Why Were Coat of Arms Created?

Why Were Coat of Arms Created?

 

Ever noticed the colorful decoration that knights had on their shields and as part of their clothing in the Middle Ages?

The history of heraldry is a fascinating one, and it’s been around for much longer than you might think. In fact, there was a time when the only way to tell who someone was on the battlefield was by this decoration, formally known as a coat of arms. The elements composing a full coat of arms, called an achievement of arms, derive from the equipment of a medieval knight.

This tradition began in the 12th century AD as an easy way to identify medieval kings and princes who were otherwise unrecognizable beneath their armor. This way, when an opponent saw Richard I’s three leopards or the Black Prince’s black shield, they would quake in fear before a battle with knowing what mighty warrior was behind the suit of armor. 

Over time, heraldry evolved into something much more than just a way to differentiate people from each other. It became an art form that was used in every occasion where someone wanted to show their heritage or status. The tradition of using coats of arms is still alive today, and the symbolism of heraldry remains a common sight from company logos to sports teams’ badges. Arms that have been passed down through the generations are now a great way to connect with our past.

The practice of wearing family crests and arms began to spread among nobles and knights in the 12th century AD. Lions, eagles, crosses, and geometric shapes were common symbols on shields and surcoats (a long sleeveless gown tied at the waist and worn over armor). As more knights utilized coats of arms to distinguish themselves, the coat of arms had to get more sophisticated in order to differentiate them from one another. 

So what about the people that weren’t a part of nobility or courageous medieval knights? By the mid-13th century, coats of arms had been adopted by priests, cities, town commoners, peasants, and burghers (privileged citizens of medieval towns in early modern Europe), who often used them as seals or other insignia. In the 14th century, even some peasants took to using arms. Heraldry, the study of family arms, had now been fully established as a social science with its own language, history, regulations, and social classes.

Did you know that heraldry was formerly known as armory (in Old French, armoirie) during the Middle Ages? The term “heraldry” derived from the heralds, those officials who recorded the armorial bearings. In medieval tournaments, a large number of knights took part in mock cavalry battles or jousted against each other. It was the heralds’ duty to announce the arrival of a tournament, describe the rules under which they would be held, and pass on challenges offered by one knight to another.

It was the responsibility of the heralds to keep track of all the coats of arms and be able to identify which arms belonged to which person by recording them in a ‘roll of arms’, a collection of coats of arms. The oldest known English roll of arms is from around 1244 AD. Yes, you read that right. It is a single sheet painted on both sides by Mathew Paris, depicting 75 coats of arms beginning with the king’s. The roll can be found in the British Library today.

Heralds also functioned as messengers and were granted safe passage during times of war. Eventually, they became involved in important events such as weddings and funerals for royalty and nobility. The reputation of heralds rose steadily throughout the 14th century AD when rulers recognized that heralds, with their extensive knowledge, could be valuable sources of information on whom they were fighting.

From the 15th century, heralds and apprentice heralds (pursuivants) worked in colleges of arms, institutions that deal with matters of heraldry. Such institutions helped to sort out the confusion which had arisen from anybody creating their own coat of arms. To help with this, they created a series of specific rules and customs of heraldry, and they accumulated detailed records of all the arms that had ever been created in their jurisdiction. 

The medieval era was the birthplace of heraldry, which began as individual warriors – first kings and then knights – tried to identify themselves to their opponents by displaying their coats of arms. The next stage was for sons to reuse the arms of their fathers, and so the notion of a hereditary symbol evolved, with boys and even daughters being allowed to inherit their parents’ arms. The earliest known instance of a coat of arms being passed down from one generation to the next is that of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou (d. 1151 AD), and his grandson William Longespée (‘Longsword’, d. 1226 AD), who both have six lions rampant on the carved shield on their tombs.

 

What did early coat of arms designs look like?

The first symbols of identification on coats of arms did not need to be overly complicated; simplicity and audacity made them all the more apparent on the field. Of course, the shield was the most visible and obvious location to carry identification, which might have only one color or two colors separated by a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal line. Then, as more and more knights adopted the practice, arms began to appear with new designs and shapes, (some of which you may already be familiar with) to keep their purpose of identification. As a result, not only colors but also symbols were used. Lions, weapons, flowers, crosses, and stars were all popular choices.

In addition to that, the arms of burghers bore a far wider variety of charges than the arms of nobility like everyday objects and tools. House marks are another type of charge usually only used in burgher’s arms. These symbols were sometimes stylized to make them more recognizable from a distance while still fitting within the odd shape of a shield. Furthermore, some colors weren’t combined because doing smade the shield difficult to identify (e.g. black on purple and vice-versa).

The next stage was to combine these designs with different colors to create a unique combination. For example, when two families married, they could choose to have their coats of arms mixed (compounded). Compounded arms varied and could range from a basic half-and-half ensemble to including a tiny version in one corner of the other. Symbols were sometimes added to indicate the offspring of a holder of arms, such as a white line through the shield to indicate a first son who had the same coat of arms as his father. Similarly, a coat of arms might include an additional symbol to signify that the bearer was an illegitimate son of the original bearer of the arms.

 

 

 

How were coats of arms used?

Coats of arms could be displayed on other accessories of warfare such as on the front and back of surcoats (a long sleeveless gown fastened at the waist and worn over armor), pennons (triangular lance flags), horse coverings, banners, and hung beneath the trumpets of heralds. Some knights even had their arms engraved on their armor! However, this was very expensive and a rare sight. See why a banner is ideal for displaying your coat of arms.

Coats of arms were not only utilized in combat, though. They were an excellent method to distinguish rivals in medieval tournaments and knights frequently had to display their coat of arms outside the hostel where they were staying during the event. You may have seen this in a movie or TV show featuring a medieval tournament (such as the highly popular Game of Thrones or A Knight’s Tale). This tradition expanded and the idea of a permanent inn sign took hold, which is proven by the names of some of the oldest pubs in England, such as the Red Lion, Rose and Crown, Black Swan, and White Horse, all featuring classic heraldic symbols on their signs.

The shield shape was changed as real shield designs evolved over time. Also, coats of arms designs grew increasingly extravagant, and the shields more ornate. The classic kite-shaped shield, while perhaps a little bigger, remains the favorite of heralds even today.

Coats of arms were further developed as heraldry advanced, and it became more important to display family lineage or heritage than to identify oneself on the battlefield. In heraldic language, these additions are referred to as achievements. Rather than just the shield shape, coats of arms evolved to include supporters on either side holding the shield (lions, unicorns, knights, etc.). The image of the coat of arms of James VI from 1603 makes a perfect illustration of this. The shield might also be topped with a crested helmet and even a crown in royal cases. Scrollwork such as complex leaf arrangements surrounding the shield and a motto may have been added below that sums up a family saying or recalls a momentous occurrence in their history.

Heraldry has survived and still thrives today, of course.. you can see it everywhere! The use has expanded from the individual to groups with clubs, sports teams, and

 even corporations all building their own badges of distinction. Coats of arms can be seen in a variety of locations, especially those that convey clear visual messages and promote quality and history such as military uniforms, banknotes, fine porcelain, and war memorials.

Some of the best family name histories are formed with the details gleaned from the coat of arms. By uncovering the social status and the geographic location of your ancestors, you can begin to get a sense of where you come from and who you are.

 You will also begin to understand how you are connected to the people who started your family lineage. Finding and understanding your family crest can often be very fulfilling. By researching your family coat of arms, you may be quite surprised to learn about the origins of your family line. You’ll be glad you did.

See the Banner Set featuring your Family Coat of Arms: a beautiful way to display your family pride.

Military Orders

The Original Military Orders⁣

A military order is a Christian religious society of knights. Initially formed to protect and offer medical care for pilgrims traveling through the Holy Land, the military orders such as the Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller and Teutonic Knights soon established themselves as an invaluable military presence in the region.⁣

The Knights Templar, established c. 1119 CE, was a Catholic medieval military order whose members combined martial prowess with a monastic life for the purpose of defending Christian holy sites and pilgrims in the Middle East and elsewhere. Templar knights wore a white surcoat and cloak over their armor, with a red cross on the white background. The red cross was a symbol of martyrdom, and to die in combat was considered a great honor that assured a place in heaven. ⁣

The Teutonic Order was founded as a military order c. 1192 to aid Christians on their pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to establish hospitals. Teutonic knights wore black crosses on a white background or with a white border. These crosses could appear on shields, white surcoats (from 1244 CE), helmets, and pennants. Half-brethren wore grey instead of the full white reserved for knights.⁣

The Knights Hospitaller was a medieval Catholic military order founded in 1113 CE. Their original purpose was also to help Christian pilgrims, but it soon became a military order which acquired extensive territories in Europe and whose knights made significant contributions to the Crusades in Iberia and the Middle East. The Knights Hospitaller could be identified by their distinctive white eight-pointed cross on a black background.⁣


Knights Templar

 

The Knights Templar order was formed c. 1119 CE when a group of knights swore to defend Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Officially recognized as an order by Pope Honorius II, the Templars were initially considered a branch of the Cistercians.⁣

In 1145 CE, knights of the order were granted permission to wear the white hooded-mantle, and they soon adopted their distinctive white cloak and began to use the insignia of a red cross on a white background. The red cross also appeared on the livery of horses and on the order’s pennant. ⁣

Recruits came from all over western Europe, especially France. They were motivated by a sense of religious duty to defend Christianity and the Holy Land and its sacred sites, as a penance for sins committed, to guarantee entry into heaven, and other earthlier reasons. Recruits had to be free men of legitimate birth, and if they wished to become knights they had, from the 13th century CE, to be of knightly descent.⁣

There was no impediment to fighting as regards to religious doctrine, provided that the cause was a just one – defense of the Holy Land being one – and so the order received the official support of the Church. Knights took vows on entering the order, much like in monasteries.⁣

The knights were an important and elite element of Crusader armies and came to control both castles and lands in the Levant and across Europe. Accused of heresy, corruption, and performing forbidden practices, the order was attacked in France by King Philip IV on Friday 13 October 1307 CE and then officially disbanded by Pope Clement V in 1312 CE.⁣

templar
Templar Knight

 

Hospitallers

 

The Knights Hospitaller was a medieval Catholic military order with the full name of ‘Knights of the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem’. The order was first established c. 1080 CE (or even earlier) by a group of merchants from Amalfi in Italy. The John it was originally dedicated to was the 7th-century CE patriarch John the Almsgiver, but he was later replaced as patron by the more universally known and more popular Saint John the Baptist. ⁣

In 1113 CE, the organization was officially recognized as a religious order by Pope Paschal II. The Knights Hospitaller wore a black robe or mantle which had a white eight-pointed cross on it. Coloured clothing and animal skins were forbidden. From the 13th century CE, knights and sergeants wore a scarlet surcoat or tunic when in battle.⁣

In the 12th century CE, most recruits came from France. The Hospitallers were also popular in Bohemia and Hungary where, as elsewhere, any young man keen for a mix of monastic living and military adventure could join. The leader of the order was the Master who was elected by a committee of brother knights and who held the position for life.⁣

From the 13th century CE, recruitment became more selective with a preference for aristocrats who could also provide the order with funds for expensive weapons and armor. Eventually, only a descendant of a knight could become a knight of the order. Recruits were expected to live a life of piety, chastity, obedience, relative poverty, and to eat and sleep communally. Once in the fold and having sworn allegiance to the Master, it was very difficult to get out, although buying one’s freedom was possible, if scandalous.⁣

hospitaller
Hospitallers

 

Teutonic Order


At Acre, c. 1190 CE, a body of German knights founded a field hospital dedicated to Saint Mary. In March 1198 CE, Pope Innocent III granted its members the status of an independent military order under the name Fratres Domus hospitalis sanctae Mariae Teutonicorum (Brethren of the German Hospital of Saint Mary). The organization would later become much better known as the Teutonic Order and its members as Teutonic Knights.⁣

The first mission of the Teutonic knights was to help retake Jerusalem from the Arabs in the Third Crusade (1187-1192 CE). The Middle East proved to be too difficult to hold onto, but the ambitious order merely switched their focus to converting Christians and grabbing land in central and eastern Europe instead. ⁣

Most recruits to the many castle-convents spread across Teutonic territory were Germanic. The knights (ritter) or brothers, typically aristocrats although usually members of its lower echelons, were spread around many commanderies containing anywhere from 10 to 80 members. As in other military orders, recruits took monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.⁣

With their famous black cross on a white tunic, the austere Teutonic knights became master traders and diplomats, carving out vast swathes of territory from their base in Prussia and building castles across Europe from Sicily to Lithuania. The Teutonic order enjoyed many successes over the centuries, as well as military failures.⁣


teutonic
Teutonic Knight

Medieval Heraldry

Heraldry, that is the use of inherited coats of arms and other symbols to show personal identity and family lineage, began on the mid-12th century CE battlefield as an easy means to identify medieval royalty and princes who were otherwise unrecognizable beneath their armor. By the 13th century CE, the practice had spread to nobles and knights who began to take pride in bearing the colors and arms of their family predecessors. Shields and tunics were particularly good places to display such symbols as lions, eagles, crosses, and geometric forms. As more and more knights employed coats of arms, so they had to become more sophisticated to differentiate them, and the use of heraldry even spread to institutions such as universities, guilds, and towns. The practice still continues today, with many countries having official colleges of arms which assign individuals and institutions with new arms, and although the medieval knight has long since disappeared, the symbolism of heraldry remains a common sight from company logos to sports teams’ badges.

Heralds

In the Middle Ages, heraldry was known as armory (in Old French armoirie) and it was distinct from other and more ancient symbols worn by warriors on the battlefield because heraldic arms were both personal and hereditary. The name heraldry derives from the heralds, those officials responsible for listing and proclaiming ancient armorial bearings, especially at medieval tournaments. In the tournaments, a large number of knights either fought in mock cavalry battles or jousted against each other, and it was the heralds’ job to advertise the coming of a tournament, indicate the rules under which they would be held, and pass on challenges issued by one knight to another.   

IT WAS THE HERALDS’ TASK TO KEEP TRACK OF ALL THE COATS OF ARMS & BE ABLE TO IDENTIFY WHICH ARMS BELONGED TO WHICH NAME.

It was, above all, the heralds’ task to keep track of all the coats of arms and be able to identify which arms belonged to which name, perhaps listing them in a ‘roll of arms’. By the 14th century CE, as rulers grasped that heralds with their extensive knowledge of who is who could be particularly useful sources of information on exactly who they were fighting against in battles, the status of heralds steadily grew. The heralds wore a short tunic (tabard) which was embroidered with the arms of their master. Heralds also acted as messengers and were given safe passage during times of war. Eventually, heralds were organizing such important events as weddings and funerals for royalty and the nobility. The specialized study of family arms known as heraldry was now fully established, and it had become a social science with its own vocabulary, history, rules, and social grades.

From the 15th century CE, heralds and apprentice heralds were employed in colleges of arms, which settled disputes over conflicting arms and examined people’s claims to have one in the first place. There arose a whole series of specific rules and conventions of heraldry, and it was these colleges of heralds who replaced the monarch as the power who granted or removed arms (due to cowardice or serious crimes). In England, for example, the function was and still is performed by the Royal College of Arms in, appropriately enough, Queen Victoria Street, London. Such offices helped to sort out the confusion which had arisen from anyone, even peasants, creating their own coat of arms, and they accumulated detailed records of all the arms that had ever been created in their jurisdiction. The oldest known English roll of arms dates to c. 1244 CE. Currently housed in the British Library, it is a single sheet, painted on both sides by Mathew Paris and showing 75 coats of arms starting with the king’s.      

Herald of Arms

The Evolution of Heraldry

Medieval heraldry originated, then, sometime in the 12th century CE as individual warriors – first kings and then knights, too – sought to show off to their opponents exactly who they were up against hidden behind the armor. The idea was that when the enemy saw the three lions motif of Richard I or the black shield of the Black Prince, they would tremble with fear in the knowledge they were not about to fight just any old knight. The retainers of a certain knight and those knights who fought for a baron or other nobleman might also wear their master’s arms and colors in special purpose liveries.

The next step was the children of celebrated warriors reusing the arms of their father and so the idea of a hereditary symbol developed with even daughters having the right to bear the arms of their parents. The first recognized instance of a coat of arms being passed on from one generation to another is that of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou (d. 1151 CE) and his grandson William Longespée (‘Longsword’, d. 1226 CE), who both have six lions rampant on the carved shield on their tombs.

Early Designs

The first symbols of identification did not have to be very complicated, indeed, simplicity and boldness made them all the more visible on the battlefield. The most obvious and striking place to carry identification was the shield, which might bear a single specific color, or two colors separated by a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal line. Then, as more and more knights took up the trend, so arms had to become more varied if they were to keep their purpose of identification. As a result, not just colors but also symbols were adopted, for example, lions, eagles, tools, flowers, crosses, and stars were all popular choices. Symbols were sometimes stylized because they had to be recognizable from a distance and fit into the peculiar shape of a shield. In addition, certain colors were not mixed as that made the shield difficult to identify (e.g. black on purple and vice-versa)

Coat of Arms of Anne of Brittany

The next step was to create a unique combination of these designs with certain colors. An additional source of variety was when two families married, and their coats of arms could be mixed (compounding) – from a simple half and half ensemble to including a miniature version in one corner of the other. There were also symbols added to coats of arms to indicate the offspring of a holder of arms, for example, a white line through the shield to indicate a first son who otherwise had the same arms as his father. Similarly, a coat of arms might carry an extra symbol to denote the holder was an illegitimate son of the original bearer of the arms.

COATS OF ARMS COULD BE REPEATED ON OTHER PARAPHERNALIA OF WARFARE SUCH AS ON THE FRONT & BACK OF SURCOATS, PENNONS & HORSE COVERINGS.

Uses of Arms

Coats of arms could be repeated on other paraphernalia of warfare such as on the front and back of surcoats (a long sleeveless gown tied at the waist and worn over armor), pennons (triangular lance flags), horse coverings, banners, and hung below the trumpets of heralds. Although rare because it was expensive, some knights had their arms engraved on their armor. Coats of arms were not only useful in warfare, though. They were a good way to identify competitors in medieval tournaments and knights often had to hang their coat of arms outside the inn in which they were staying during the event. From this practice, the idea of a permanent inn sign took hold, a fact which explains why many of the oldest pubs in England have such names as the Red Lion, Rose and Crown, Black Swan, and White Horse, all classic heraldic symbols.

Coats of arms might appear in official records, where they were often used as seals instead of signatures, and they were painted on residence walls, appeared in the stained glass windows of churches, were sculpted in stone on building exteriors, painted on tableware, and, of course, were represented on the tomb of the person who had born the right to carry the arms while alive. The shield-shape was always maintained and even developed as real shield designs changed over the centuries. When the shield became redundant in the 15th century CE thanks to all-encompassing plate armor, the designs of coats of arms became ever more fanciful and the shield more elaborate. However, the classic kite-shaped shield, although a little squatter, remains the favorite of heralds even today. The notable exceptions are the arms of women who, from the 14th century CE, began to bear their own coat of arms, typically in a lozenge shape.

   

Pontbriand Coat of Arms

As heraldry evolved and it became more important to show off family lineage than to identify oneself on a battlefield, coats of arms became more and more impressive and complex. These devices are known as an achievement in heraldic terms. No longer merely a shield form, they have retainers either side holding the shield (lions, unicorns, knights etc.), the shield might be topped with a crested helmet and even a crown in royal cases. Scrollwork such as complicated leaf arrangements surround the shield and a motto may be added below which encapsulates a family saying or commemorates a memorable event in their history.

Heraldic Terms & Design Conventions

Heraldry employs an extensive range of specific vocabulary so that coats of arms may be precisely described in words (a blazon). The shield, known as the field or ground, is divided into specific areas such as the top (chief), middle (fesse) and bottom (base). The right side of the shield is the dexter and the left side the sinister, with the right and left being from the viewpoint of someone holding the shield from behind, as in battle. The colors used in a shield are known as tinctures and have their own heraldic names. The colors used in medieval times were generally limited to:

  • Gold (yellow) – or
  • Silver (white) – argent
  • Red – gules
  • Black – sable
  • Green – vert
  • Purple – purpure

Green and purple were less commonly used than the others, while in the 15th century CE mulberry (murrey) and orange (tenné) were added to the list. An alternative background to color was furs, that is designs which resemble the furs which were commonly used in medieval aristocratic clothing. The two most popular were ermine (from the stoat) with many small black tail tips and vair (from the squirrel) which was represented by various white and blue patterns.

13th Century CE Roll of Arms

To increase combinations, the shield was divided (parted) into different zones of color by a single vertical (per pale), horizontal (fess) or diagonal line (bend dexter or bend sinister). Alternatively, the shield was divided into four blocks (quarterly), had a chevron, or was divided into either four (saltire) or eight triangles (gyronny). These standard eight variations eventually evolved into a much larger number of divisions and designs. The dividing line between areas of color could also be altered to provide even more variety, becoming, for example, wavy, crenellated, or zigzag. Yet another variety was to give the shield a border (sub-ordinary) or impose thick lines of color (ordinaries) such as stripes, chevrons, crosses, and Y-shapes.

Another popular form of identity on shields was to use animate charges (birds and animals) or inanimate charges (everyday objects like spurs, hammers, axes etc.). Monsters from mythology generally only appeared on arms after the medieval period.       

The description of a coat of arms had to be precise so that artists could reproduce them without a more expensive visual source. For this reason, a convention of description evolved where the elements which made up a coat of arms were always described in the following order and their exact position noted:

  1. the field and its divisions (background)
  2. the ordinary (lines)
  3. the principal charges (objects)
  4. the charge on the ordinary
  5. the sub-ordinaries
  6. the charges on the sub-ordinaries

Heraldry still thrives today, of course, and has spread from the individual to the group with clubs, sports teams, and even businesses all creating their own badges of identity. Colleges of arms continue to issue new coats of arms for families, although the process can be both lengthy and expensive so that, even in the more socially mobile societies of the modern world, there is still some distinction and cachet in having the right to them. Coats of arms can still be seen in all manner of places where they send clear visual messages such as those which proclaim state authority on military uniforms and banknotes, those which promote quality and history as on fine porcelain and foodstuffs, and those which promote civic pride such as on fountains and war memorials.

Bibliography

Coss, P. Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England. Boydell Press, 2003.

Gies, J. Life in a Medieval Castle. Harper Perennial, 2015.

Gravett, C. English Medieval Knight 1200–1300. Osprey Publishing, 2002.

Gravett, C. Knights at Tournament. Osprey Publishing, 2018.

Phillips, C. The Complete Illustrated History of Knights & The Golden Age of Chivalry. Southwater, 2017.

Slater, S. The Illustrated Book of Heraldry. Lorenz Books, 2013.

Wise, T. Medieval Heraldry. Osprey Publishing, 2017.