The concept of “charge groups” was developed within Society heraldry to facilitate analysis of armorial designs; although that phrase isn’t used in either period or modern heraldry, it is an effective way of understanding the actual designs that appear in period armory.
To start, find a group of one or more charges of a similar size and in a related arrangement, then consider their placement and relationship to other charges to categorize them as follows:
- Primary Charge Group: placed directly on the field, forming the largest and most-central charge group, or for a divided field, surrounding or overlapping the line of division or forming the largest group on its side of the field.
- Secondary Charge Groups: placed directly on the field, surrounding the primary charge, or distributed around the edge of the field.
- Tertiary Charge Groups: placed entirely on (overlapping) primary or secondary charges.
- Overall Charges: consist of only one charge, mostly on the field but also overlapping the primary charges, and crossing the center.
The decision flowchart below provides another way of looking at this process:
There are a few other issues to bear in mind when identifying charge groups:
- A charge group may contain two different types of charges, but not three (the “slot machine” rule), and it may not mix ordinaries and other charges.
- A semy of charges distributed over the field typically form a secondary charge group, but may be the primary charge group if there are no other candidates.
- Peripheral ordinaries — the chief, bordure, orle, tressures, canton, base, tierce, gore, gusset, flaunches, and gyron — are never considered primary charges.
- A charge that is touching another charge of similar size, such as a beast leaning against a object of comparable size, is said to be “sustaining” it, and both charges fall into the same charge group.
- A charge that is touching a smaller charge, such as a beast carrying a object in its paws, is said to be “maintaining” it, and the smaller charge falls into a secondary charge group. (Some items are so small and customary that they may be treated as accessories that are not blazoned and do not count for difference; for example, mermaids often hold a small comb in one hand, and this might not be mentioned or counted for difference.)
- Items in a charge group that have comparable postures must have postures which can be blazoned together (for example, if a charge group contains two quadrupeds, you can’t have one rampant and one passant).
- If you can’t figure out whether charges are part of a group on not, that might be a clue that your design isn’t following period style.
- Appendix J of SENA catalogues combinations of charge groups that have been observed in period armory; if your design doesn’t fit into any of those arrangements, you’ll need to find period examples to support it.