An Introduction to Heraldry
Heraldry, i.e. the art and science surrounding coat of arms, arose in the 12th to 14th centuries out of the need for knights to be able to identify themselves on the battlefield. Bulky armor and large helmets completely obscured every recognisable feature of the combatants, and so heralds (as they came to be known later) developed and kept records of a system of symbols painted on shields and tabards.
The basic rules of heraldry have changed little since then and are much less complex than one might think. A coat of arms consists of a shield on which rests a helmet topped by a crest. Only this element, the often elaborate, precariously balanced decoration on the peak of the helmet, is the actual crest. This was just a way to make you look bigger, wilder, and more impressive. Over time, other elements became part of a coat of arms: mottoes (originally battle cries) on scrolls above or below the shield, medals hanging from below, supports in the form of beasts, humans or even inanimate objects, and for nobles and kings, coronets and crowns.
In order to ensure that a design can be recognized easily from a distance, the metals gold and silver (represented by the colors yellow and white) must not be displayed side by side. The same rule applies to the colors green, blue and red. For example, the royal arms of England show three golden lions on a red background. Even modern logos usually follow this rule.
Heraldry is not just for aristocracy - it's suprisingly egalitarian.
The basic rules of heraldry have changed little since then and are much less complex than one might think.
Heraldry is intensely personal and when designing your own arms... you should ensure that the finished product is unique to you and speak of you as an individual.
A commonly held misconception is that the elements on a coat of arms have inherent meaning. No such secret key exists, the arms mean something only to the original person who was granted or assumed them. Their meaning is not, as a rule, recorded, though different traditions exist throughout the world regarding this. What is documented, is the design itself and the position, attitude, colour and so on of the various ‘charges’ and dividing lines on the shield and the crest. In English-speaking countries this is done in a – what appears to the outsider – secret language deriving from Anglo-Norman French.
Heraldry is not just for aristocracy - it's surprisingly egalitarian pending on the heraldic authority of your country (check yours here) any person may petition for a grant or assume arms. There are some prerequisites before doing so, namely that you must identifiable as a gentleperson and be able, in some way or other, to prove it. A lack of criminal convictions helps, as does a respectable profession or trade. It is difficult to be more precise as to the qualifications as they depend very much on individual circumstances and country of origin.
Worldwide only the Scottish Court of the Lord Lyon has the ability to enforce its heraldic authority within its jurisdiction. A past United States president tried to use the arms of a person with the same surname and got to feel the full might of the Lord Lyon. In some heraldic traditions this may have been possible, but as a general rule just because you have the same name as someone with a coat of arms, it does not mean you may use it. Heraldry is intensely personal and when designing your own arms – or having them designed by a professional herald or heraldist – you should ensure that the finished product is unique to you and speak of you as an individual. Please contact us to put you in touch with your relevant heraldic authority or to be put in touch with one of our experts.