What is Heraldry and a Family Coat of Arms? A Beginner’s Guide

Guest article by John Lehman Esq., Coat of Arms Database

Understanding Heraldry and Family Coat of ArmsHeraldry is both a study of history and of war. What we think of as a family coat-of-arms (commonly referred to as family Crest) was in fact, a way or method of identification soldiers or warriors could use to inform them who their opponents were across a battlefield. It started out as the medieval form of creating a brand similar today of the images we associate with certain commercial products or companies.

Family Coat of Arms and Heraldry: Understanding the Basics

The shield became one of the basic means of defense humans developed in their history of armed combat. From ancient times forward, the ability to tell friend from foe became paramount. The Greeks would paint images of Gods and Goddesses, or mythological creatures such as the Gorgon on their Hoplon or shield to be used as a way of warding off evil or for protection during combat. But it wasn’t a formal way of identifying an individual.

In the melee or fog of war, it is easy to become disorientated and confused. History is replete with stories of friends and allies turning on each other by mistake. The first attempt to provide identification of combatants on the battlefield was by the use of flags, banners, and standards, which were also used to signal troops and point them in the right direction.-One can imagine an older combat veteran giving advice to a younger warrior, “Look for the flag. If you get lost, go there. Someone will tell you what to do.”

It really wasn’t until the 11 and 12th century heraldry became important and even then it was at its most rudimentary forms. With a significant nod to the Invasion of England under William the Conqueror in 1066 and Pope Urban II in 1095 calling for the first Crusade. It was at this point heraldry became important. Crusaders from various regions of Europe all took up the cross. For the English knights and soldiers this was the white tabard with red cross. Often referred to as the Cross of St. George. It should be noted the Cross of St. George is the national symbol for England, and is a part of the flag of the United Kingdom. One of the first ‘surviving’ examples of heraldry by a historical figure was Count Geoffrey of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, founder of the Plantagenet Dynasty, who established the first noble family to carry a coat-of-arms. His personal arms were granted to him in 1208 -Six gold lions on a field of blue in descending order of 3-2-1.

By the time the 14th century arrived, the basic rules for heraldry had been firmly established and for the most part universally agreed upon, all across western Europe. The people who were chosen to codify these rules were called ‘Heralds.’ It is where the art of war or heraldry derives it name from. The most basic rules for colours chosen and the basic shapes and even animals that could be used. All of which needed to have a descriptive language. Which is where the word Blazon/Blazoning comes in. It means to describe a shield by its individual parts. It mostly uses 14th century court French, (As this was the most widely spoken and written language in Europe at the time.) To a person living in the 21st century it can possibly be intimidating. Luckily enough for us, there are multiple translations into modern English. (Google is your friend in this instance.)

Heraldry and Your Own Family History

You know the most basic origins of heraldry. What does this mean to you? A shield was used as a way of identifying someone or something. Think of it as a brand or logo in today’s parlance. What is your brand going to be about? Remember heraldry is supposed to be deeply personal. Your values, your personal achievements, where you are from, and lastly who you might be related to are the fundamental basic requirements of good heraldry. Which is why studying old shields, and personages of note, are important. They can give you a sense of balance and history. As your personal heraldic coat-of-arms will be individual an unique to you, the ones you might view online are to the historical person they are associated with. They can be a great inspiration. They can help you show allegiance to your familial history, and they can be proudly displayed in your home or office, however it should be noted, they are not your arms.

Rules for Your Coat of Arms

Simple rules to follow: The shield is where your coat-of-arms belong. The emblems on top of the shield is called a “Crest.” It usually consists of a type of medieval Helm facing to the left as you look at your shield. A symbol or some design element from your shield or personal life, you wish to show allegiance to can then be placed atop the helm. This is the actual “Crest.” The cloth that falls down from the back of the helmet, (Usually of two colors used from the design of the shield) used to represent movement of a Knight riding in a tournament. Lastly along the base or bottom of the shield is where a Motto might be displayed. I will display a friend’s coat-of-arms where you can see all of these elements.

Coat of Arms Example

The Arms of American Armiger DS Baker. His Shield-Shows his familial origins on both sides (Paternal and Maternal) The Leopard Jessant Quills-(Leopards impaled with a writing quill) are a nod to similar arms of Leopard Jessant Fleur de lis, long associated with the Duchy of Normandy. The Chevron Ermine-alludes to his mother’s family origins based in Brittany. The Crest is of a Winged Poodle, a beloved pet. (A Heraldic Pun. As Poodles are hunting and retrieving dog used in hunting birds-Hence the wings.) He grasps the writing quill of the Armiger. Lastly the motto “Loyaulte me Lie.” which iss medieval French for “Loyalty Binds Me.”

All of the elements of basic heraldry are combined into this unique achievement. The Armiger’s family, his career, a beloved pet, a philosophy and a deeply held belief he ascribes to. This is a wonderful example of an American choosing to celebrate his family history and crafted something that no one else in the world has.

Heraldry is a fascinating study of art, history and governance, which can become a life long passion. The more you research the more layers you will find. Such as why did family members share one design but added elements to it? Which could mean annotating different sons, or battle honors earned, or possibly new property added to the family fortunes. All of which can be found in studying the coats-of-arms of your family and their history. It is also a unique platform in the artistic world, where you try to describe something or somethings about your life in a visual sense that absolutely makes you or your family stand apart from the rest of the world; it can also be thrilling to know, at the end of the day your coat-of-arms will be the only one like it.