History of the Coat of Arms


The use of emblems and symbols as a means of identification is both ancient and worldwide. From the most ancient times, emblems have been used by families, clans, tribes, cities and nations, and by organizations of various kinds, both national and international.

There are those that believe that heraldic symbols go back to the 12 tribes of Israel. They claim that many of the heraldic symbols used in the middle ages derived from similar symbols used on the standards of the various tribes. Modern heraldry has evolved from this early form of heraldry, which became increasingly formalized during the middle ages.

The development of the suit of armor in the 12th century in Western Europe gave rise to individuals using heraldry symbols to differentiate men in armor from one another. The original thought behind the chosen heraldic symbol can almost never be known. Some choices are obvious - i.e. Bells to represent the name Belles or a bird as a play on the name Byrd.

One of the guiding principles of heraldry was that a coat of arms should clearly identify a particular person while at the same time attaching some importance to the family he belonged to. This led to the creation of distinguishing signs. In many instances the crest served as a means of differentiating individuals, and, as a result, their own family lines.

The system of a special mark of difference, or mark of cadency, (see Mark of Cadency section) for each member of the family began with Henry III. In medieval times the marks of difference on Italian arms were designs which represented one's political allegiance. Scotland, as well as many other countries, developed their own system of marks of difference. With each succeeding generation the process became more cumbersome. Great Britain is the only country in the world in which the classical procedure of using a mark of difference for individuals is still customary, and this is primarily the use of a silver label in the royal family.

There is a difference between the marks distinguishing the different members of a particular family and marks of favor. In almost all countries, and particularly those with a monarchy, additional signs are granted to deserving people, and also communities. These symbols are usually taken from the state or country arms of their sovereign. Thus many family arms bear a royal symbol.

Generally the language of heraldry suggests its warlike origin. The term Coat of arms is derived from the surcoat worn over the armor to keep off the rays of the sun. It was a waistcoat-like garment, on which the heraldic design was depicted. The knight wore the arms shown on the surcoat on his shield, the trappings of his horse, and his lance pennon. In addition, he might have painted on his helmet what was called his crest. Not all knights chose a crest. The motto is not an integral part of the coat of arms, and may be changed at the will of the user.

There are many terms used to indicate the heraldry design worn by the knight. They are referred to as coat of arms, arms, armorial bearings, armorial achievement, and shield. Some erroneously use the term crest to refer to the entire coat of arms.

A woman's coat of arms is not to be shown on her own shield or equipped with a helmet and crest because she is not expected to go to war. However, if she is a queen, she is entitled to the full heraldic achievement, with helmet, crest and shield. This is because the gender of the sovereign is immaterial in heraldry.

A symbol (charge) from a woman's coat of arms can be included on a husband's coat of arms if he so desires. This act, known as Marshaling, is especially prevalent if the wife is an heiress. This system of marshaling first began in Spain in the thirteenth century.

See the Marshaling Page for more information.