Ermine (heraldry)

Ermine (/ˈɜːrmɪn/) in heraldry is a "fur", a type of tincture, consisting of a white background with a pattern of black shapes representing the winter coat of the stoat (a species of weasel with white fur and a black-tipped tail). The linings of medieval coronation cloaks and some other garments, usually reserved for use by high-ranking peers and royalty, were made by sewing many ermine furs together to produce a luxurious white fur with patterns of hanging black-tipped tails. Due largely to the association of the ermine fur with the linings of coronation cloaks, crowns and peerage caps, the heraldic tincture of ermine was usually reserved to similar applications in heraldry (i.e., the linings of crowns and chapeaux and of the royal canopy).[1] In heraldry it has become especially associated with the Duchy of Brittany and breton heraldry.

A stoat in winter fur.
Some of the many variations of ermine spots found in heraldry over the centuries.
Ermine fur, from the robes of Peter I of Serbia.

Ermine spots

The coat of arms of the former Duchy of Brittany, blazoned "Ermine"

The ermine spot, the conventional heraldic representation of the tail, has had a wide variety of shapes over the centuries; its most usual representation has three tufts at the end (bottom), converges to a point at the root (top), and is attached by three studs. When "ermine" is specified as the tincture of the field (or occasionally of a charge), the spots are part of the tincture itself, rather than a semé or pattern of charges. The ermine spot (so specified), however, may also be used singly as a mobile charge, or as a mark of distinction signifying the absence of a blood relationship.[2]

On a bend ermine, the tails follow the line of the bend. In the arms of William John Uncles,[3] the field ermine is cut into bendlike strips by the three bendlets azure, so the ermine tails are (unusually) depicted bendwise.

Later variations

Though ermine and vair were the two furs used in early armoury, other variations of these developed later. Both in continental heraldry and British, the fur pattern was used in varying colours as a blazon atop other tinctures (e.g., "d'Or, semé d'hermines de sable" for black ermine spots on a gold field[2]).

British heraldry created three names for specific variants, rather than blazoning them longhand. Ermines is the reverse of ermine – a field sable semé of ermine-spots argent; it is sometimes called counter-ermine (cf. French contre-hermine and German Gegenhermelin).[2] Erminois is ermine with a field or (gold) instead of argent (silver), and pean is the reverse of erminois (i.e., or spots on a field sable).

Erminites is alleged to be the "same as ermine, except that the two lateral hairs of each spot are red."[4] James Parker mentions it,[5] as does Pimbley,[6] though by the former's admission this is of doubtful existence. Arthur Charles Fox-Davies describes it as a "silly [invention] of former heraldic writers, not of former heralds."[7]

Legendary origin

A etiological legend explaining the origin of the use of ermine in heraldry was given during the funeral orations of Anne of Brittany in 1514. In the oration, Guillaume Parvi traced Anne's ancestry back to Innogen, the daughter of Greek king Pandrasus and wife of Brutus of Troy from Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudo-history Historia Regum Britanniae (c.1136). He then recounted a story that, during a hunt at Le Croisic, a stoat being pursued by Brutus' dogs took refuge with Innogen, who saved and fed it, and adopted it for ordre et armes ('order and arms').[8]

See also

  • Flag of Brittany
  • Flag of Leicestershire
  • Flag of Norfolk
  • Flag of Shropshire
  • Coat of arms of the University of Cambridge
  • Ó Donnagáin coat of arms
  • Chudleigh coat of arms


  1. Woodcock, Thomas; Robinson, John Martin (1988). The Oxford Guide to Heraldry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 88–89. ISBN 0-19-211658-4.
  2. Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles; Johnston, Graham (2004) [1909]. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. Kessinger Publishing. pp. 77–78. ISBN 1-4179-0630-8.
  3. "Armorial - Members - William John UNCLES". Retrieved 2022-10-19.
  4. "Pimbley's Dictionary of Heraldry". Archived from the original on 2009-03-21. Retrieved 2007-08-13.
  5. James Parker. "A GLOSSARY OF TERMS USED IN HERALDRY". Archived from the original on 2000-12-09. Retrieved 2007-08-13.
  6. "Pimbley's Dictionary of Heraldry". Retrieved 2007-08-13.
  7. Fox-Davies (1904), p. 49.
  8. Cornette, Joël (2021). "'La Royne est morte! La Royne est morte!'". Anne de Bretagne. NRF Biographies (in French). Paris: Gallimard. p. 209. ISBN 9782070770618.


  • Fox-Davies, A. C. (1904). The Art of Heraldry: An Encyclopædia of Armory. (1968 edition) New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc. LCCN 68-56481
  • Fox-Davies, A. C. (1909). A Complete Guide to Heraldry. (2004 edition) Whitefish, MT: Kessenger Publishing. ISBN 1-4179-0630-8 LCCN 09-23803
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