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Heraldic Dictionary: 2. Partitions of the Shield

Last modified: 2013-12-14 by rob raeside
Keywords: heraldry |
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HERALDRY II: Partitions of the Shield

The background of a shield (the FIELD) may be a single tincture, or it may be divided into a number of different ways. A divided field is described as PARTY.
(Like many other terms, this comes from Norman French. For this reason, tincture descriptions are placed after the names of the objects so coloured, as in French. Some of the terms used in heraldry, such as vert for green, are virtually identical to modern French.)

There are eight major ways that the field of a shield may be divided:

[per fess]
A field that is PARTY PER FESS is divide horizontally across the middle of the shield. An example from vexillology would be the flag of Poland, which could be described fully as "Party per fess argent and gules". If a shield or flag is divided this way into more than two parts, it is said to by BARRY (pronounced as in bar), followed by the number of bands.
The Dutch flag is 'Tierced in Fess Gules Argent and Azure'.

[per pale]
A field that is PARTY PER PALE is divided vertically across the middle of the shield. (one way of remembering the difference is to consider the word impale, or to think of a fence with wooden palings, both of which words come from the same source). The flag of the Vatican city is an example that is Party per pale. If a shield or flag is divided this way into more than two parts, it is said to be PALY, followed by the number of bars.
The French flag is 'Tierced in Pale Azure Argent and Gules".

[party per bend]
A field that is PARTY PER BEND is divided diagonally from the top left to the bottom right.
[party per bend sinister]
PARTY PER BEND SINISTER is similar, but the diagonal runs between the other corners, from top right to bottom left. Both are rare on flags, although they do occur occasionally, as in the flags of Bhutan and Papua New Guinea.
[bendy] If a shield or flag is divided this way into more than two parts, it is said to be BENDY or BENDY-SINISTER. In this example the field should be blazoned,' Party per Bend Sinister Vert and Azure a Bend Sinister Sable fimbriated Or'.

[party per chevron]

PARTY PER CHEVRON means divided into two horizontally but by means of a broad inverted "V" rather than by a straight line. Again, this is rare in flags, as is CHEVRONNY (division into more than two areas in the same manner as above).

[party per saltire]
Next there is PARTY PER SALTIRE, which, as the name implies, means divided as if by an "X" shaped cross into four areas, such as in the background of the Jamaican flag (this is not a particularly good example, as it is also divided by a saltire or).

One note about Quarterly not previously mentioned is that a flag or shield may be divided into more than two horizontal and vertical divisions. In fact, it would still be referred to as 'quarterly of X' irrespective of the number of divisions. You can have three on top and three below making it 'quarterly of six'. may be divided into more than four sections in the manner of quarters (i.e., with horizontal and vertical internal edges). The arms of the late British Queen Mother's personal standard can be said to be Quarterly of 8  (See also Tinctures)
[checkered] If such a partition is made regularly with two or more horizontal and vertical divisions it is called Chequy, e.g. Chequy 5x5 Gules and Argent

Finally, there is GYRONNY, in which equally angled wedge shaped areas meet at a central point. Party per saltire and Quarterly can be thought of as being special cases of gyronny, for in each of them, four wedge shaped areas meet at the centre of the flag or shield. There are few flags which could be otherwise described as gyronny, although the state flag of Arizona, the Japanese ensign and the Dutch jack all have gyronny features.
As with barry, bendy etc, Gyronny is always followed by the number of divisions . In Heraldry the default for Gyrony is eight - only if the divisions differ from eight are they mentioned in the blazon (The Dutch jack is "Gyronny of 12, argent, gules and azure", for example).

Partitions are not always smoothly divided by straight edges. LINES OF PARTITION may be of a variety of decorative shapes, most of which are uncommon on flags. Two, however, are worthy of mention -
WAVY (or UNDY), which as the name implies is wave like undulations (such as on the flag of the Seychelles), and
INDENTED, which means divided by means of a zig-zag line, as is the case with some Arab state flags. In these cases, a description of a field might, for example, be "Barry-wavy of 7 argent and azure" or "Party per pale indented argent and gules". The former of these two descriptions roughly describes the background of the lower part of the flag of British Columbia. In Heraldry there are two terms that cover the ziz-zag line - Dancetty (3 points) and Indented (more than 3 points).

One problem area for the vexillologist using English heraldic terminology is that it is not designed for cases where divisions are unequal. However, occasionally unequal areas exist, such as the flag of Portugal, and these would have to be described by such methods as 'Per Pale offset to dexter Vert and Gules' Likewise, there is also the continental field partition where the field is 'Party per pale the dexter X a Pale Y the sinister Z' with the XY & Z being different tinctures although Z could also be the same as tinctures X or Y.

There are several other minor forms of partitioning, but these are more easily dealt with when I talk about ordinaries, major objects placed on a shield.

Editor's Note: This page was originally the result of information sent to FOTW by James Dignan. Until November, 2003, it has was hosted at Željko Heimer's Flags and Arms of the Modern Era webpage. The work is incomplete, but presented as a very basic primer for heraldry. Additional information and corrections by Geoff Kingman-Sugars are in italics, dated 31 December 2003.

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