Coats of Arms were a means by which princes and knights from the 12th Century onwards could identify one another on the battlefield and in tournaments.
As the use of arms spread, the designs necessarily became more elaborate. Eventually a Coat of Arms became a matter of great family pride and prestige, awarded to knights and tradesmen for services to a sovereign.
Many thousands of designs were registered, each one different from the rest in each country and each one symbolic of the family it represented. You may or may not be related to the early namesake represented in your Coat of Arms (no genealogical relationship is intended or implied in supplying a Coat of Arms for decoration). It is not uncommon for one surname to have different Coats of Arms applicable to it, as many unrelated of the same name may have been awarded arms.
The decorative use of Coats of Arms is officially encouraged because it "inspires pride within the family" and offers a sense of medieval pride to the home.
A Coat of Arms is made up of several components.
The scroll is used to display the surname on which the Coat of Arms is based.
The crest was mounted on the helmet and was an essential part of the insignia in most countries, though rare in France, Spain and Italy.
This was simply to keep the mantle in place. Some Coats of Arms show a wreath instead of a crown, although this has no special significance. It was sometimes a wreath, or some variation of a crown.
Worn by the knight for protection during battles.
This was worn over the knights helmet and served two main functions: firstly, the colours formed part of the overall identity as depicted in the Coat of Arms, and secondly, it helped to keep the metal armour cool in hot weather.
Coat of Arms
This was displayed on the shield, surcoat and banner of the knight. Each Coat of Arms was protected by law and was borne with legitimate pride.
Many families had a family motto which may have been recorded as part of the arms.
All put together, a complete Coat Of Arms can look like this:
Heralds of the middle ages developed their own terminology for describing Coats of Arms. In heraldry this is called a "Blazon" and every single Coat of Arms has its own unique Blazon. It enables any Coat of Arms to be reproduced with great accuracy, but without inhibiting artistic expression.
The left and right sides of the fields are called DEXTER (right) and SINISTER (left). Usually all of the charges and ordinaries point 'Dexter', the same direction as the helmet faces, unless otherwise stated in the Blazon. You will notice that dexter is left as you look at the shield, but is in fact right, as if you were holding the shield on your arm!
ORDINARIES & ACCIDENTALS
An 'ordinary' is one of a class of charges, typically a figure of simple geometric form, as seen here:
Each of these designs can then be subject to any number of "accidentals":
The result of this can be seen in the examples below:
Animals are common charges which appear in coat armour. Common animals include lions, tigers, leopards, eagles, wolves, greyhounds and ravens. Some mythological favourites include griffins, harpies, Pegasus and dragons.
Some of the most common poses are described heraldically as:
There are many hundreds of different charges which can be used in coats of armour. These include such things as images of people, tools of various trades, weapons, wild animals, mythological monsters, celestial icons, flowers and trees, castles and towers, food, household items, birds and fish, and ships, to name just a few.
The importance of these charges was significant in that they would often symbolize the trade, hopes and ambitions of the individual for whom the arms were created.
COLOURS (Tinctures & Metals)
In heraldry, the colours, or "tinctures", used in coat armour are described in the following way:
The first five colours are described as 'colours' and the last two are described as 'metals'. The term 'proper' is used when a charge is to be coloured with its natural colours.There are also 'colours' called 'Furs'. Such an example is called 'ERMINE' (see below).' Also are also other furs such as 'vair', 'counter vair', 'pean', 'erminois', 'ermines' and 'potent counter potent'
Heraldry In The Modern Age
It is hard to believe that heraldry, even in these modern times far from the distant days of chivalry and fighting knights, has an important role in our lives. It would be impossible for something so deeply woven into our past to simply fade away as times changed, instead it has evolved into an “artform” that surrounds us and can be found in the most unlikely places. Every County, City and Town in virtually every country around the World has an Heraldic device of some sort, some are modern designs reflection the emergence of new countries and states others date from antiquity when Heraldry was at its height. Amongst the logos and emblems used by the High Street shops and businesses Heraldry is also to found:
One famous Bank has a Horse Rampant Regardant Sable as its logo. Corporate bodies of distinction, such as the BBC, have a Coat of Arms, venerable sporting institutions can also have a Coat of Arms, the one for Wimbledon has a tennis court theme. Country Cricket teams have part of their county Coat of Arms as their emblem. National and local football teams use heraldic devices on their shirts, the three lions of England appearing on the team shirts is derived from the Coat of Arms for England.
Obtaining An Official Grant Of Arms
In England, recognition of existing arms and granting new coats is among the responsibilities of the College of Arms. This body, founded in 1484, is headed by Garter King of Arms under the supervision of the Earl Marshal of England, a hereditary office held by the Duke of Norfolk.
The process of obtaining a grant of arms from this venerable body is a complex and somewhat lengthy one. Initially, one makes a request to petition the Earl Marshal for a grant. The request, accompanied by a curriculum vitae, goes to an officer of arms. The c.v. is vetted to determine the petitioner's eligibility to receive a grant. The c.v. should include public activities in which you have engaged, whether in the armed forces, civil service, government (at any level), or voluntary and charitable bodies (again at any level). The idea is to show that one has been of some service to the community at large. Once the request to petition has been accepted, the next steps involve deciding the terms of the grant: whether it is to be a grant of arms to you and your heirs only; to your siblings and their heirs, too; or, indeed, to the descendants of your grandfather. It may also be of interest to you to know that a daughter may use her father's arms in her lifetime but may pass them on to her children only if her husband is himself armigerous and she has no brothers. In such a case, she (and any sisters she may have) is what is called an heraldic heiress.
What the granted arms will look like are, of course, most important. Heraldry is nothing if it is not a decorative art. So doubtless you would wish to consider what events or associations the arms should commemorate and how best to interpret or express them heraldically. Someone seasoned in heraldic lore and art can greatly assist the petitioner, who may not have much knowledge of heraldry, to obtain a coat of arms which both communicates what he wishes to express and is aesthetically pleasing.
Your grant could be of a complete "heraldic achievement". This comprises a shield of arms, which is the "coat of arms" proper and the heart of armorial expression; a crest on top of a helmet above the shield; mantling, the stylized fabric that falls from the top of the helmet, and a motto. You might also wish to consider obtaining at the same time a grant of a badge. This is a self-contained emblem which may be used in places where the shield or crest would not be as appropriate. It often expresses some personal conceit or relationship not conveyed by the arms themselves. Some badges which you will have seen many times are the rose, thistle and shamrock for the nations of England, Scotland and Ireland, the Prince of Wales's feathers and the portcullis badge of the Houses of Parliament. The design of suitable arms can take time when the petitioner's idea of what he wants proves difficult to reconcile with what the College requires. For example, the arms he has in his mind's eye may fail to be sufficiently distinct from another coat that already exists. This is one among many possible reasons why the process of obtaining a grant may cover a period of two years and even longer. Proper preparation and consultation can expedite the process. The College requires payment of the full amount at an early stage, in fact as soon as approval to petition is given. Should you wish to have the arms granted retrospectively to the male descendants of your father, additional fees are required.
Generally, this information applies only for gentlemen of the British Isles, the process will likely be different country to country.
If you would like a certificate of arms, featuring the history of a surname alongside a coat of arms associated with the name, we can provide that service!