To begin with, in Polish heraldry there are only four basic elements which combined to make up a typical Polish nobleman’s “Arms of achievement,” and they are: the shield itself, the helmet, crown and crest. Upon the shield can be found an illustrated design or picture called the charge, and it signified that particular clan’s identification. In early historical times some Polish warriors who still clung to pagan beliefs displayed some animal or other sign on their shield, then later, when they became Christianized, this picture would usually be raised above the helmet as a crest, and another picture (or charge) would be displayed on the shield. This was usually the case at the whim of a sovereign, who, seeing the knight perform in a gallant manner and using something other than the standard weapons of war to achieve victory, would have the knight display that unorthodox weapon upon his shield, in order to commemorate the victorious event. These were rare cases, in that for the most part Polish heraldic charges were said to be of tribal origin, or from early runic designs. Some of these legends of valor can be found in the Niesiecki’s work Herbarz Polski. Other historians say that Poland’s heraldry stemmed from old property marks, which are said to be older than heraldry itself. It has also been said that heraldry had originated as a result of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, where knights used certain marks of identification on their shields to indicate friend from foe and prevent the mistake of killing an ally.
Certain ancient marks on shields were usually very simple in their approach, representing a combination of straight and curved lines, which evolved into charges that could be easily identified and described by ancient court heralds in proper heraldic terms. Straight lines became swords, lances or crosses, and curved lineal designs evolved into crescents, horseshoes, scythes, annulets and the like. Poland’s heraldry eventually began to follow Western styling, which included animals, fowl, trees and flowers. Only in the rarest of instances would one find a depiction of some mythical beast such as a dragon, griffin or other type of strange or exotic beast displayed upon the shield.
Returning for a moment to the aforementioned term of crest, we must at this point clarify to the reader a gross misuse of the term. People unfamiliar with the science of heraldry always fall into the trap of using the term “crest” incorrectly when trying to explain their coat of arms, by simply saying, “Oh, this is my family crest” when pointing to a coat of arms achievement. For the record, the crest refers only to that portion of the coat of arms achievement located above the helmet and/or crown.
The crest is of unknown origin, was developed later than the coat of arms itself, and it is not exclusively used by any one person. Many similar Polish clan shields can be totally different and can share a same crest. The exaggerated use of the crest instead of the shield arms themselves during the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in families’ forgetting their shield of arms and claiming a crest only (which is absurd!). The habit also had the effect of establishing the erroneous reference to a coat of arms as “the family crest.”
In Polish heraldry the two often-used tinctures (colors) were azure (blue) and gules (red, and pronounced gyools). The significance of either color on a shield had no historical or mythical meaning. The charge would usually be painted a contrasting color of the two metals used in heraldry, or (gold) and argeni (silver). One of the predominant rules of heraldry dictates that “Color must never show on color, nor metal upon metal”. This is considered to be very bad heraldry.
However, for every rule, there is an exception, that being with the arms of the city of Jerusalem, which is portrayed as a Silver cross potenty, upon a Gold shield. In Polish heraldry as well as some other European shields you will find examples of color on color.
On the whole, Polish heraldry may seem simple and somewhat poor in its design. Their rules were not as stringent as those of western Europe. Without the maintenance of any institution of heralds, which had disappeared during the l5th century, and additionally in view of the lack of heraldic visitations (which verified the individual’s use of arms) and the disintegration of the clan system in the 16th century, heraldry degenerated. The old Polish terminology was eventually forgotten and foreign influences were later introduced without any control.
As a result of the tribal system, which influenced all the countries of the Polish commonwealth, the nobility, consisting as it does of more than forty thousand families, uses about seven thousand arms and variations, including those family coats of arms of Western origin. A second result of this system was the use of homonymous families with surnames taken from their estates with identical names, which bear different arms depending upon the clan to which they belong. The most popular Polish clan shield is that of Jastrze~biec, which numbers some 508 different families.
We do know that at the end of the l4th and beginning of the 15th century, Poland had the office of Herald, who was subordinate in his duties to the Royal Court Marshal, and we can therefore presume the existence of official rolls of arms during this period. Such rolls certainly reflected the Polish heraldic system which did not take into consideration individual families or their members.
by Leonard J Suligowski, P.R., Director of Heraldry
Presented with permission. From the White Eagle, a Journal of the Polish Nobility Association Foundation – Fall/Winter 1995.