From the dawn of time, humans have used imagery and symbols to convey ideas and denote social and political standing. This mechanism for symbolising a person, family or clan’s rank and pedigree developed during the middle ages into the system of heraldry we still recognise today.
Heraldry is a visual representation of one’s breeding – showing others who you are and where you come from. The coat of arms is one such device and became an elaborate status symbol. The coat of arms is a visual representation of standing in society. The intricate meanings behind the elements which make up each coat of arms have become a historical study in their own right.
Since 1484, recording and granting of coats of arms has been the function of the College of Arms. A government body, the college performs ceremonial roles, grants new arms and proves the descent of existing coats of arms and can change details of existing ones.
What is a coat of arms?
A coat of arms is a hereditary system of identification. With roots in medieval times, they are very much a part of our modern world.
The battlefields of old were complex places. In wartime, with thousands of men engaged in field combat, it was essential there was some way of recognising who was fighting for each side.
When knights began wearing helmets to protect their faces, it became necessary to establish a means by which they could be recognised. So knights began to paint shapes and symbols on their shields and banners.
As this symbolism became increasingly common and complex, rules grew up around these coats of arms to ensure only one group of people could use each unique design, and systems were implemented so that others could interpret who each coat of arms belonged to and what they stood for.
Why is it a "coat"?
The coat in a "coat of arms" refers to the surcoat, an outer garment worn above the armour of a knight. Fashioned from a simple piece of material, the surcoat had a hole for the head and was often sleeveless. This cloth tunic protected armour from the sun’s rays and identification marks were painted upon it.
In medieval times, the surcoat became an important part of battlefield dress as it would identify the knight and which army he was from. Eventually this form of identification would become the coat of arms. It also became particularly useful for identifying the dead from battle.
Where does the "arms" come from?
Arms evolved to note family alliances and were handed down from generation to generation. The symbols are meant to denote the achievements or status of the wearer and the family from which he or she is descended.
The first documented use of coats of arms is on the Bayeux Tapestry which dates from 1100AD. Some of the knights on the tapestry can be seen with shields displaying insignia on them. By the 12th century, these symbols had become common place, but the rules surrounding their use and, more importantly, who could use them become increasingly sophisticated.
The middle part of the 12th century saw the system develop further. The period's enthusiasm for tournaments added another layer to the development of the coat of arms as a symbolic representation of power and glory.
Such tournaments were the sport of the rich and were glamorous, colourful affairs. The coats of arms adorning jousting knights were necessary so that spectators could identify their heroes and those who had emerged victorious. The costumes, symbolism and drama of the tournament became an art form and so too did the coat of arms.
In the medieval period, only a ruling monarch could grant the use of a coat of arms. In England and Scotland, only the person to whom the coat of arms was granted could use it as it was. This meant different generations would alter the design slightly and this has added to the huge diversity in the history of the coat of arms.
Coats of arms are heraldic devices, demonstrating the bearer’s wealth and prowess. Heraldry is a term which describes the design, use and study of armorial bearings. Heraldic designs are still in popular use and adorn the banners of cities, towns, regions, organisations and individuals.
Heraldry, and the study of coats of arms, has a language all of its own which can be difficult to interpret, but the rich layers upon which the tradition was built ensure heraldry is a beautiful representation of our heritage.
The Heraldry Society is a great place to start delving into the wonders of heraldry, its history, language and colour. The society has a comprehensive library of literature and a huge searchable gallery of coats of arms.
The splendour of such devices as an art form and historical record has transposed the ages and the coats of arms and other heraldic displays still symbolise legacy, tradition, achievements, values, aspirations and common purpose.
The make-up of a coat of arms
The components which make up a coat of arms are as complex as the artwork which adorns them. Because mediaeval England was heavily influenced by the nobility of Norman France, many of the terms used to describe each element use this language. This complex set of rules and terminology means the study and development of coats of arms has its own unique code which only adds to the ornate heritage.
Each coat of arms is always made up of a shield upon which a basic design is incorporated. Often this is a cross, but designs also use chevron, saltires and other shapes. These basic designs are known as "ordinaries".
A crest will sit on top of the shield and this is sometimes an animal like a lion or a bird such as an eagle. Often this symbol is chosen to represent some achievement or prowess that the bearer believes they or their family possess.
Above the crest you will find the motto. This is a saying or phrase that the owner of the coat of arms feels best sums up their family, pedigree, achievements and values.
Flanking each side of the shield are the supporters. These are usually two animals or a pair of people who represent the defenders of the shield. The chosen design of the supporters will often depict the origin of the coat of arms.
Has my family got a coat of arms?
As explained by the College of Arms, a coat of arms does not "belong" to a surname, it belongs to an individual. To have a right to a coat of arms, you must have had it granted to you or be descended from a legitimate male line to whom the coat of arms was afforded.
However, many families will be able to trace ancestors who were granted a coat of arms and you may be able to identify elements within the design which hint at your family origins.