Crosses in heraldry

The cross is a basic design used from pre-historic times. Its use was enormously expanded in the form of the Roman instrument of torture later known as the Christian cross from the 1st century AD with the development of Christianity. From the 11th century, and increasingly during the age of the Crusades, a variety of forms of cross symbols were developed for the purpose of the emerging system of heraldry, which appeared in western Europe in about 1200.

The cross was displayed on banners and flags from the medieval period and became common in modern times on numerous national flags.


9th-century Byzantine seal showing a patriarchal cross (seal of Niketas, commander of the Byzantine imperial fleet)
Seal of Bouchard de Marly (d. 1226)
A section of Segar's Roll, a 17th-century copy of a late 13th-century English roll of arms. Crosses are shown on the arms of:[1] the legendary Prester John (attributed arms showing a full crucifix including the figure of Christ), the King of Jerusalem (the Jerusalem cross), the Emperor of Constantinople (the emblem of the Palaiologos dynasty with the letters Beta interpreted as crescents), the "King of Greece" and of King Edward the Confessor of England (attributed arms showing a cross and five martlets)

Heraldry emerged in western Europe at the start of the 13th century out of earlier traditions. The Christian cross is one of the earliest and most widespread heraldic charges, dating back to the field signs used in the First Crusade, and used to distinguish the various noble crusaders from at least the Second Crusade. Some pre-Christian usages appear in heraldry, such as the Fylfot.

In 1188, Kings Henry II of England and Philip II of France agreed to launch the Third Crusade together, and that Henry would use a white cross and Philip a red cross. The red-on-white cross came to be used by the Knights Templar, and the white-on-red one by the Knights Hospitaller (also white-on-black); the Teutonic Order used a black-on white version.

The basic variants of the red-on-white (termed the Cross of Saint George) and the white-on-red crusaders' cross were continued independently in the flags of various states in the 13th and 14th century, including the Duchy of Genoa, the Electorate of Trier, the Bishopric of Constance and the Kingdoms of England and Georgia, which last two had special devotions to St George.[2] on one hand; and Savoy, the war flag of the Holy Roman Empire and (possibly from the latter) Switzerland and Denmark on the other.

A roll of arms of the 13th century (the reign of Henry III of England) lists the coats of arms of various noblemen distinguished by crosses of different tinctures:

Glover's Roll (British Museum Add MS 29796), a 16th-century copy of a roll of arms of the 1250s has depictions of various heraldic crosses, including the or a cross gules of the earl of Norfolk, gules, a cross argent of Peter of Savoy, argent a cross gules of Robert de Veer, gules a cross flory vair of Guillaume de Forz, Comte d'Aumale, gules a cross fleury argent of Guillaume Vescy, gules a cross saltire engrele of Fulke de Escherdestone, argent a cross fleury azure of John Lexington, azure three crosses or of William de Sarren, or a cross gules, five scallops argent of Ralph Bigod, gules a cross fourchy argent of Gilbert de Vale, argent a cross fleury sable of John Lamplowe, or a cross saltire gules, a chief gules of Robert de Brus, gules a cross saltire argent of Robert de Neville, or a cross voided gules of Hamond (Robert) de Crevecoeur, and azure a cross or, four lions rampant or of Baudouin Dakeney. In addition, the Glover Roll has semy of crosses crosslet as a tincture in several coats of arms.[3]

The desire to distinguish one's coat of arms from others led to a period of substantial innovation in producing variants of the basic Christian cross by the early 14th century (in England, the reign of Edward II).

The great number of variants of crosses, and the deep history of such variants (going back to the 14th century or earlier) results in confusing and often contradictory terminology.[4]

In the heraldry of the Holy Roman Empire, the cross is comparatively rare in the coats of arms of noble families, presumably because the plain heraldic cross was seen as an imperial symbol (for the same reason, the eagle was rarely used as a charge because it represented the empire), but in the 14th century the plain cross is used in the seals and flags of several prince-bishoprics, including Trier, Constance and Cologne.[5]

Seal of Amadeus V, Count of Savoy (1249–1323), showing a knight on horseback displaying the Savoy cross on his shield, ailets (shoulder-pads) and caparison (horse covering)

Looking back on the crusades as the foundational period of knighthood, the badge of the cross became strongly associated with the idealized Christian knight of romance, as expressed by Spenser (Faerie Queene book 1, canto 1):[6]

"And on his brest a bloodie crosse he bore,
The deare remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead, as living ever, his ador'd:
Upon his shield the like was also scor'd.

The black-on-white cross worn by the Teutonic Knights was granted by Innocent III in 1205. The coat of arms representing the grand master (Deutschmeisterwappen)[7] is shown with a golden cross fleury or cross potent superimposed on the black cross, with the imperial eagle as a central inescutcheon. The golden cross fleury overlaid on the black cross becomes widely used in the 15th century. A legendary account attributes its introduction to Louis IX of France, who on 20 August 1250 granted the master of the order this cross as a variation of the Jerusalem cross, with the fleur-de-lis symbol attached to each arm. While this legendary account cannot be traced back further than the early modern period (Christoph Hartknoch, 1684) there is some evidence that the design does indeed date to the mid 13th century.[8] The black cross patty was later used for military decoration and insignia by the Kingdom of Prussia and gave rise to the cross patty in the German Reichskriegsflagge and the Iron Cross and Pour le Mérite orders.

The Nordic cross is an 18th-century innovation derived from cross flags adapted as swallow-tailed (or triple-tailed) pennons used as civil ensigns; the first official introduction of such a flag was in a regulation of 11 June 1748 describing the Danish civil ensign (Koffardiflaget) for merchant ships. The Danish design was adopted for the flags of Norway (civil ensign 1821) and Sweden (1906), both derived from a common ensign used during the Union between Sweden and Norway 18181844, Iceland (1915) and Finland (1917).

Variants of heraldic crosses

Classical heraldry

The following table lists only variants in the basic shape of the cross. Heraldic crosses may in addition vary in their flection (i.e. modification of their edges as engrailed (engreslée), embattled (bretessée), indented (denchée), invected (cannelée), wavy, (ondée), raguly (écotée), dancetty or dantelly (denché, émanchée), and so on), or their tincture (they may be party, or chequy, compony, counter-compony, fretty, trellised, vair maçonnée and so on).

A plain heraldic cross is a Greek cross, with four arms of equal length which meet in the fesse-point (center) of the shield. Due to the pointed shape of the shield, however, the horizontal bar is generally shorter than the vertical if the cross arms are drawn as extending to the border of the field, resulting in a Latin cross.

Crosses in heraldry
These crosses are used in classical (early modern) heraldry. If no other source is cited, the following crosses are listed in James Parker's A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry (1894).
Picture Cross name Description

The basic heraldic cross (the default if there are no additional specifying words) has arms of roughly equal length, adapted to fit the particular shape of the shield, extending to the edges of the shield (or subdivision thereof)—as in the coat of the City of London.

A cross which does not extend to the edges of the shield is couped or humetty, in heraldic terminology; it is shown with all its limbs of equal length and is also sometimes called a Greek cross.

cross barby

In the coat of Tillie in Cornwall (cited in Parker's Glossary, s.v. Cross barby). The symbol is also called a "barbed cross" or an "arrow cross". An arrow cross in green was also the symbol of the Arrow Cross Party of Hungary.

cross bottony (trefly)

A cross with the ends of the arms bottony (or botonny, i.e. "furnished with knobs or buttons"), i.e. shaped like a trefoil—and so it is sometimes called a cross trefly. In early armory it is not always distinguished from a cross crosslet.

It occurs counterchanged on the flag of Maryland; a saltire botonny can be seen in the coat and flag of the Village of New Maryland, New Brunswick; and a Latin cross trefly can be seen in the coat of Isidore Popowych.

cross cercelée (recercely)

A cross recercely seems to be a cross moline parted or voided throughout—though it may be a cross moline very curly (Brooke-Little An heraldic alphabet, p 77).

cross fleury (flory)

A cross whose arms end in fleurs-de-lys – as in the coat of the Municipalité de la Paroisse de Saint-Philémon. In early armory it was not consistently distinguished from the cross patonce.

cross fourchy (fourchee)

One form of the heraldic cross fourchy or cross fourche (croix fourchée meaning "forked"). An example is the South African Postal Association (South Africa's Bureau of Heraldry)

cross cramponny (fylfot)

Upright cross with truncated angled arms; essentially a variant of the swastika; uncommon, but can be found in the crest of Gordon of Hallhead (Scots Public Register volume 31, page20). Also known as a gammadion cross, or tetragammadion, as it were combining four capital Greek letters Γ (gamma).

Jerusalem cross

The symbol of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, which existed for almost two hundred years after the First Crusade; in the rendering at left, the large cross is shown slightly "potent" (i.e., with T-shaped ends), but that is not always the case. The four smaller crosses are said to symbolize either the four books of the Gospel or the four directions in which the Word of Christ spread from Jerusalem. Alternatively, all five crosses can symbolize the five wounds of Christ during the Passion. This symbol is used in the flag of Georgia. Also found in the coat of arms of the Papal Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, Vatican City (matriculated in Scotland as "Argent; a Jerusalem cross cantoned between four crosses couped, gules"—Scots Public Register, volume 75, page 112)—to be seen at various EOHSJ websites; also in the Canadian coat of Robert Gerald Guest (Canadian Public Register Volume III, page 85).

Maltese cross

With arms which narrow towards the center, and are indented at the ends, also known as the eight-pointed cross (with no curved lines). Perhaps best known as a badge of the Order of Malta; whether connected with the Order or not, it is a common heraldic device—found in the coat of the London Borough of Hackney and the Canadian coat of Eric Lawrence Barry; as a "cross of eight points" to be found in the crest of Robert G. Loftus, Canada.

Cross moline (anchory)

In a cross moline, the ends of the arms are bifurcated, split and curved back, also called a cross ancré or anchory. As a mark of cadency in English and Canadian heraldry, it marks an eighth son. Found in the coats of arms of Molyneux and of the House of Broglie.

cross patonce

A cross patonce is more or less intermediate between a cross pattée and a cross flory (or fleury). The ends of its limbs are trifurcated into leaf shapes, and seems to come in two sorts: one where the limbs are the same width all along as in the coat of Godfrey McCance Gransden; and the other where the limbs gently widen from the centre (but do not curve) as in the coat of John Chiu (both of Canada). A mediaeval example is shown on the seal of William de Fortibus(d.1260)

cross pattée (or formée/formy)

A cross pattée (or formée/formy) has arms narrowing towards the centre, but with flat ends. It is usually found with curved inside edges as in the 13th c. arms of Baron Berkeley (see also Iron Cross); but sometimes encountered with straight edges (triangular arms). The symbol was also used as the military aircraft roundel design for the former German Empire and the former Kingdom of Bulgaria.

Cross pattée fitchée

A cross pattée fitchée is a cross pattée with a sharp point added to the lower limb, as if for use in staking into the ground

cross pommy

A cross pommy (croix pommée) has a round knob at the end of each arm, as in the coat of Penwith District Council, England.

cross potent

This cross has a crossbar at the end of each of its arms. "Potent" is an old word for a crutch, and is used in heraldic terminology to describe a T shape. It is used by many, mostly Roman Catholic, Scouting and Guiding organisations in their logos and insignia. Found in the coat of Stevan Bradley Graeme Ralph and the badge of Fr. Mark Lowell Sargent (both Canada), it was also the symbol of Austrofascism.

Cross quadrate

A cross with a square at the intersection point (sometimes with a smaller relative size than shown in the illustration); found in the coats of Francesco Maestri (Canada) and Warwick District Council, England.

cross (triple) parted and fretted

A cross "parted and fretted" is divided and interlaced; if no number is specified, it has two strips in each direction. Found (triple parted) in the coat, flag and badge of the Greater Vancouver (British Columbia) Transportation Authority Police Service; and (double) in the coat of Croydon County Borough Council, England.

cross voided

A "cross voided throughout" has the central parts of the limbs cut with the colouring behind it showing through—as in the coat of the City of Lacombe, Alberta. The centre may be filled with another tincture as in the coat of the Town of Abbotsford, British Columbia.

cross pierced

A cross pierced has a circular void at the intersection. Cf. cross pierced quarterly.

cross pierced quarterly

A cross pierced quarterly (or quarter pierced) has a square void at the intersection. cf. cross pierced (no qualification), which shows a circular void. Media related to Crosses quarter pierced at Wikimedia Commons

cross fitchy A cross fitchy has the lower limb pointed, as if to be driven into the ground.[9][10]
cross crosslet

A cross with the ends of each arm crossed. A prominent early example is in the arms of the Beauchamp earls of Warwick. In early armory it is not always distinguished from a cross bottony. A variant is the cross crosslet double crossed,[11] with two bars crossing each arm, as in the arms of Robert Willoughby, 1st Baron Willoughby de Broke(d.1502) sculpted on his tomb at Callington Church, Cornwall. It appears in the canon of the arms and flag of the Episcopal Church.

cross crosslet fitchy

Shown here is a cross crosslet fitchy, a very frequent charge in British and French armory, appearing in the arms of the House of Howard, the Marquess of Ailsa, the Earl Cathcart, Macpherson of Cluny, Rattray of that Ilk, among many others. This is probably the most common form of the cross fitchy but others do exist, such as the crosses formy fitchy found between the antlers of the stag supporters of South Buckinghamshire District Council, England.

Cross of Saint James

The Cross of Saint James is similar to a cross flory fitchy, but is more sword-like. (The version shown on the left is the one used by the order of Santiago.) Found in the Scottish arms of Mulino from Venezuela (Scots Public Register volume 87, page 20) and in the coats of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain; and Caracas, Venezuela; Santiago de Tete, Mozambique.

cross erminée

A cross erminée is a cross of four ermine-spots, with the heads meeting, sharing their spots. Historically borne by Hurston (Cheshire, England) c. 1490 and others[12]

Patriarchal cross The patriarchal cross or double cross was used in Byzantine seals since the early medieval period. It was adopted in the Coat of arms of Hungary in the late 12th century.

Modern innovations and special cases

These crosses are either used in singlar contexts or are modern innovations, not found in classical heraldry
Picture Cross name Description
Nordic cross Modern cross variant introduced for rectangular civil ensigns (Denmark 1748) and later national flags.
Balkenkreuz Introduced in 1918, and used as Nazi German military vehicle emblem.
Bundeswehr cross

Vehicle emblem of the modern German military.

Cross of Saint of Julian (Cruz de San Julián)

Used by the Spanish Order of Alcántara

Victory Cross

The so-called Victory Cross is an early 10th century Asturian Christian ornamented processional crux gemmata. A depiction of this artefact was adopted as the motif of the Coat of arms of Asturias in 1984.


Depiction of St George's Flag used alongside the Royal Standard by Wat Tyler's rebels in Froissart's Chronicles (c. 1470).
The Tudor navy carrack Henry Grace à Dieu (launched 1514) as depicted in the 1546 Anthony Roll, with streamers showing St George's Cross.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Flags with crosses.

Flags with crosses are recorded from the later Middle Ages, e.g. in the early 14th century the insignia cruxata comunis of the city of Genoa, the red-on-white cross that would later become known as St George's Cross, and the white-on-red cross of the Reichssturmfahne used as the war flag of the Holy Roman Emperor possibly from the early 13th century.

Crosses on flags become more widespread in the Age of Sail, as maritime flags, and from this tradition develop into national flags in the 18th to 19th century, the British Union flag (as naval flag) was introduced in 1606, after the Union of the Crowns.

Several national flags are based on late medieval war flags, including the white-on-red crosses of the flag of Denmark and the flag of Switzerland. The elongated Nordic cross originates in the 18th century due to the rectangular shape of maritime flags.

The Red Cross flag originates in 1906 as a colour-switched version of the flag of Switzerland.

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Crosses in heraldry.


  1. see e.g. The Publications of the Harleian Society, Volume 100 (1950), p. 169.
  2. Red crosses seem to have been used as a distinguishing mark worn by English soldiers from the reign of Edward I (1270s). Perrin (1922) concludes that the introduction of the Cross of St George as a "national emblem" is originally due to Edward I. By 1300, there was also a greater "banner of St George", but not yet in a prominent function; the king used it among several banners of saints alongside the royal banner. "Among the greater banners that of St George was not as yet supreme; it was indeed only one of four, for when the Castle of Carlaverock was taken in the year 1300: Puis fist le roy porter amont / Sa baniere et la Seint Eymont / La Seint George et la Seint Edwart [...]" Perrin 1922, p. 37 "The first step towards the promotion of St George to a position of predominance seems to be due to Edward III, who in gratitude for his supposed help at the Battle of Cregy founded the Chapel of St George at Windsor in 1348." Perrin 1922, pp. 37f. Perrin (1922), British Flags, p. 37
  3. T.D. Tremlett, 'Rolls of Arms of Henri III' in Aspilogia II, Society of Antiquaries of London (1958).
  4. "heraldic writers have in their ingenuity multiplied the forms. In giving a summary of the chief forms only we are met with the difficulty of many synonyms occurring, for practically the same form is often much varied by incorrect drawing, and much confusion has arisen from blunders of heraldic writers in misreading or misunderstanding the terms employed. The French terms are more varied still than the English, and the correlation of the two series can only be attempted approximately." James Parker, A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry (1894)
  5. The 14th-century Zürich armorial has no family coats of arms with crosses, but shows plain crosses in the flags of several cities, including Constance, Speier, Trier and Mainz.
  6. Retrieved February 27, 2016
  7. The offices of Hochmeister (grand master, head of the order) and Deutschmeister (Magister Germaniae) were united in 1525. The title of Magister Germaniae had been introduced in 1219 as the head of the bailiwicks in the Holy Roman Empire, from 1381 also those in Italy, raised to the rank of a prince of the Holy Roman Empire in 1494, but merged with the office of grand master under Walter von Cronberg in 1525, from which time the head of the order had the title of Hoch- und Deutschmeister. Bernhard Peter (2011)
  8. Helmut Nickel, "Über das Hochmeisterwappen des Deutschen Ordens im Heiligen Lande", Der Herold 4/1990, 97108 ( Marie-Luise Heckmann, "Überlegungen zu einem heraldischen Repertorium an Hand der Hochmeisterwappen des Deutschen Ordens" in: Matthias Thumser, Janusz Tandecki, Dieter Heckmann (eds.) Edition deutschsprachiger Quellen aus dem Ostseeraum (14.-16. Jahrhundert), Publikationen des Deutsch-Polnischen Gesprächskreises für Quellenedition. Publikacje Niemiecko-Polskiej Grupy Dyskusyjnej do Spraw Edycij Zrodel 1, 2001, 315346 (online edition). "Die zeitgenössische Überlieferung verdeutlicht für dieses Wappen hingegen einen anderen Werdegang. Der Modelstein eines Schildmachers, der unter Hermann von Salza zwischen 1229 und 1266 auf der Starkenburg (Montfort) im Heiligen Land tätig war, und ein rekonstruiertes Deckengemälde in der Burgkapelle derselben Festung erlaubten der Forschung den Schluss, dass sich die Hochmeister schon im 13. Jahrhundert eines eigenen Wappens bedient hätten. Es zeigte ein auf das schwarze Ordenskreuz aufgelegtes goldenes Lilienkreuz mit dem bekannten Adlerschildchen. Die Wappensiegel des Elbinger Komturs von 1310 bzw. 1319, ein heute in Innsbruck aufbewahrter Vortrageschild des Hochmeisters Karl von Trier von etwa 1320 und das schlecht erhaltene Sekretsiegel desselben Hochmeisters von 1323 sind ebenfalls jeweils mit aufgelegtem goldenem Lilienkreuz ausgestattet."
  9.  Gilman, D. C.; Thurston, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). "Fitchy". New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.
  10.  Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Fitché". Encyclopedia Americana.
  11. Terminology of Robson, Thomas, The British Herald
  12. "A Glossary Of Terms Used In Heraldry By James Parker". Retrieved 2013-06-13.
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