The four main devices (symbols) in the Cambridge blazon are the cross pattee, swan, pile and cross formee. The three main tinctures (colors) are azure, argent and gules .
Azure is the heraldic colour blue, usually quite a deep, dark shade of the colour (there is a lighter blue that sometimes occurs, known as celestial azure). If colour printing is not available then it can be represented by closely spaced horizontal lines in a scheme known as “hatching” 1. The word is thought to originate from the Arabic lazura and it represents the colour of the eastern sky. It is also said to be the colour associated by the Catholic Church with the Virgin Mary and hence of particular significance 2.
Argent is the heraldic metal Silver and is usually shown as very pure white. It is also known more poetically as pearl, moon (or luna) 3. In a sketch or drawing it is represented by plain, unmarked paper 4.
Gules, the heraldic colour red is very popular, sometimes said to represent “Military Fortitude and Magnanimity”5. It is usually abbreviated as gu and in the days before colour printing was shown in a system known as hatching by vertical lines 6. 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).7
No other symbol appearing in heraldry is subject to as much variation as the cross 8. Mediaeval Europe was a deeply religious and Christian and many of the nobility wanted to show their devotion by adopting the symbol of the cross as part of the arms. Since no two arms could be identical there arose many variants of the cross, typically involving patterning along the edges 9, or fanciful, decorative endings to the arms of the cross 10. The cross pattee is typical of these, pattee meaning “spreading”, and so the ends of the arms of the cross curve gently outwards to rather pleasing effect. 11
Wade suggests that the appearance of a swan in a coat of arms is perhaps an indication of a musical person, or a “ lover of poetry and harmony”. 12 It is generally shown in a lifelike aspect and colouring, although it may be leaked and legged with other colours. 13. It is a popular charge, both on the shield itself and impress, sometimes sitting and sometimes rising as if about to take off in flight. 14
The pile was originally quite a simple shape, being a triangle reaching from the top of the shield down to a point near the lower centre 15. A clear example being that of CHANDOS awarded in 1337, Or a pile gules. There is some argument as to the origin, Wade suggests some similarity with the meaning of “pile” in construction (a foundation) and hence that the shape could be adopted by those who have demonstrated some ability in the building trade 16. An earlier writer, Guillim, perhaps more plausibly suggested that the shape echoes those of a pennant or triangular flag 17 The shape is quite distinctive however and became popular, leading to many embellishments to distinguish it from its close fellows, with multiple piles meeting at various points, starting from various edges and with additional decoration, leading to potentially quite complex descriptions!