It sprang from the devices, boldly painted in bright colors, which the French knights bore on their shields to identify themselves in tournament and battle. More properly referred to as armory, heraldry is a system of identification that uses hereditary personal devices portrayed on shields. Later these appeared as crests, on surcoats (worn over armor), bardings (armor and trappings for horses), and banners (personal flags used throughout the middle ages), to assist in the identification of knights in battle and in tournaments.
This custom rapidly spread from France to England, Germany, Spain, and Italy. By the time of the 3rd Crusade in 1189, Heraldry had become a recognized science, with a system, a classification, and a technical language all its own. The language of Heraldry still has many words from the old French.
Therefore, the aim of Heraldry was plain — that of conspicuous distinctiveness and at no time could this have been more necessary than on the 3rd Crusade when the armies of France, England, and Germany were combined. Completely hidden in armor and helmet, the knight needed means of identification.
Later peaceful uses for Heraldry developed. Arms were carved, painted or enameled on tombs, windows, and walls; in stone, wood, metal, and glass; in churches, monasteries, manor houses, and castles; wherever the owner or patron desired decoration. The arms of the family were embroidered on the mantles of the women and on the vestments of the priests in the castle chapel. When a ship left port the shields of all the armigerous or arms-bearing men aboard her were painted on her sides. This last might be deemed an early passenger list.
More important still, were the heraldic seals bearing the owner's arms, which, when used on documents in a time when few men could sign their name, gave legal proof of authenticity.
A knowledge of Heraldry was part of the education of a gentleman and the young pages attached to the households how to "blazon" or describe a Coat of the great Lords were required to know Arms, to recognize the arms of prominent men of their time and the arms of their Lord's friends and, possibly of more im-portance, of his enemies.
To serve their purpose, marks of distinction must be copyright by custom, if not by law and at first Heraldry seems to have done without legal control, but the increasing use of arms and the need of keeping them distinctive, made record necessary. In 1406, Charles VI of France formed an organization to grant and govern the use of Coats of Arms in that country. In England, since 1483 the College of Arms, a body that still functions, has granted all Coats of Arms. Its officials still bear their old time titles, Kings of Arms—Heralds— Pursuivants, still wear their medieval dress at coronations and similar functions; and still issue patents or grants of arms and give information regarding old ones.
At first arms were borne only by the great Lords, but eventually their use was wide-spread among all gentlemen or landowners and on the Continent, as in England, the possession of a Coat of arms did not necessarily denote nobility.
Inheritance of Coats of Arms
Strictly speaking, an individual coat of arms belonged to one man only, being passed from him to his male-line descendants. Therefore, there is no coat of arms for a surname. Basically, it is one man, one arms, a reminder of the origin of heraldry as a means of instant recognition in the thick of battle. Violations of this are rampant.
Because of a descent of coats of arms through generations, heraldry is very important to genealogists, providing evidence of family relationships. Of special significance:
- Cadency — The sons in each generation inherit the paternal shield, but alter it slightly in a tradition known as cadency with the addition of some mark which, in theory at least, is perpetuated in their branch of the family. The eldest son also follows this tradition, but reverts to the paternal coat of arms upon the death of his father.
- Marshalling — When families were merged through marriage it was common practice to also merge or combine their respective coat of arms. This practice, known as marshalling, is the art of arranging several coats of arms in one shield, for the purpose of denoting the alliances of a family. (A fuller description is given later with Quartering.)
- Bearing of Arms by Women — Women have always been able to inherit arms from their fathers and to receive grants of coats of arms. They can only pass these inherited arms on to their children if they have no brothers, however — making them heraldic heiresses. Since a woman usually did not wear armor in the Middle Ages, it became convention to display the coat of arms of her father in a lozenge shaped field, rather than a shield, if widowed or unmarried. When married, a woman could bear the shield of her husband upon which her arms are marshalled. (See Quartering below.)
Granting of Coats of Arms
Coats of arms are granted by the Kings of Arms in England and the six counties of Northern Ireland, the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms in Scotland, and the Chief Herald of Ireland in the Republic of Ireland. The College of Arms holds the official register of all coats of arms or heraldry in England and Wales. Other countries, including the United States, Australia, and Sweden, also maintain records of or allow people to register coats of arms, though no official restrictions or laws are imposed on the bearing of arms.
A coat of arms is a legal possession, as hereditary as any other piece of property in accordance with certain laws of inheritance. Every coat of arms is attached to the name and not the title of the person who bore it. Its use today in America is as democratic as the use of a piece of silver inherited from an ancestor whose name one bears.
The devices on the early shields were very simple, perhaps a broad band placed horizontally or crosswise on the shield; or possibly a chevron, from the French word "chevron" meaning rafter, and represented with a very acute angle, suggesting the sharply peaked roofs of the medieval gables. Animals were used, having definite form such as the lion, or a monster—the dragon, the griffin, or the wyvern, for monsters were very real to the people of the middle ages and everyone knew exactly how they looked. Frequent use was made of a part of an animal — the upper half of the lion called a demilion; or a boar's head, for example. Weapons — the lance, the battle axe, an arrow or arrow head, and the sword — were favorite devices as were implements used in sport or work, such as the hawk's lure or hawk's bell, the spur, the chess rook, the bugle horn, and the mill rind. A widely used device was the scallop shell, which outside of heraldry, was the badge of a pilgrim going to the Holy Land, and they are often seen on the shields of families whose arms were granted during the period of the Crusades.
Some curiosities appear in the Birds of Heraldry. The martlet or heraldic swallow is always shown without feet, the legs terminating in feathers. The dove of heraldry is always represented with a slight tuft or crest on its head, while the heraldic pelican has the head and body of an eagle, always shown with wings elevated and neck embowed, pecking at its breast with its elongated beak and providing drops of blood to nourish its young.
Artists of the early days of Heraldry knew that their color must be brilliant and their palette a simple one of few colors. Two metals were used, gold and argent (silver) and five colors, gules (red), azure (blue), sable (Black), vert (green), and, very rarely, purpure (purple). Metal is seldom shown on metal or color on color. The most common fur is ermine, represented by sable dots of particular shape on a white background. A device described as "proper" should be shown in the natural colors of the animal or object.
Each individual part of a Coat of Arms has its distinctive name — the composition or achievement, is known as the Coat of arms, a term which comes from the custom of the French knights of embroidering their arms on the linen surcoat or tunic-like garment worn over the armor.
The Shield is the most important part for on it are shown the devices of the name to which it belongs and it is with the shield that the laws of Heraldry are principally concerned. It is impossible to have a Coat of arms without a shield.
The Helmet was the armor for the head and is shown as resting on the top of the shield. Its form varied with the centuries, with the rank of the wearer and with the country in which it was worn. A helmet was always lined with red velvet and is so depicted. For an American it is most correct to use a closed helmet shown in profile.
The Wreath, sometimes called the Torse, was composed of rolls of twisted silk encircling the helmet, beneath the Crest. It is always depicted in six sections, painted in the chief metal and chief color of the shield.
The Crest was borne upon the helmet. It was originally a large and solid figure of carved wood or stuffed and molded leather, towering high above the helmet. Because of its size and weight some historians believe that it was worn only in the tournament or ceremonies and not in battle. Crests commenced to be seen in the 14th century but arms belonging to many old families, have never included a Crest.
The Mantling was originally a piece of cloth or leather that covered the top of the helmet and flowed down from it. Its use in relation to the helmet was the same as that of the surcoat to the body armor, that of protection from the heat of the sun and from the rain which would have rusted the movable parts of the helmet. As time went on its decorative form became of more importance until the conventionalized leaf forms used today bear no resemblance to the original article. The Mantling has no significance as to rank and its design is left entirely to the individual artist.
The Motto, when borne, is generally placed below the shield. In England, the Motto may be assumed, changed, or dropped at will and is not hereditary since it is not mentioned in the patent or grant of the arms. In Scotland, however, the Motto is a part of the grant of the arms and must be used therewith without change and is hereditary. On the continent little attention was paid to Mottos, and few continental arms include them.
Contrary to popular belief, present day historians believe that Heraldry is not symbolic, that most Coats of Arms have no meaning, their designs having been adopted merely because they had not been used before or, in the case of the early ones, because they could be easily distinguished at a distance. However, while not symbolic, some arms are significant. Among these are the Cognate Coats, those based on others already in use because of kinship or allegiance. For example, the use of chevronny by the great houses of de Clare, Fitz-Robert and Fitz-Walter, all based on the three-chevron gules on a gold shield borne by Gilbert de Clare.
There are Allusive Coats, which refer, some in obvious, some in more cryptic ways to the origins, associations, or acts of the first bearers. These Coats seem more rare, perhaps because we no longer have cues to understand them. The Arms of Douglas are an excellent example of an Allusive Coat. In 1330 when Sir James Douglas set out for Palestine bearing the heart of King Robert Bruce, he added a red human heart to the Douglas shield. Since that time all Douglas arms have borne a red human heart.
Highly characteristic of Heraldry at all periods, are the Canting or Punning Coats, the device of which is a play on words on the name of the owner. They frequently show that same humor which we see in the gargoyles of the gothic cathedrals. So, we see that Shakespeare bears a spear; Shelley a shell; Rockwood, chess rooks; De Lancey, a lance; and Hogg, the boar's head.
The display of more than one Coat of arms on a single shield, was first used to show a union of Lordships, or in France, the possession of fiefs acquired by bequest or purchase. An early example was when in 1386, Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was permitted to divide his shield into four parts and place the arms of Ireland in the first and fourth quarters, the arms of de Vere in the second and third, so long as he should hold the lordship of Ireland. The modern practice of quartering indicating descent, developed in England under the Tudors. It was really a very simple system. If a man married a woman, from an arms bearing family, but who had brothers he might show her arms during her lifetime by dividing his shield through the center vertically or, in heraldic language, palewise, his own arms being placed in the right hand or dexter side (as the shield is held); hers, in the left or sinister side. This was known as impalement and their issue did not inherit an impaled shield, their heirs bearing only the father's arms. But, if the wife, on the death of her father, had no brothers or her brothers had all died without leaving issue, she became an heraldic heiress; or, if she had sisters, they were all co-heiresses and could hand on to posterity their father's arms. In this case, her husband placed her arms (which were, of course, her father's arms) on a small shield super-imposed in the center of his own shield. This small shield was called an "escutcheon of pretense" and borne by the husband only during the lifetime of his wife. After the mother's death only, her sons will divide their shield into four parts, or quarters, and place their father's arms in the first and fourth quarters, the mother's in the second and third. If a woman should die before her father, it is possible for her to become an heraldic heiress after her death and her issue inherit the right to quarter her (in reality their grandfather’s) arms. This process was repeated each time that an heraldic heiress married into the family. However, no matter how many divisions the shield required, they were still known as "quarterings," which explains the anomaly of the term when there are more than four "quarters."
To study Heraldry is to study history; to study literature, for much of both are rich in heraldic lore; to study the sculpture and architecture, the customs and the fashions of the middle ages down through the Renaissance. Heraldry is a link with the past and valuable if it fosters a respect and acquaintance with those who have gone before.
If you would like to learn if a coat of arms was awarded to your ancestor, contact the College of Arms, or appropriate authority for the country you believe your ancestor was from and request a search in their records (they usually provide this service for a fee). In most countries you can also design and even register your own individual coat of arms based on the arms of someone who shared your surname, or from scratch to mean something special to your family and its history.
The Right to Arms
A detailed explanation of how individuals are granted a coat of arms, from the Society of Genealogists in London, England.
The American College of Heraldry is a Chartered, non-profit body established in 1972, with the aim of aiding in the study and perpetuation of heraldry in the United States and abroad. Registrations are restricted by policy to American citizens or residents, as well as to others with significant personal or business connections in America.
You might enjoy visiting Pimbley's Dictionary of Heraldry, which defines all the French and other terms used in Heraldry.