sometimes appears to be a cloud of mystery surrounding the origins
of heraldry. Many modern interpretations of heraldry are built on
Hollywood stereotypes that simply do not fit the original context or
the intent of earlier times. It is not difficult, though, to see
through the fog into the past and find the true origins of heraldry.
In so doing, modern heraldry becomes more meaningful, more accurate,
and more relevant.
or family arms reflect a design or symbol for a singular, unique
purpose. Such original use of symbols universally predated abilities
to read or write. The purpose was to identify an individual or
family. In some heraldic customs, such as British, a single, specific
heraldic design came to represent a specific individual. In other
customs, such as German and Italian, the armorial bearings
represented a family, though only certain members of the family were
entitled to display them. The right to display the family arms often
follows along with the semi-salic method of inheritance. The concept
that anyone merely with the same surname can use arms of an
individual or family of the same name is false.
earliest times, arms were assumed, as complex heraldic regulatory
bodies did not yet exist. In their earliest forms, a grant of arms
was verbal. Later, scribes recorded them. Some scribes specialized in
this work and became what we popularly know as heralds, the fellows
who proclaimed/announced the person, not yet then the fellows who
designed or determined anything. It was largely the tournaments that
formalized the process, and the process was about registration and
the "right" to compete, as well as taxes charged for the
registration or grant. Eventually heraldic regulatory bodies, such as
the Royal College of Arms in London or the Lord Lyon King of Arms in
Scotland, came into existence to prevent confusion in identification
between individuals and families.
symbols in heraldry were intended primarily for military purposes
and derive from "totems" that were mainly animal effigies
assumed on a tribal basis worldwide throughout history. This is the
likely reason animal symbols feature so prominently in heraldry. The
largest objects easily seen and available to a royal, noble, or
knight in the field were the shield and banner. These proved ideal
vehicles for conveying identification readily, even at somewhat of a
distance. Thus, a chosen device/symbol was first used purely for
identification in battle or, later, in a tournament. The devices were
placed on shields and also on banners to mark the position of a
certain individual on the field or of a headquarters. Heraldry
originated out of such practical rather than merely symbolic use.
Only later did heraldry, the existing system of identification,
become used for bureaucratic purposes such as seals. Such seals
pre-date the use of signatures in the way signatures are used today.
Some countries, such as Japan, still require the use of a personal
seal instead of a signature for legal documents.
was not uncommon for a royal or noble leader to "knight" a
few commoners and squires just prior to battle. Knighthoods were also
granted after a battle to recognize courage, "earning of
spurs," and so on. These were the forerunners of the
"Knights Bachelor," or knights who did not belong to a
particular Order of Chivalry. Some of these knights created on the
battlefield were called "Serf Knights." Often they were the
Sergeants and had office and rank, assisting in the leading of the
general troops. Arms were not granted at the specific time of
knighting or appointment, for the battle raged on. Symbolic arms were
assumed and/or approved/granted later. After that battle or other
battles, they might be commended or further recognized, as might
other knights. Those "achievements" would sometimes be
memorialized as additions to their coat of arms. For example,
"three doves upon a bend" might be added to the arms to
symbolize something to the bearer, perhaps even a secret meaning. It
might be years later that something like Burke's
Peerage (the original company) came
along and recorded the latest version of the arms. There is
absolutely no single set of symbolic meanings for each device in heraldry.
of a battle setting, local nobles, for example, a Count or Baron,
would select stoutly-built men in their youth to carry out and
enforce his wishes within his fiefdom. They became a form of nobility
that would develop over time. The office of Sheriff was such as
position that evolved into a highly formalized and often hereditary office.
essence of personal or family arms, then, is the shield. Designs of
the shield were and are very much influenced by the time period and
nation. English rules and customs of heraldry differ somewhat from
those of Germany, for example. Rare indeed is the person with full
awareness and perspectives of the variances over time and culture.
Therein lies the source of much confusion within heraldry.
antiquity, to be of practical use for identification in battle or
tournament, a shield needed to contain such symbols that could be
seen and recognized at a glance and from a distance. Thus,
historically, personal arms originally often were a single, simple
representation of a plain design such as an an animal effigy or
geometric pattern, colorized. One of the most simple ancient designs
is that of the Royal House of Savoy. It is, in heraldic terminology,
"Gules a cross Argent." In non-technical terms, the shield
is red with a white cross.
one's "armorial bearings" included a crest. The crest is
not, as so often erroneously thought, the entire "coat of
arms" or the shield. Rather, the crest was a device or symbol
that was carried atop the helmet of the knight or noble, also for
identification purposes in battle or a tournament. Crests today
sometimes are displayed with the shield and sometimes are used by
themselves. In Scottish heraldry, for example, all the members of a
Clan use their Chief's crest displayed within a buckle and strap on
which is written the Clan Chief's motto. Chiefs, Chieftains, and
those with arms in their own right would display their crest on a
circlet instead of a buckle and strap. These devices are still worn
on Scottish headwear today and are one of the few remaining uses of a
crest in accordance with its original battlefield use. Chiefs also
wear, by custom, three eagle feathers behind the badge, Chieftains
two feathers, and armigers one feather. Much modern myth and
misconception also surrounds this heraldic custom. This ancient usage
of eagle feathers is, according to the Lord Lyon King of Arms, a
matter of custom, not law, and logical to be applied in a similar
manner by non-Scottish armigers. Thus, a head of a non-Scottish noble
or royal house could rightly use three eagle feathers. The Germanic
Royal House of Bavaria, for example, is generally considered the
principal heir to the Scottish Royal House of Stuart. This
underscores the complexities of heraldry in general and helps to
deminstrate that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
heraldry as we generally know it developed in the middle ages,
heraldry nevertheless predates the middle ages. The ancient Romans
used symbols too, such as the Vexilloid, which eventually evolved
into banners/flags and the effigies on them (Eagle, etc). See this
page for more information. See also this
page. And, heraldry is the origin of modern
marketing logos and company symbols. The "maker's mark" is
a direct application of the concept of heraldry to a trade setting.
of the evolution of actual armor is also useful to the understanding
of heraldry. Armor evolved to protect the wearer from the latest type
of weapons. As weapons evolved, such as stronger crossbows with steel
tipped arrows, stronger and more complete armor was required for
soldier, knight, horse. As armor evolved, knights and nobles dropped
the use of shields in battle when they became less useful. Eventually
the elaborate and complicated suits of armor so associated with
medieval knights was rendered obsolete by the development and
proliferation of firearms. Arms were retained on shield for
tournament armor, which often was also heavier than armor used in
combat. After shields and full armor vanished from the battlefield,
banners became of even more importance to indicate where a person was
on the field of battle (also used for military strategic deception).
Today, military guidons and flags continue the tradition, which
derived both from middle ages heraldry and from the usage of Roman legions.
common method of display of one's arms in battle when full suits of
armor and shields were not used was on the surcoat. A surcoat was a
sleeveless cloth jacket, usually knee-length. It was worn over any
protective clothing, such as chainmail or leather padding.
of Heraldic Symbolism
developed over time as its primary use gradually changed from
battlefield identification to bureaucratic, social, and symbolic
uses. As armorial bearings were used as printed and engraved
displays, embellishments were added. These, too, have their origins
in the medieval battlefield. A helm (typically with a crest) was
often placed on top of the shield. In some national customs, the
style of helm denotes the rank of the individual. In others, it is
merely a matter of style. Around the helm was often placed mantling.
This represented the knight's mantle, or cape. It is typically
displayed shredded, as if it had been torn to shreds in battle.
Persons of higher rank often eventually added "supporters,"
or devices, usually animals, to either side of the shield to
"support" it and draw attention to it. Crowns for royals
and nobles eventually were added, usually sitting on top of the
shield and underneath the helm, but sometimes on top of the helm.
is also a myth that a person necessarily only has one coat of arms.
The hollywood stereotype assumes that arms once granted are static
and do not change. Not so. One size does not fit all. As families
with arms intermarried, their children gained the right to inherit
multiple coats of arms. This led to the practice of
"quartering," or combining the arms of ones parents. A
typical way is to divide the shield into four quarters and place the
arms of one's father in two quarters diagonally across from each
other and the arms of one's mother in the other two quarters. Over
time, marriage may lead to inheritance of many quarters. Shields
displayed all quarters can be both complex and beautiful. They
pictorially tell the family history. Also, various augmentations for
knights in orders of chivalry or those who had earned special favor
from the Pope came into use. These augmentations were either
additions to the shield itself or attached in some way to the outside
of the shield. Some of these were hereditary, and some existed only
during the lifetime of the individual.
arms were also adopted and/or added to one's armorial achievement as
one's territorial claims increased (whether one ruled the territory
or not). Sometimes these new territorial (or "dominical")
arms were originally the arms of another family. One famous example
involves the red/white/red arms almost synomymous with the Austrian
House of Habsburg. These arms in fact originally belonged to the
House of Babenberg, the original rulers of Austria. When the
Habsburgs gained control, they abandoned their own family arms for
the Austrian Babenberg arms.
most arms in use today are evolved
or copied from the embellished arms, and because personal arms
granted today are created for non-military use, they tend to be more
complicated and not practical for military purposes. Thus, it is the
popular assumption that the full, embellished arms
are the historical norm, when in reality the embellished arms are
not the historic norm. They merely envolved into use more recently
for bureaucratic and smybolic purposes.