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, so coats’ 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.
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.
Heralds still exist today. Many countries in Europe have offices of Heralds, including Britain. If you find that you have a British ancestor, you can apply to be granted the right to bear your ancestors’ coat of arms. If your British ancestor didn't have a coat of arms, you can choose your own devices (symbols), and a coat of arms may be created for you.
What does coat of arms mean? In medieval times, knights wore a thickly padded coat over their chain mail to protect them from sword thrusts, and their armorial bearings were painted on this coat. After a battle, it was the Heralds’ unpleasant duty to identify the dead, and the deceased knights were identified by their painted coats: their coats of arms.
The Language and Symbols of Heraldry
Heraldry can seem complex to us, with its many colors and symbols, but 600 years ago you would have been able to read the colors and symbols on a knight's livery, banner, and coat of arms as easily as you can read a billboard today. In those days, although most people (even the wealthy) were illiterate, they understood heraldic symbols, and what they meant. Everything on a coat of arms had meaning to them: the colors, the quarterings or other divisions, and the symbols, which could include swords, shields, crowns, animals and mythical beasts.
Are You Eligible for a REAL Coat of Arms?
If you have a British ancestor, you may be eligible. But claiming entitlement to a coat of arms, or applying for a new coat of arms, is a complicated process because you must apply to the College of Heralds of your ancestor's country. Bear in mind that those kiosks you see set up in malls, or the various websites that “specialize” in providing coats of arms based on your last name, are really just for fun (if you want to be generous in describing their motives). What you’ll receive from these places really has nothing to do with a true coat of arms that may have been granted to your ancestors.
Resources to Help in Applying for a Real Coat of Arms:
* College of Arms (England and Wales): www.college-of-arms. gov.uk
* The Heraldry Society of Scotland (Scotland): http://www.heraldry-scotland.co.uk
* Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland (Ireland) at the National Library of Ireland: http://www.nli. ie
Chris Simeral is the creator of the 7 Day Family Tree Genealogy Research Toolkit. For more information on last name origins , researching your family’s past, or a free genealogy mini-course, visit http://www.7DayFamilyTree.com .