We know that a coat of arms identifies an individual and that individual either was granted, assumed or inherited arms. In the case of granted arms, it can be safely assumed that the arms are unique within the granting authority’s jurisdiction. If the arms are assumed, one hopes that the armiger made sure that the arms are unique.

However, what happens if one inherits arms from their father? They bear the same arms as their father, is the answer. But, what if the father is still alive? What if the inheriting armiger has siblings? The arms aren’t unique anymore to the individual!

Naturally, this is a problem in those countries where arms are traditionally or legally unique, which is not the case universally.

This problem is handled through a system called “cadency” developed in each country. The best known systems of cadency are the English and Scottish ones along with the relative newcomer Canada. Heraldry,as most things medieval, is a predominantly male tradition and as such, cadency deals with inheritance of the male offspring. What the Canadian Heraldic Authority has given us is a system of cadency for daughters, a first as far as I know.

How shields are marked is through what is called a “brissure”. A brissure is nothing more than a smaller sized charge placed somewhere on the shield and generally does not have to follow the [tincture rule]. However, in the Scottish tradition, there is a combination of tinctures, divisions and bordures in addition to brissures used.


The image to the left (courtesy of Wikipedia) displays the Canadian system of cadency with the brissures for each offspring of either gender. Note that the male system is identical to that used in the English tradition.

The marks of cadency for the male offspring are:

  • First born son: Label of 3 points
  • Second born: A crescent
  • Third born: A mullet (star of 5 points)
  • Fourth born: A martlet (a bird with no beak or legs)
  • Fifth born: An annulet (a ring)
  • Sixth Born: A fleur-de-lys (lilly)
  • Seventh born: A rose
  • Eight born: A cross moline
  • Ninth born: A quatrefoil

For the female offspring:

  • First born daughter: A heart
  • Second born: An ermine spot
  • Third born: A snowflake
  • Fourth born: A fir twig
  • Fifth born: A chess rook
  • Sixth Born: An escallop
  • Seventh born: A harp
  • Eight born: A buckle
  • Ninth born: A clarichorde

Scottish Cadency

The image above (also courtesy of Wikipedia) illustrates the Scottish system of cadency with all its variations.

A note should be made regarding the label used by the first born son. As opposed to the marks of cadency used by the other children, which are permanent, the label is temporary. In other words, the children of the second son will inherit their grandfather’s arms with the addition of the crescent and whatever brissure applicable to them upon that brissure. This also means that the second son of the second son will end up with a crescent upon the crescent.

Specifically on the label, and assuming the armiger father is still alive, the first son uses a label of 3 points. The first son of this first son will bear a label of 5 points and so on and so forth, adding 2 more points with every generation. When the bearer of the plain arms passes away, every generation after “moves up” a level and gets their father’s version of the shield.

In the event that two descending armigers end up with identical arms after the cadency system, they’ll have to add further differencing. In the case of the label, it usually means adding a charge to the points.

Another note that should be made is that the crest, if inherited, also bears the same mark of cadency as on the shield.

In the case of members of a royal house, the rules are different as it is considered that royals are able to decide what arms they have. An excellent source on the marks of cadency of the British royals is a page on Fran├žois Velde’s heraldica.

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