The three main devices (symbols) in the Ainsworth blazon are the axe, man in armour and spade. The three main tinctures (colors) are gules, azure and or .
Gules, the heraldic colour red is very popular, sometimes said to represent “Military Fortitude and Magnanimity”1. It is usually abbreviated as gu and in the days before colour printing was shown in a system known as hatching by vertical lines 2. Although it may look like a French word it is normally pronounced with a hard “g” and may be derived either from the Latin gula (throat) or Arabic gule (rose).3
The bright, strong blue color in Heraldry is known in English as azure, and similarly in other European languages – azul in Spanish, azurro in Italian and azur in French. The word has its roots in the Arabic word lazura, also the source of the name of the precious stone lapis lazuli 4. Despite this, those heralds who liked to associate colours with jewels chose instead to describe blue as Sapphire. According to Wade, the use of this colour symbolises “Loyalty and Truth” 5.
The bright yellow colour frequently found in coats of arms is known to heralds as Or, or sometimes simply as Gold.6. Along with, argent, or silver it forms the two “metals” of heraldry – one of the guidelines of heraldic design is that silver objects should not be placed upon gold fields and vice versa 7. The yellow colour is often associated with the Sun, and the zodiacal sign of Leo.8.
The Axe appears in many forms in heraldic art, coming from both the martial and the craft traditions, indeed someone today would have a hard time telling their common hatchet from a turner’s axe, but it is likely that those in the middle ages were more familiar with each. 9 Obviously the axe from a craft tradition may symbolise the holder being a practitioner of that craft, but the axes from a martial background are suggested by Wade to indicate the “execution of military duty”. 10
Heraldry is a human art, by and for people and it is not surprising that people themselves are frequently depicted in arms 11. Often these are images of knights and men-at-arms, or individual limbs, such as the “three armoured right arms argent” shown in the arms of Armstrong 12. As well as the nobility however, we also see both the mundane, ploughmen, fishermen and reapers; and the exotic in the form of club wielding savages and the Moorish or Saracen gentleman with his decorative wreathed turban 13. The man in armour is a typical example of this use of the human figure.
It is important that a coat of arms be easily recognised and so everyday objects were frequently used as clearly identifiable charges – tools 14 being a common and important example of these, of which the spade is typical. Some of these tools are rather obscure to modern eyes, who of us nowadays would recognise a hemp-break 15, let alone know what to use it for! Nevertheless, for mediaeval peasant it was a clearly identifiable symbol. For its symbolism we need look little further than its intended use, as a tool of the working man.