A Deep Dive into the History of Heraldry


The History of Heraldry

Heraldry is both a study of history and of war. What we think of as a family coat-of-arms was, in fact, used to tell the other man exactly who it was they faced across the killing ground. It started out as the Medieval way of identifying an individual on the battlefield or in the tournament lists. There was little or no difference between opposing armies, and their equipment or armor. The average foot soldier’s ability to know what was happening around him was limited to who, and or what he could see in front of him, and to either side.

In the melee, it is easy to become disorientated and confused. History is replete with stories of friends and allies turning on each other by mistake. The first attempt to provide identification of combatants on the battlefield was by the use of flags, banners, and standards, also used to signal troops and point them in the right direction.

One can imagine an older combat veteran giving advice to a younger warrior, “Look for the flag. If you get lost, go there. Someone will tell you what to do.”

Thus the study of flags known as Vexillology has been intertwined with the study and history of heraldry ever since. Flags and their ilk have always been associated with large groups, and it wasn’t until much later in the historical timeline that they became associated with individuals.

The ancient Greeks were one of the first cultures to embrace heraldry or war art. The heavily armed warriors known as hoplites took their name from the Greek word hoplon which means (tool or shield) and decorated their shields with the images of gods and goddesses, demons, or emblems of the city-state to which they owed allegiance. But these were often votive offerings and not an attempt to create an individual or group identity.

history of coat of arms

The archaeological record is full of highly decorated amphorae, drinking vessels and even mosaics showing Greek warriors fighting. But unless it is spelled out specifically, you can not point to an illustration and say, “Oh that is Achilles. I know because he has ____________ painted on his shield.

The soldiers of Rome built an empire beneath the stentorian gaze of the gold eagles of the legion. Romans used uniforms and shields painted in various colors to denote different army units and even went so far as to wear colored crests of horsehair on their helmets, (henceforth for this article referred to as a helm.) The Romans were the first Western culture to fully organize their warriors into soldiers. They created the first organizations and battlefield tactics that depended on successful communication among groups of soldiers. To that end they made use of standards, flags, and loud musical instruments such as the drum and an early brass instrument called a cornu or cornum. The Roman signals officer in charge of translating orders into music was called a cornicern.

As with most things, the passage of time and inertia killed the Roman Empire and with it, organized infantry combat. What remained was mounted warfare, a highly mobile and fluid form of combat. Being able to identify friend from foe came once more into importance as Western rebuilt itself from the ashes of the Roman empire. Simple, easy to see colors on shield or similarly colored cloak became standard. During the Middle Ages the concept of nobles and multi-tiered societies emerged and the heraldry we know today was born.

The 12th century was a tumultuous time in Europe. The Viking raids on France, Britain, Wales and Ireland had drawn to, a close. William the Conqueror had died and his grandchildren had instituted a deep and abiding civil war. The necessity for accurate identification on the field of battle became paramount. It is interesting to note that the first widely accepted coats of arms are those of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and – by conquest – Duke of Normandy. This is not to say that there weren’t other coats of arms in use at this time, circa 1151. Only in so much as his arms have been ones which have survived to this day. They can be found on an enameled funerary effigy, which covered the top of his tomb. They are located at the Museum of Archaeology and History in Le Mans, France. “is a field of blue (Azure) with six golden lions standing on their hind legs (Rampant) in descending order of 3, 2, 1.” The arms were granted to Geoffrey by his father-in-law Henry I of England shortly after he had conquered Normandy.

coat of arms shield

This coat-of-arms was inherited by Geoffrey’s son Henry who would later become King Henry II, after his succession to his father’s position as the Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy and then his grandfather’s position as the King of England in 1151. These arms have formed the basis for the Arms of England ever since.

By the time of the 14th century, what we would today recognize as heraldry had become a mature art form. The rules regarding who could carry arms and who could not were codified. The use of colors was established and the metals allowed were limited to only gold and silver. As with most general rules in art, there were exceptions; German heralds used the color brown and the metal copper in their art.

For those who are trained to read and understand the language of Blazon, each device tells a story. In the seminal work by Arthur Charles Fox-Davies’ Complete Guide to Heraldry, he described heraldry as, “The shorthand of history.”

Blazon is the name of the language used to describe a coat-of-arms. The process is called Emblazoning. It follows a simple formula: First the field or color of the shield is described.
Then the objects within the shield described along with their color.

Emblazoning can be daunting at first. It uses a language based on the combination of Medieval French, Old English and written in Middle English.

Coats of Arms Explained

In heraldry, a coat-of-arms, is known as a shield-at-arms. The can be no coat-of-arms, without the shield. The shield itself is called an Escutcheon, and heraldic items or Devices are displayed upon it. It has many parts and each part has its own name:

parts of the shield of arms


A-Chief B-Dexter
C-Sinister D-Base
E-Dexter Chief F-Middle Chief
G-Sinister Chief H-Honor Point
I-Fess Point J-Nombril Point
K-Dexter Point L-Sinister Base.
M-Middle Base* Which is rarely used.

Where an object is located on the shield is important. This specific placement, and how it is described or Emblazoned, determines the accuracy of a set of arms. Consequently, the Emblazonment of Arms is the most important feature. Any heraldic artist can read the description and use it as a guide to paint or craft a coat-of-arms for an individual or family. They don’t actually have to ‘see’ the arms, it can be crafted from the description alone.

A good design in heraldry is one that is clear, concise, and simple, although the vast array of symbols and images available can be overwhelming. It should be noted, a herald and a heraldic artist can help an Armiger, or person bearing arms, to design their individual coat-of-arms. It is also important to remember the original usage of heraldry, namely to facilitate recognition when faces were covered or obscured. Complicated arms and poor color choices seen from a distance can become blurry and hence unrecognizable.

To this end, the basic rules for colors or Tinctures were established based on a pallet of five colors, two metals and two basic fur patterns – although there are different versions of each of the furs used today.

coat of arms tinctures (colors)

Ermine is the winter coat of a type of weasel called a stoat, displayed as white with a black arrowhead shape with three black dots. Vair is the winter coat of the red squirrel, as seen as having blue-gray on top and white along the belly.

Gold is called Or. Silver is called Argent. These colors, and furs help to build the basic building blocks of heraldry. Once more it is important to note there are exceptions to these rules created by individual countries.

A heraldic term that is often popularly misused is Crest. A Crest is a part of a heraldic display and not the coat-of-arms itself. For ‘civilians’ or religious affiliations a Crest, usually consists of a medieval style helmet, properly called a Helm, which is positioned at the top of the shield itself. For those non-nobles who are not knights, it is customary to have the Helm turned to the left of the shield as you look at it. This indicates that, although the owner has the right to bear arms, he is not knighted and is not of noble rank. The person is known as an Esquire.

Atop the Helm is the actual Crest itself. It is normally a badge or mythical creature associated with the person whose arms are displayed. There are no set rules regarding this portion of the design. A good example is that of the unicorn found atop the Berkley coat-of arms.

berkeley coat of arms with crest

The next important element in a heraldic design is the motto. A motto is a sentiment or saying, usually written in one of three languages, English, Latin or French, which is usually found at the bottom of a coat-of-arms. The motto can also be an older form of a war cry or battle shout.

A good example of a motto can be found on the royal arms of England as painted by heraldic artist Graham Johnston over a hundred years ago:

The motto is French for literally “God and my right”, meaning that the king is “Rex Angliæ, Dei gratia”: King of England by the Grace of God.

The coat of arms motto

The United States Army uses as their official motto: “This I’ll Defend.” The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, an order of chivalry which dates back to the First Crusade, uses the famous crusader war cry, “Deus lo vult”. This translates from Latin to mean “God wills it”. Richard III, the hunchback of Shakespearean drama, used, “Loyaulte me lie” which translates from French as, “Loyalty Binds Me.”

The final element of design goes back once more to the Helm. Between the top of the Helm and where the actual crest starts is usually a roll of alternating colors representing cloth wrapped in a circular shape. This wreath is called a Torse. From the Torse, cloth flows down the back of the Helm. This design element is called Mantling. Originally this was a way to help protect the wearer of the Helm from glancing blows across the back of the neck. It also ameliorated the effects of sunlight. It has become an important element in the design of a coat-of-arms. It can bring balance to a design which might be out of ratio with itself because of artistic limitations. Usually made up of two alternating colors pulled from the design of the coat-of-arms, it is a way of emphasizing the design of the arms. A good heraldic artist can give the impression that the Mantling is actually waving in a breeze, as might happen when a knight rode his charger.

The coat of arms torse
(The full achievement of DS Baker by Prof. Ljubodrag Grugic of Pancevo, Serbia.)

Coats-of-arms found in books or on the Internet usually belong to someone. In a preliterate world, this was an individual’s signature, logo, and family history all rolled into one.

In Scotland today it is illegal to use any coat-of-arms you find, if you do not have the legal right to do so. The Lord Lyon Court of Arms addresses all issues regarding the unlawful use of, or appropriation of a coat-of-arms. This actually happened in 2008 when Donald Trump used an unregistered device/coat-of-arms to promote his Scottish golf course. After much legal wrangling and at some expense to Mr. Trump, following a long legal course of action which resulted in his submitting to proper procedures, he was granted arms by the Lord Lyon in 2012. It should be noted that Scotland is the only country that currently enforces its heraldic laws and can put transgressors in jail.

This point cannot be emphasized enough. Arms found on the internet might belong to your ancestors or to someone with a name similar to yours. It is not considered good form to take them as your own. On occasion a coat-of-arms may include a “quartering of arms, or co-joined arms.” In heraldic terms this would indicate the joining of two families. So it would a slight to two families.

It is a fine to collect arms and point to them out as belonging to a possible or confirmed ancestor. However it is wiser to take a design elements from an ancestor’s arms and create an entirely new and original set for yourself. In fact this is a time honored tradition of showing the world who you are, and from who you are descended. However, this will not be an official coat-of-arms unless you live in countries who have an active heraldic authority and successfully apply to their college of arms. (Feel free to check out an online coat of arms heraldry database like Coadb.com.) Great Britain, and her commonwealth countries use the College of Arms in England, with the exception of Canada who has established their own college, and governing body. The United States of America does not have a heraldic authority. It does however have several organizations who will ‘register’ your arms for a fee, along with a selection of artists who can help you design your very own personal coat-of-arms.

Please do not be put off by the unusual language or the seemingly strange rules. It is a way of deciphering a secret code openly displayed. Heraldry is the design principal for so many modern symbols, such as Shell Gas Stations, the National Hockey League, government organizations, and large corporations. Heraldry is very much alive and well. There are vibrant heraldic traditions in all of North America, South America and Europe going back centuries. The Canadian Heraldic Authority has been creating some of the more vibrant and original coats-of-arms for the better part of a decade. It is interesting since the fall of communism, the former eastern bloc countries have revived their heraldic traditions with an amazing amount of energy and enthusiasm. Some of the more dynamic coats-of-arms to be produced of late have come from countries such as Poland, Russia and Serbia.

george washington coat of arms
(Coat-of-arms of President George Washington.)

I hope you will take the time to explore this fascinating world where history, pageantry, and genealogy meet.
– John Lehman

* All images used were either granted permission by the family, artists or reside in the public domain. The images fall under the fair usage act.