In the 12th Century the symbol of the Coat of Arms was used to identify families or individuals. It was very widely adopted by kings, princes, knights and other major power holders throughout western Europe. By the mid-thirteenth century, the coats of arms were adopted by priests, cities, towns, commoners, peasants and burghers. They used them as seals or other insignia.
The Coat of Arms was originally designed for medieval battle purposes. They were meant to represent the achievements of the person, state, or corporation to whom or which the arms were granted. Generally refers to a detailed design to a cape, shield, crest and helmet.
Armorial bearings, or coats of arms, take us back to the glamour of the middle ages. In days of old, knights displayed heraldic devices on their horses’ caparisons, their servants’ liveries, and on their banners and shields. As war medals are awarded today, the coat of arms and other heraldic devices could be awarded to knights for their service in battle. But the primary role of coats’ of arms was identification in battle – the bright, vibrant colors and symbols identified the knight to his men, and his flying banner was a rallying point for them.
A family crest is altogether different and should not be confused with the Coat of Arms. A family crest refers only to the small image that lies on the helm (top of the helmet).
Heraldry refers to the study of coats of arms, and takes its name from the Heralds, who were the special ambassadors and messengers of feudal times. They were employed by all great lords, and by the king. Because Heralds traveled freely around the country, they were also the armorial officials. They granted armorial bearings. At tournaments, it was the Heralds’ job to check that no knight appeared in the tournament lists displaying the heraldic devices of another. In battle, it was the Heralds’ job, on both sides, to identify the living and the dead, and to declare the winner.
Originally the term coat of arms was the surcoat that was embroidered with armorial bearings. This surcoat or cloth tunic was worn over armor shielding it from the sun’s rays. It was used to distinguish one knight from another. It repeated the bearer’s arms as they appeared on his banner or pennon and on his shield, and it was particularly useful to the heralds as they toured the battlefield identifying the dead.
Prior to the Coat of Arms being used and adopted, it was extremely dangerous for fighting armies on each side. Whenever a knight was fully dressed (with his full armor with his plate mail and helmet) no one on the battlefield could be recognized during conflicts. Because of this, knights were creative and began to paint symbols on their shields. So that knights could be easily identified and recognized – the “coat of arms” came to be.
Once the Coats of Arms were awarded to individuals, such as a knight or an earl, they had the legal right to display it and be recognized. Any person having the right to display and bear a coat of arms must either have had it granted to them or be descended in the legitimate male line from a person to whom arms were granted or confirmed in the past.
The designs for coats of arms included four main things: the shield was divided into sections. Each section had an image with something that was recognizable with the family for which the coat of arms was made for. On either side of the shield, there might be objects or animals – such as a dragon, griffin or lion – these images on the shield look like the animal was holding it up.
Many families today seek a connection with their ancestors through their coat of arms. However, obtaining an official right to display a true coat of arms – i.e. an armorial bearing that was granted to your ancestor – can be a long and tedious process. And for many people, they may not even have an ancestor who was granted an official coat of arms in the first place.
There is always an option to create a crest for yourself or your family from scratch. It may not be “official,” but it can be fun to customize a coat of arms that is specific to you, your interests, hobbies, family history, philosophy, or religion, to name a few examples.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun designing your own coat of arms. Of course, it will never be recognized by any government or College of Heralds (the folks charged with keeping track of official armorial bearings), but it can be a fun family project nonetheless.
If you have an artistic bent, design your own coat of arms using art from one of the dozens of heraldic clipart libraries online. To make your fun family coat of arms look authentic, you’ll need two basic components: the field, and the charges (also known collectively as “the shield”)
Over time, the coat of arms has come to simply mean the shield we so often think of when imagining a classic coat of arms. The color that the shield is painted is called “the field.” Any item which was painted onto the field of the shield was called “the charge.” Therefore, if a shield has a lion painted on it, it’s said to be “charged with a lion.”
Common charges on shields included animals, mythical beasts, birds, plants, flowers, and inanimate objects. Charge your own coat of arms with any symbol which has meaning for you.
Anyways, have some fun making a Coat of Arms with your kids and add it to your genealogy files. It’s a good way to spend some quality time with the ones you love.
Other Heraldry Resources
An excellent website to learn more about heraldic symbolism is at Heraldry and Crests https://www.heraldryandcrests.com/pages/heraldic-symbolism-a-z.
Also, check out on the Family Search website the article on ‘How a Family Crest or Coat of Arms Leads to Family Discovery’ and be sure to read the infographic for ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding a Coat of Arms’ at visual.ly.
More Resources for Designing Your Own Coat of Arms
- The Free Heraldry Clipart site: http://www.heraldicclipart.com/catalog/index1.html
- Create your very own coat of arms now! MyBlazon.com
- Need complete instructions for designing a “do it yourself” coat of arms? A book from Dover Publications, “Design Your Own Coat of Arms: An Introduction to Heraldry” gives you all the information you need and where you can read this book for FREE on Archive.org.
Don’t feel like making a coat of arms from scratch? These sites offer to put a coat of arms based on your last name on a wide variety of products. (Note to serious genealogy researchers: These sites should be consulted and used for entertainment only. They shouldn’t be deemed to accurately contain a coat of arms to which you may have a legitimate claim.)
- Armorial Gold Heraldry Art: http://www.heraldryclipart.com
- Coat of Arms Store & Family Crests Gifts: http://www.4crests.com/
- House of Names: http://www.houseofnames.com
- Learn more about the Royal Arms of England: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_arms_of_England