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Bar Sinister

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Argent, a bend sinister gules.

A thick band of clouds ran along the horizon. 'A bar sinister,' he said to Penny, pointing.
'What does that mean?' she asked.
'It means some big bastard is creeping up behind us.

The Bar Sinister is the single most famous element of Hollywood Heraldry, a diagonal line on a coat of arms that indicates illegitimacy. "Sinister" just means that the line starts at the top left, but the connotations of the word may have something to do with the trope's persistence (to avoid embarrassment, it's important to remember that "left" in heraldry means the shield-bearer's left, which is "right" from the point of view of the person looking at the coat of arms).

In reality, there are three things wrong with this:

  1. In heraldry, a bar is actually a horizontal line. The term for a diagonal line is bend (in French heraldry, barre). A small diagonal line that doesn't reach the edges of the shield is a baton.
  2. There is no standard heraldic symbol for illegitimacy. The baton or bend sinister was used in this way in some places and times, but in other places and times it was completely innocent, and some other indicator was used — or, depending on the cultural norms, no indicator at all. For instance, in Scottish heraldry, the arms of a bastard were marked by a border around the shield, usually a pattern of alternating white and some other colour, while the French and Spanish rules varied depending on the region and time, and the Germans rarely ever bothered differencing arms at all.
  3. In English heraldry, there were (and are) very strict rules about how a coat of arms was inherited and even stricter and more complicated rules about how they could be used by members of the family of the person to whom the arms were originally granted. In general, though, an illegitimate child would have no right to bear or inherit the arms of either of their parents at all, no matter how they differenced it (however, an illegitimate child may apply for a grant of arms — or, if a minor, the parent may do so for him — and may request that it be based on the parental arms; but the rest is up to the Heralds' College).

In modern English heraldry, the most common indicator is a particular type of border around the edge of the shield, borrowed from the Scottish system.

Bestselling historical novelist Walter Scott is the trope creator: his works stuck popular culture with both the idea of the barre sinister as a sign of illegitimacy and the misspelling of "barre". Although completely bogus in terms of heraldry, the concept lives on in the unit badges of some military organizations, as a pictorial way of Getting Crap Past the Radar. A baton sinister is used to imply that members of that unit are, well, bastards. Notably, this use can be seen in the unit patch of the US Marine fighter squadron VMA-214 "Black Sheep", whose Second World War exploits formed the basis for a popular TV series, Baa Baa Black Sheep.

Not to be confused with Bad Guy Bar.


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     Comic Books  

  • Bar Sinister, by Mike Grell, is about a genetically altered superhero team. The first issue's cover is based on the Bar Sinister.
  • Bar Sinister is a location on Battleworld in Secret Wars (2015).

     Fan Works  
  • A Darker Path: Atropos actually carves one of these into Bastard Son's chest, explicitly because it was a symbol for a bastard son back in the day. For bonus points, she uses a bastard sword given to her by the son of a (metaphorical) bastard to do the deed.


  • A Song of Ice and Fire uses a typical pattern for noble-born, acknowledged bastard sons that use a coat of arms — their noble father's coat of arms with the colors reversed.
    • The bend sinister was also known, but isn't always used; the reversed color pattern is used nearly always. Not all bastard children, even noble-born acknowledged bastard children, are armigerous: Jon Snow, for example — though he is a highborn, acknowledged illegitimate son of a lord, is only entitled to the black shield of the Night's Watch since he joined the Watch (and this applies to every member of the Watch, no matter what their status is). There is no evidence of Ramsay Snow, bastard son of Roose Bolton, being armigerous before he was legitimized; Ramsey briefly used the Bolton arms before that and Roose took serious offense and told him not to. However, Walder Rivers, a highborn acknowledged Frey bastard son, has both the bend sinister and the reversed colors.
    • Had Jon used his family arms it would have had a white wolf, which is why it's significant that his pet wolf Ghost is an albino. Additionally his sword Longclaw has a white wolf pommel, it originally had a bear (House Mormont's sigil) but Jeor had it changed so it would be a more appropriate gift to Jon.
    • Daemon Blackfyre, founder of the Blackfyre dynasty of pretenders to the Iron Throne, is a bastard son of King Aegon IV and took a black three-headed dragon on red (the reversed Targaryen sigil, a red three-headed dragon on black) as his family's sigil.
    • There is another marker of bastardy in the series used by acknowledged bastards of nobles, whether they possess arms or not — a special surname based on the region of birth. Northmen used "Snow", Riverlanders used "Rivers", Crownlanders used "Waters", etc. As many commoners have no surname at all, even this minor inheritance serves to put lords' bastard children slightly above the average peasant in terms of social standing.
  • In Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy, FitzChivalry is initially given the Farseer arms, of a buck's head, with a red diagonal line to mark his illegitimacy. It's suggested that, while he wouldn't be allowed to wear the royal arms without the line, all he'd have to do was ask and he'd be given his own arms with no such mark, and later this is given to him anyway.
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the flag of the rebel Lunar colonists (most of whom are ex-cons or descendants of ex-cons, as Earth uses the Moon as a penal colony) proudly features a blood-red bar sinister.
  • Prince Roger: When the titular character, a bastard son of the Empress of Earth, ends up stranded on a hostile planet and, for various reasons, finds himself raising a regiment of the local aliens (The Basik's Own), he includes a bar sinister in their colours.
    You bastard.
    Literally. The Basik's Own carries the bar sinister proudly.
    • It doesn't apply to him personally however. The Empire doesn't seem to have any rules regarding bastards and as such he is considered a legal heir to the throne (behind his older half-siblings) despite his parents not being married.
  • Averted in Village Tales. The Royal Stuart quarter in the Duke of Taunton's arms are blazoned in the narrative as being within "a bordure compony of Argent and Azure, the true blue compartments of that bordure bearing each a white and Yorkist rose, a rose Argent barbed and seeded proper: a quarter bare of any bend or baton (unlike that in the first quarter of Rory's Badenoch arms, in which the Stuart Royal Arms in their bordure compony of Gules and Or are further debruised by a baton Argent, marking the celebrated 'double bastardy of Badenoch')...." [Rory is the Marquess of Badenoch, a kinsman of the Duke's.]


     Video Games  

  • An icon of a shield with a bend sinister is used to represent bastards in the first Crusader Kings, but replaced (probably for both accuracy and clarity) with a more obvious symbol in the sequel.

     Western Animation  

     Real Life  

  • One of the platforms at Euston Station, London, is decorated with the coat of arms of the Earl of Euston. The Earl was the illegitimate son of the king, and the baton sinistre is seen as an important enough part of his coat of arms that when they painted an abstract pattern to represent the coat of arms, the baton was the "main feature".

Alternative Title(s): Bend Sinister