Heraldry and Coats of Arms

coats of arms and heraldry in British genealogy
Are there coats of arms in your family tree?

I will admit that this topic was much more complex that I had expected when I first started reading up on the subject. So this article will just be an introduction to the history, meaning and use of coats of arms.

The first thing I need to point out, is that coats of arms are NOT associated with a family or a surname. Anyone offering to find your family’s crest or coat of arms (for a price, of course) is not a legitimate service. Coats of arms were handed down through the male line of a family, but with changes and modifications with each generation. First and foremost, each coat of arms represented one person, not the entire family line. So please don’t waste your time trying to track down or acquire your “family crest”.

Basically, coats of arms the symbols and images used to identify individuals of high social standing (the nobility), dating as far back as 1066. The system of creating and understanding these symbols is called amory, also known as heraldry.

These coats of arms were worn on shields, tunics, helmets and banners to identify a man in battle. They were particularly popular in the 12th and 13 century.

The basic premise of the coat of arms, is that the symbol belonged to one man, but that it was handed down to his eldest son when he came of age. At that point, the son would make a small change to the design (a process called cadency), in order to differentiate him from his father. When the father dies, the oldest son then goes back to using the original coat of arms of his father.

As families married, coats of arms would be further modified and merged. The husbands arms would incorporate the arms of his wife’s father.

Coats of arms were granted in England by the Kings of Arms (now the College of Arms), and various other bodies performed the same duties around Scotland and Ireland. Records were maintained to establish who was allowed to wear each coat of arms. It was the rampant misuse of arms that led to the Visitations of the Heralds in the 1500s and 1600s, where pedigrees and birthrights were established.

A coat of arms has 6 main parts, with each element being worn as a different part of a knight’s attire. There is the shield, helmet, crest (worn on the helmet), mantle (worn over the helmet), wreath (worn around the crest) and the motto. The motto was a phrase adopted by the family, and not actually a visible part of the arms.

When all the aspects of the arms are illustrated together, it’s referred to as an achievement of arms. It is this illustration that we often see when viewing a family coat of arms. In an achievement, the shield portion is usually held by 2 animal supporters not seen on any other parts of the arms.