Culture and heritage

Heritage

Heraldry

Like a badge or personal seal, the NSW Coat of Arms sends a message about how we want to express our collective identity. The Arms are a ‘history in shorthand’, full of allusions and allegories, and will often be important as works of art. This online exhibition will allow you to find out who designed our NSW coat of arms, discover its history and decode the meanings of its stylised elements.

The New South Wales coat of arms was assigned by a royal warrant of King Edward VII on the 11th October 1906. This on-line exhibition was launched one hundred years later, in October 2006.

The Heritage Council plays a role in conserving official coats of arms in NSW when they appear in "a durable form". This means representations of coats of arms that have been crafted or manufactured - usually in a three-dimensional form - such as carved in stone or wood, wrought in iron, painted on hard surfaces, woven in fabrics, etched on glass, fashioned in stained glass, inlaid in timbers, moulded in plastic or pressed in metal. 'Official' coats of arms refers to the Royal Coats of Arms, the NSW State Coat of Arms, and coats of arms assigned to or assumed by state government agencies.

What is heraldry?

Heraldry (from the Anglo- Norman herauder: envoy or messenger) refers to the art of designing, describing (called blazoning) and recording coats of arms and other heraldic devices and regulating their use and display. Heraldry originated in largely pre-literate times when its use of visual symbols and imagery was used to convey authority and ownership in a form that could be easily understood by people. The beauty and utility of heraldry has ensured its continuing usage today.

Heraldry provides a form of historical record that can be read or interpreted like any other historical record, such as a document or a landscape. Any coat of arms or heraldic device identified during a heritage study will provide information about the place or object if it is read properly. A coat of arms can tell us about associations with places of origin, historical events and other influences that have shaped a place, family connections, or the development of distinctive local and Australian cultures.

Interpreting the NSW Coat of Arms. (heraldrymeanings.pdf, 22KB)

What is a coat of arms?

A coat of arms is made up on several elements, not all of which will be present in every case, although as a minimum any Coat of Arms will include a shield. The diagram below shows all of the elements that would appear in a full achievement.

Elements in a Coat of Arms. Image by Chris Robertson 2006

Elements in a Coat of Arms. Image by Chris Robertson 2006

Modern materials and production techniques mean that representations of coats of arms are now usually produced in full colour. Heraldic design uses a limited number of contrasting colours (called tinctures) which are known by specialised names.

A system of hatching and cross-hatching, known as the Petra Sancta System, is also used on monochrome representations, such as carvings to indicate the correct tinctures (colours).

Petra Sancta system of hatching and cross-hatching. Image by Chris Robertson 2006

Petra Sancta system of hatching and cross-hatching. Image by Chris Robertson 2006

A heraldic device is any of the elements of a coat of arms. Some devices may be used own as a way of abbreviating a coat of arms. Typically the crest is used in this way, but other elements that are also used include the shield and the motto. Heraldic devices will often be found on entrances, letterheads, furnishings, vehicles and other corporate goods in place of using a full achievement.

The significance of official heraldry

A representation of an official coat of arms is not a mere decorative device. It is a symbol that tells the person looking at it that they are in a building or other place that is a site of official business. It says that the place is in public ownership or management. Similar messages are conveyed by the use of representations of official coats of arms on a document, a seal, furnishings, vehicles and other objects.

A representation of an official coat of arms should not be removed or destroyed unless its heritage significance has been assessed and approval obtained. An official coat of arms should never be altered by removing or adding elements to it, or by changing its tinctures (colours) or hatchings, or by any other means. A new representation of an official coat of arms should follow as closely as possible the legally authorised blazon (description). Otherwise it will not actually be representing the coat of arms it is supposed to represent. New representations of official coats of arms should be installed in prominent locations. They should be installed in ways that reinforce their symbolism, and that respect the style and fabric of the building, object or document to which they are attached. They should not be placed on floors (where they can be walked on) or in other locations where they can be obscured, damaged or stolen.

Almost all representations of an official coat of arms will have heritage significance to some degree. They should always be treated with respect as the ultimate visual symbol of the people of NSW, the State of NSW, the Crown in right of NSW and the relationships between them. To treat a representation of an official coat of arms with indifference or contempt is, in effect, to treat the people and institutions it symbolises with the same disregard.

Images of official heraldry in NSW

The NSW Coat of Arms (The State Arms), granted in 1906

The NSW Coat of Arms (The State Arms), granted in 1906

The Royal Coat of Arms used in England and Wales, and in NSW until 2004 (The Royal Arms)

The Royal Coat of Arms used in England and Wales, and in NSW until 2004 (The Royal Arms)

Heritage Council roles and responsibilities

In NSW there have been recent legislative changes that impact on how we display our official symbols and emblems. The State Arms, Symbols and Emblems Act 2004 requires all Royal Coats of Arms to be replaced by the State Coat of Arms or a State symbol where they are used for any official purpose. All Royal Coats of Arms in state-owned buildings (including courthouses, parliament, and government offices) are to be replaced by the State Coat of Arms "as soon as practicable", and all Royal Coats of Arms on seals, documents or other objects are to be replaced by the State Coat of Arms within three years.

The Heritage Council has responsibilities under the new legislation so that significant coats of arms are conserved. The Heritage Council can advise the Premier when it considers a Royal Coat of Arms to be part of our heritage.

The directive to replace all Royal Coats of Arms does not apply when the Premier, after consultation with the Heritage Council, determines that the Royal Coat of Arms "form an integral part of an item of environmental heritage of the State". However, if the building or place continues to be used for official purposes, the State Coat of Arms must be displayed "in a prominent position" along with the Royal Coat of Arms.

If Royal Coats of Arms are removed (this refers to those coats of arms in any durable form such as sculpted, carved, etc) they should be housed in such a manner as the Premier, after consultation with the Heritage Council, may direct. The Heritage Council has 60 days to provide any such advice to the Premier once requested. In practice, this means that removed coats of arms are to be appropriately conserved, interpreted and displayed as "part of the constitutional, legal, cultural and artistic heritage of the State".

The Heritage Council's State Heritage Management Guide contains requirements for the identification and management of official coats of arms under the care, control or management of a atate agency.

Links to official NSW heraldic management documents

Regional heraldry

There are several distinct regional identities in New South Wales. The existence of such regional identities can be seen in the public heraldry of some regions, although regional boundaries can be difficult to determine with acceptable accuracy.

The articles below explore the official and public heraldry of regions within New South Wales.

Additional articles will be developed over time and made available on this site.

Further information

You can explore the work of other heraldic agencies and obtain further heraldic information through the Heritage links page.

Page last updated: 01 September 2012