Welsh Heraldry - Sarah Woodbury

Welsh Heraldry

Knights in the Middle Ages wore a coat of arms to distinguish themselves from one another in battle.  Within a given family individuals would have their own coats of arms, separate from each other and sometimes blending with another family, depending on the circumstances of marriage.  A family would also have crests and seals, which might or might not be the same as the coats of arms.  All are referred to as heraldic devices.

“Generally the language of heraldry suggests its warlike origin. The term Coat of arms is derived from the surcoat worn over the armor to keep off the rays of the sun. It was a waistcoat-like garment, on which the heraldic design was depicted. The knight wore the arms shown on the surcoat on his shield, the trappings of his horse, and his lance pennon. In addition, he might have painted on his helmet what was called his crest. Not all knights chose a crest. The motto is not an integral part of the coat of arms, and may be changed at the will of the user.”  http://www.familynamesonline.com/coahistory.html

“The date and manner of the origin of coats of arms, often called family crests, has been a matter of much speculation. There is no evidence of coats of arms being present at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, nor were family crests apparent by the beginning of the twelfth century. However, in the 13th century, coats of arms were used throughout Europe and the whole ‘science’ of heraldry – its rules and terms – had been established. During this time the Crusades undoubtedly helped spread the use of coats of arms.

Various suggestions have been put forward regarding the origin of coats of arms, for example: shields, banners, tabards and possibly the use of seals. Probably, once a design had been adapted, it would have been put to many personal items at the same time. To qualify as a coat of arms, a design must be capable of being depicted on a shield, but the name ‘coat of arms’ is derived from the linen tabard which was worn over the armour and upon which the design was shown.”


The coat of arms for Gwynedd was this:


The personal coat of arms for Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was this:


This was clearly derived from the coat of arms of Gruffydd ap Cynan, father of Owain Gwynedd, who was  himself the grandfather of Llywelyn Fawr, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s grandfather:

And this is the coat of arms of  Dafydd ap Gruffydd, whom Edward I hanged, drew, and quartered in 1283 (or had hung, drawn and quartered, I suppose, since he didn’t do it himself :):


Wikipedia has a great list of other heraldic devices for the rest of Wales:


For translations of Welsh Latin mottos, and more information in general about Welsh mottos, see:  http://www.doomchicken.net/~ursula/sca/motto/welshmottoes.html

“English, Welsh, French, and Latin mottoes were all used in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Wales. The following table shows their relative frequencies:

Language Number of Mottoes Percentage
English 15 7.3%
Welsh 47 22.8%
French 30 14.6%
Latin 114 55.3%

(A few mottoes were bilingual, and are therefore counted twice; one motto, “Odexi du parmer,” has been omitted from the analysis because its language could not be identified.)

Latin mottoes predominate. This reflects a widespread literacy in Latin; it may also indicate that the more overtly intellectual imprese mottoes influenced heraldic motto choices. British war-cries were often in French; sixteenth- and seventeenth-century men and women who displayed French mottoes could have inherited them from French-speaking ancestors, or they might have been displaying their knowledge of a foreign language. The bearers of Welsh and English mottoes, on the other hand, presumably spoke these languages at home.”

Sources for images:  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coat_of_arms_of_Prince_Dafydd_ap_Gruffydd.svg




8 Replies to “Welsh Heraldry”

  1. I hate to be pedantic, but, you wrote above “And this is the coat of arms of Dafydd ap Gruffydd, whom Edward I had hanged, drew, and quartered in 1283” should actually be “hung, DRAWN, and quartered”. Sorry, but I couldn’t help commenting on it.

  2. Hello, I would be eternally grateful for a translation of the following motto:-


    The third and fourth words may be conjoined.

    In grateful thanks

    Malcolm H.

      1. hello Sarah,
        Appreciate your help. Any idea what the language is?

        Best wishes

        Malcolm H.

        1. The name was originally ‘Carthu’–from Cornwall. The Carthu’s are first mentioned in the reign of Edward II (1300-ish). The language could be Cornish which was spoken up until the 18th century. “The proto-Cornish language developed after the Southwest Britons of Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall became linguistically separated from the West Britons of later Wales after the Battle of Deorham in about 577. ” Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornish_language

  3. I’m looking for information on a heraldic motto—-“gwir im gwlad” and wonder if you recognise it? All the best.

    1. Well, it means something like “Truth and Country” or maybe “To my land be true”, but not to whom it belongs. I’ll keep looking!

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