Heraldry is a system of identification of individuals and families based on hereditary devices (or “charges”) centered on the shield.  The origins of this system are as remote as they are unclear.  The practice of adopting arms, meaning a shield with charges unique to its bearer, started in the late 1100s in Western Europe and spread rapidly.  At first only royalty and the high nobility adopted and displayed coats of arms; but the practice was quickly imitated by the lesser nobles, knights, prelates and even women (unusual because arms were for warriors, who were by definition men).  Eventually it spread to entities like churches, abbeys, towns and schools.

It is usually advanced that the reason for the rapid spread of heraldry among the nobility - the military and landowning classes - of Europe was to facilitate identification of leaders on the battlefield.  (A minority view holds that coats of arms on tunics and shields would quickly become unrecognizable in the thick of battle: garments and shields would fast become damaged or dirtied in the fray.)


Perhaps armory (a more correct term than heraldry, which strictly means that which pertains to heralds, although it is seldom employed and even then mainly by academics) received its greatest impetus from the tournament, a popular activity for knights in the 1300s through the 1500s.  A tournament was a kind of martial competition event, lasting several days, between teams of knights who aspired to fame and prizes through their prowess.  At these events, whose popularity coincided at first with the cultural and literary phenomenon of courtly romances (e.g., Le Morte d’Arthur) featuring chivalry, pious knights and virtuous maidens, it was both useful and necessary to be readily identifiable.  Thus the competitors would display arms on their shields, coat-armor (from cote d’armes, the surcoat worn over the suit of armor), and horse covering.  They might also wear a “crest”, a representational figure of some kind, on their helmets.


Heralds – individuals who identified knightly combatants- were essential at tournaments.  They kept the scores, announced the winners, and – above all – could attest to the nobility of the competitors and their eligibility to participate.  Heralds at first were personal employees of sovereigns and noblemen (there were later itinerant “freelance” heralds with no employer), and served them in various capacities. One typical activity was to act as emissaries (or ambassadors) between sovereigns of field commanders. These heralds were named after their masters (for example, “York Herald”), whose arms they bore on their tunics (called “tabards”) so that everyone could see and know whose agents they were.

It is a clear that heraldry - meaning the adoption and use of coats of arms by individuals and families - existed before heralds and, later still, official bodies charged with regulating armory (such as the College of Arms in England) came into being. Some assert that there is evidence of the existence of heraldry in the Bayeux Tapestry, the famous visual narrative of the Norman conquest of England in 1066, but this remains unproven: some of the warriors depicted do appear to be bearing personal emblems but it is not established that they were hereditary, which is a requirement of heraldry.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of arms: assumed and granted.  In most countries of the world, anyone my assume, that is design and use, a coat of arms.  In some countries, granted arms, meaning arms that have been formally conveyed to an individual by a sovereign, or state body with authority to do so, are accorded superior status.  Such granted arms are evidenced by formal documents (grants), recorded in official repositories, and have legal status where arms are recognized under the laws.

Another fundamental distinction, more relevant in Continental Europe than in the United Kingdom, is that between “noble” and “non-noble” (or “burgher”) arms.  Although noble families invariably have a coat of arms, it does not follow that a coat of arms is a certain sign of nobility.  In some of the old European kingdoms, like France, nobility often brought privileges (such as exemption from tax) and therefore sovereigns were not inclined to grant it liberally.

That said, it could be acquired through the purchase of a government or judicial office; military or other service to the state; or purchase of a manor or noble estate.  But numerous non-noble families throughout Continental Europe also had a coat of arms.  Indeed, in France, when arms were taxed by Louis XIV, the Crown forcibly “granted” coats of arms to entire villages to increase revenues.

Finally, a coat of arms is granted to one individual and inherited by his descendants who alone may bear or use his arms.  This contrasts with a prevalent, but entirely incorrect, notion prevalent today that sharing the same name as a grantee is sufficient basis to use his arms.  It is simply wrong to assume that, if your surname happens to be “Alford” and there exists an Alford family coat of arms, you are entitled to bear the Alford arms.  If you are not legitimately descended [delete “or related to”] from the first Alford to be granted those arms, they are not your “family arms.”


Heraldry operates on the basis of a collection of fairly simple rules and the language called “blazon,” which can be learned without great difficulty.  The aim of the rules is to ensure a consistency and quality of design, and that of the language is to express any design in as few words as possible but in a clear manner that any herald or interested party (e.g., an artist) can interpret.  The rules are more or less the same everywhere but that does not mean that all coats of arms in Europe have the same style and appearance.  Italian arms are distinct in appearance from German ones, for example; and crests are far more popular in Britain than on the Continent.  It can also happen that rules are completely ignored.  As a result, a system that is simple in theory can be complex in practice. 

In theory, two persons or families cannot have the same coats of arms.  But in fact this can happen because heraldry developed in different countries over nine centuries.  A coat of arms might well be unique in France but the same arms – particularly those with very simple designs – might also have been granted an unrelated individual in England.


Arms were appreciated, if not created, for identification.  Lords and knights could be recognized by their coats of arms but the system could only work if no two persons bore the same coat of arms.  It was therefore necessary to records of who owned what coat of arms to prevent duplication and confusion.

It was the herald, someone who kept records of arms and knew them at sight, who filled this need.  The profession of herald developed very differently over the centuries.  In the Middle Ages, heralds could be royal envoys and attached to the high command of the army.  They also organized pageants and tournaments.  Because they kept records, they could ensure that new coats of arms did not conflict with existing ones; and, when two parties contested a coat of arms, the heralds were summoned to advise the judge.

Up till the 13th century, heraldry was a matter for a minuscule percentage of the population: almost exclusively royal and noble families.   But in the 14th and 15th centuries Europe experienced massive social changes.  Feudalism, the foundation of medieval society and government, became obsolete as monarchs increased their authority over powerful nobles and professionalized their armies.  However, the demise of chivalry in no way led to a decrease in demand for heraldry.  Growth in commerce and the professions led to a new class of wealthy merchants, administrators and educated persons who naturally aspired to improve their social status.

The manner of granting arms evolved in Europe as well.  In most kingdoms, the power to grant arms was retained by the sovereign, since nobility was granted with arms.  A different system was developed in England.  Richard III founded the College of Arms (which is not a school and has neither professors nor students) in 1483 and delegated to it the authority, under the Earl Marshal, to grant arms.  The English crown retains to this day the power to confer peerages.  From where does nobility originate?  A peerage or a grant of arms?  The question (occasionally debated today) mattered little since the English peerage never enjoyed fiscal privileges similar to those enjoyed by the Continental nobilities.  Now, of course, noble status, however acquired, confers no legal rights or benefits.  

Arms in Scotland are granted by the Court of the Lord Lyon, the Lord Lyon being the principal heraldic officer of the Scottish kingdom.  Unlike his English counterpart, Garter Principal King of Arms, Lyon is a judge as well as a herald, and has full authority to issue rulings in his Court.  There is an actual need for the court because Scottish heraldry requires that all arms be matriculated and differenced, so that no two persons (except father and eldest son) can bear the same arms.  

An Irish Office of Arms was established by Edward VI of England in the 16th century.  His role was to register arms and pedigrees of the Irish nobility.  As a dominion of the English Crown for centuries, Ireland was governed by a royal lieutenant, later elevated in rank to viceroy.  The viceregal court was centered at Dublin Castle and the Office of Ulster Herald was also the functionary charged with organizing state ceremonies.  After Irish independence, there existed a curious situation whereby Ireland became a republic but the heraldic function (for Eire and Northern Ireland) remained a Crown office.  This bureaucratic anomaly was resolved in 1943, after the last Ulster Herald died.  The Office of Arms was transferred to the National Library of Ireland under a Chief Herald of Ireland.

The three institutions above all issue arms today, both to citizens of each country and to Americans that qualify.

There are still some arms granting institutions on the Continent.  In Spain, for example, the King has the power to ennoble and grant arms to individuals.  In addition, there are Cronista Rey de Armas, functionaries that are authorized to officially recognize and record arms to individuals, be they Spanish subjects or inhabitants of places that were once Spanish possessions (Latin America, California, Florida, etc.).

The remaining European monarchies (Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Monaco) issue grants of nobility and/or arms to varying degrees.

There were heralds (hérauts) in France, as might be expected.  (Much of English blazon is formed of old French words.)  But by the time of Louis XIV the stature of French heralds had greatly diminished and they were replaced by juges d’armes (“judges of arms”).  These formed part of the French civil service and reported to royal executives.  Probably the change was part of the greater plan of the King to overlay a modern administrative structure on the old medieval one.  Possibly it also had to do with imposing a tax on arms, which was attempted several times, without much success.  Another important functionary involved in heraldry was the généalogiste du Roy, the official who vetted proofs of nobility at the French court.  Here we see the distinction between nobility and heraldry: nobility was by far the more significant factor, since it qualified its possessor to be admitted to the presence of the monarch.  Nobility went hand in hand with heraldry; but a coat of arms alone was not proof of nobility. 

The French Revolution did away with the feudal rights and tax exemptions of the old nobility; and of all titles as well.  The Emperor Napoleon instituted a new nobility and a revamped system of heraldry, neither of which, however, was more than honorific.  The restored Bourbons were not so foolish as to attempt to undo the termination of either feudal privileges or the Napoleonic nobility.  There was a final surge of grants of titles and coats of arms under Napoleon III.  When the Second Empire collapsed in 1870, France became a republic: titles had no legal status, although they continued to be used along with coast of arms, which were recognized as a form of personal property and therefore protected under the law.  There is today no official heraldic body in France.


~by John M. Shannon, HSC Cabinet