Polish heraldry

Polish heraldry

The history of Polish heraldry is an integral part of the history of the Szlachta, the Polish nobility.


Unlike the case of Western Europe, in Poland, the "szlachta" did not emerge from the feudal class of knights under Chivalry, but stemmed from an earlier Slavic class of "Free Warriors" or Mercenaries. These warriors were often hired by rulers to form guard units (Polish "Drużyna") and were eventually paid in land. There is, however, a lot of written evidence from the Middle Ages which 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 ( _pl. Rody) can be traced all the way back to the traditional clan system. Most szlachta, since at least the 12th century, were not related and their unions were mostly voluntary and based on followership and brotherhood rather than kinship.

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 XIVth 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, such as the Mielzynskis, were adopted " en masse " into the various Polish noble clans and began to use Polish coats of arms. Evidence shows however that the Mielzynski family are native Polish and simply the lords of Mielzyn near Gniezno.


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 a 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 ").From 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 19th century sometimes used adaptations of their names according to the Western European (mainly French) style, becoming (to use the same example): "Jan de Jelita-Zamoyski" or "Jan Zamoyski de Jelita". 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 modifications (" odmiany ") are still considered to represent 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 shows such a strong bias towards a particular color scheme. It follows however the well known heraldic custom of all Europe that the vassals would follow the colour-scheme of their overlord. It had even a practical meaning in 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 a kind of rune-like symbols: the "Tamgas" used by nomadic peoples of the Steppe, such as the Sarmatians or the Avars, to mark property. However, the evidence about the origins of the system is scanty, and this hypothesis has been criticized as being part of the Polish noble tradition of romanticizing their supposed Sarmatian ancestry. On this matter, research and controversy continue.

A Polish coat of arms consists of: shield, crest, helm and crown. The 18th and 19th centuries fashion includes the mantling.
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 is 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.

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 and Lithuania on the right-left diagonal (as evidenced in the crest at the top of this page). The specific monarch crest then being placed in the "heart" position.


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.

Bibliography and Listings of Coats of Arms

Traditionally coats of arms were published in various listings of szlachta and in armorials, known in Polish as "herbarz". Some of the most notable among such publications are:

# Bartosz Paprocki, "Gniazdo cnoty". Kraków, 1578.
# Bartosz Paprocki, "Herby rycerstwa polskiego"; Kraków, 1584 (II ed. Kraków, 1858).
# Szymon Okolski, "Orbis Polonus"; V. 1-3. Kraków, 1641-1643.
# Wacław Potocki, "Poczet herbów szlachty Korony Polskiey i Wielkiego Xsięstwa Litewskiego"; Krakow, 1696.
# rev. Kasper Niesiecki, "Herby i familie rycerskie tak w Koronie jako y w W.X.L."; Lwów, 1728.
# rev. Kacper Niesiecki, "Korona polska"; Lwów, 1728–1743.
# rev. Benedykt Chmielowski, "Zbiór krótki herbów polskich, oraz wsławionych cnotą i naukami Polaków"; Warsaw, 1763.
# rev Kasper Niesiecki, "Herbarz Polski"; Leipzig, 1839-1846.
# Teodor Żychliński, "Złota księga szlachty polskiej"; Poznań, 1879-1908
# Adam Boniecki, "Herbarz polski"; Warsaw, 1899-1913.
# hr. Jerzy Dunin-Borkowski, "Almanach błękitny. Genealogia żyjących rodów polskich"; Lwów, 1908.
# Edward Borowski, "Genealogie niektórych polskich rodzin utytułowanych"; Buenos Aires-Paris, 1964.
# Sławomir Górzyński, Jerzy Kochanowski "Herby szlachty polskiej"; Warsaw, 1990
# Alfred Znamierowski "Insygnia, symbole i herby polskie"; Warsaw, 2003
# Andrzej Brzezina Winiarski, "Herby szlachty Rzeczyposolitej"; Warsaw, 2006
# Stanislawa Lozy, "Rodziny Polskie pochodzenia cudzoziemskiego osiadle w Warszawie i okolicach"; Warszawa, 1934 Wydawnitctwo i Druk Zakladow Graficznych Galewski i Dau

ee also

* Coat of Arms
* Heraldry
* History of Poland
* List of Polish Coats of Arms
* List of Polish coat of arms images
* Szlachta
* Belarusian heraldry
* Polish name
* Polish clans
* Coats of arms of Polish voivodeships

Further reading

* Tadeusz Gajl, "Herby szlacheckie Rzeczypospolitej Obojga Narodow", Gdansk, 2003

External links

* [http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herb_szlachecki_%28lista_herb%C3%B3w%29 Polish coats of arms] - a full list of Polish coats of arms
* [http://www.polonium.de/docs/ciekawostki/herby/win/ Rycerskie Herby Polaków] - a very good site in Polish with beautiful images of the arms and complete surname lists of 48 of the clans
* [http://www.szlachta.org/heraldry.htm Polish Nobility and Its Heraldry]
* [http://genealog.home.pl/g.pl?kd=4&hz=1 Armorial]
* [http://www.herbarz.republika.pl/str/autor.htm Coats of Arms within the context of the hereditary aristocracy of the historic Polish Noble Republic, The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth]

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