Introduction to Heraldry
Most people who know something about Heraldry think of it as the practice of designing, describing, displaying and recording coats of arms and badges. But it can be more generally described as all the matters and duties relating to officers of arms.
Because this website is centered around a Coat of Arms design tool, the focus of of the information presented here will be to help someone design a coat of arms.
There are a couple of caveats that most Heraldry experts like to point out to novices:
- A coat of arms was used by an individual, not a family. So if someone offers to look up your coat of arms for $5 or even $50, that person is just finding some guy a few hundreds of years ago that has the same last name. You might be related to that person who used those arms, but there also could be other arms related to you or there might be none at all. A significant amount of time and/or money is needed to truly know if you are related to the person using those arms.
- It is difficult to determine the meaning of a particular symbol on a coat of arms. In the 16th-18th centuries there were some authors who created systems to explain the meaning of the symbols on arms, but these meanings could vary between authors if they could be applied to anything at all. The only way to know the meanings for sure is to get the designer’s notes. In modern heraldry design notes are standard, but they become rare as you go back in history. Informed guesses can be made, but they are guesses with varying degrees of confidence. Knowing more about the bearer of the arms helps make more accurate guesses.
Note: If you’re looking for an ancestor’s charge design, several of the regular advertisers have lists of names and some will show you mini-designs of the ancestor’s arms. Supporting the advertisers here also supports the further development of the software. (Thanks!)
Origins of Heraldry
As warriors in the middle ages wore armor, it became necessary for them to identify themselves. The symbols of each knight or baron would be assumed by his retainers and followers with appropriate modifications. This is how crests began to be used and these crests were placed on basinets and helms, then pennons and banners, rich surcoats and shields. This is the origin of Coats of Arms.
Heraldry in England began during the reign of Henry the III (AD 1216 to 1272) and by the end of the century it was known as a distinct science.