are divided in the same way as their western counterparts. However, since coats of arms were originally granted to clans rather than to separate families, there was no need to join coats of arms into one when a new branch of a family was formed. Thus Polish escutcheons are rarely parted. There are however a lot of preserved quartered coats-of-arms. These would most often show the arms of the four grandparents of the bearer. Or also the paternal-paternal great-grandmother in the 5th field if the male-line coat-of-arms goes in the heart field.

Example Parted per fess.svg Parted per pale.svg Parted per bend sinister.svg Parted quarterly.svg Parted quarterly with a heart.svg
English name Parted per fess Parted per pale Parted per bend sinister Parted quarterly Parted quarterly with an inescutcheon
Polish name tarcza dwudzielna w pas tarcza dwudzielna w słup tarcza dwudzielna w lewy skos tarcza czterodzielna w krzyż tarcza czterodzielna w krzyż z polem sercowym

The tradition of differentiating between the coat of arms proper and a lozenge granted to women did not develop in Poland. Usually men inherited a coat of arms from their fathers (or a member of a clan who had adopted them), while women either inherited a coat from their mothers or adopted the arms of their husbands. The brisure was rarely used. All children would inherit the coat-of-arms of their father.

Heart-shaped shields were mostly used in representations of the coats of arms of royalty. Following the union between Poland and Lithuania, and the creation of the elective monarchy, it became customary to place the coats of Poland and Lithuania diagonally, with the coat of arms of the specific monarch placed centrally on top. Research continues to find out what a "heart-shaped" shield is. Most likely, the coat of Poland was placed on the left-right diagonal (I & IV)and Lithuania on the right-left diagonal (II & III) as evidenced in the shield at the top of this page. The specific monarch crest then being placed in the "heart" position.


Tincture English heraldic name Polish heraldic name
Gold/Yellow Or Złoto
Silver/White Argent Srebro
Blue Azure Błękit
Red Gules Czerwień
Purple Purpure Purpura
Black Sable Czerń
Green Vert Zieleń

In addition to these seven basic tinctures, which were standard in English heraldry and elsewhere in western Europe, many more tinctures were used in Poland and (after the union with Poland) Lithuania, including grey, steel, brunatre, weasel and carnation.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

Armorials and Listings of Coats of Arms[edit]

Traditionally coats of arms were published in various listings of szlachta and in armorials, known in Polish as herbarz. Such publications, akin to Almanach de Gotha or Gelre Armorial and descended from the tradition of rolls of arms, appeared in Poland regularly from 15th century onwards. The first such armorial was Insignia seu clenodia incliti Regni Poloniae by Jan Długosz. In recent years growing interest in family histories has led to publication of numerous newly compiled listings of coats of arms and families. Some of the most notable among such publications are:

  • Bartosz Paprocki (1578). Gniazdo cnoty [Nest of Virtue] (in Polish). Kraków.  [1]
  • Herby rycerstwa polskiego [Arms of Polish Knighthood] (in Polish). Kraków. 1584. 
  • Antoni Swach (1705). Herby Polskie [Polish Coats of Arms] (in Polish). Poznań. 
  • Szymon Okolski (1643). Orbis Polonus [Polish World] (in Latin) 1–3. Kraków. 
  • Jan Karol Dachnowski; Z. Pentek (1995) [First published ca. 1620]. Herby szlacheckie w ziemiach pruskich [Coats of Arms in Prussian Lands] (in Polish). Kórnik. 
  • Jan Karol Dachnowski (c. 1634). Poczet możnego rycerstwa polskiego [List of Grand Knights of Poland] (in Polish). 
  • Wacław Potocki (1696). Poczet herbów szlachty Korony Polskiey i Wielkiego Xsięstwa Litewskiego [List of Coats of Arms of Gentry from the Crown of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania] (in Polish). Kraków. 
  • Kasper Niesiecki (1728). Herby i familie rycerskie tak w Koronie jako y w W.X.L. [Coats of Arms of Knights both in the Crown and the Grand Duchy] (in Polish). Lwów. 
  • Kasper Niesiecki (1728–1743). Korona polska [Crown of Poland] (in Polish). Lwów. 
  • Benedykt Chmielowski (1763). Zbiór krótki herbów polskich, oraz wsławionych cnotą i naukami Polaków [Short Collection of Polish Coats of Arms, as well as Poles Famed for their Virtues and Sciences] (in Polish). Warsaw. 
  • Leonhard Dorst (1842–1849). Schlesisches Wappenbuch oder die Wappen des Adels im souverainen Herzogthum Schlesien, der Grafschaft Glatz und der Oberlausitz [Silesian Armorial, or Coats of Arms of the Duchy of Silesia, Duchy of Glatz and Lower Lausatia] (in German). Görlitz. 
  • Nikolay Ivanovich Pavlischev (1853). Herbarz rodzin szlacheckich Królestwa Polskiego najwyżej zatwierdzony [Armorial of Noble Families of the Kingdom of Poland, Approved by Highest Authorities] (in Polish). 
  • Poczet szlachty galicyjskiej i bukowińskiej (in Polish). Lwów-Kraków: Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza. 1988 [First published - 1857]. 
  • Seweryn Uruski (1904–1938). Rodzina. Herbarz szlachty polskiej [The Family. Armorial of Polish Gentry] (in Polish). Warsaw.  (published in 15 volumes, unfinished)
  • Emilian von Zernicki-Szeliga (1900). Der Polnische Adel und die demselben hinzugetretenen andersländischen Adelsfamilien (in German). Hamburg: Verlag von Henri Strand. 
  • Franciszek Piekosiński (1899). Herbarz szlachty prowincyi witebskiej [Armorial of Gentry of the Province of Vitebsk] (in Polish). Kraków: Herold polski. 
  • Tadeusz Gajl (2003). Herby szlacheckie Rzeczypospolitej Obojga Narodów [Coats of Arms of the Republic of Both Nations] (in Polish). Białystok. ISBN 83-88595-12-1. 

External links[edit]