The Coat Of Arms And Its History

Coats of Arms were developed in the Middle Ages as a means of identifying warriors in battle and tournaments. The present function of the Coat of Arms (although still one of identity) serves more to preserve the traditions that arose from its earlier use.

Heraldic artists of old developed their own unique language to describe an individual Coat of Arms. The Coat of Arms illustrated herein was drawn by an heraldic artist from information recorded in ancient heraldic archives. Our research indicates that there are often times a number of different Coat of Arms recorded for a specific surname. When possible we select and translate the Coat of Arms most representative of your surname or its variant for illustration.



How Early Coats of Arms Were Granted

Since the early 13th century, Coats of Arms and Heraldry have been a source of great fascination as well as a subject of true historical importance. It is easy to understand why more than half a million Coats of Arms recorded by individuals with thei r respective family names are still being researched and studied after more than seven centuries.

How the term "Coat of Arms" evolved makes an interesting story. Because wars were almost a continual occurrence during the Middle Ages, more and more armor was added to a Knight's battle uniform until the medieval warrior was finally protect ed from head to toe. The metal suit of armor always included a helmet to protect the head, thus it was virtually impossible to tell one knight from another. In order to prevent any mishaps on the battlefield, such as one friend injuring another, a means o f identification was necessary. A colorful solution first carne as knights painted patterns on their battle shields. These patterns were eventually woven into cloth surcoats which were worn over the suit of armor. In fact, many a horse was also seen pranc ing around in a fancy cloth surcoat with its master's Coat of Arms ablaze on the side.

This colorful identification was certainly displayed with great pride. As more designs were created, it became necessary to register or copyright these designs, to prevent two knights from using the same insignia. Records were kept that gave each knig ht exclusive rights to his arms. In many cases, records were then compiled listing the family name and an exact description of its Coat of Arms. These are called "armorials" or "blazons." The word "heraldry” is associated wit h Coats of Arms due to the role of the "herald" in recording the blazons, and comes from a common practice at a medieval sporting event. Tournaments (or jousting contests) were popular during the days of knighthood, and as each soldier was prese nted at a tournament, a herald sounded the trumpet and then announced the knight's achievements and described his Arms. The heralds would then record the Arms as a way of ensuring that a family maintained its protective rights to have and use its individu al Arms.

Heraldry And History

Coats of Arms are intertwined with heraldry and history. Heraldry offers a fascinating study of medieval lifestyles where we can surmise much regarding our forefathers. Historically, different creatures of nature denoted certain characteristics, and v arious inanimate shapes implied certain traits, historical factors or aspirations. For example, the chevron symbolized protection and has often been placed on Arrns to tell others that its bearer achieved some notable feat. A symbol (or charge) placed on a Coat of Arms usually provided dues to a person's being. Some Arms are an artistic interpretation of a person's name, e.g. many of the Fisher Arms include dolphins or fish. Many Arms reveal a person's occupation. Others tell about less tangible characte ristics, such as the early bearer's hopes, wishes and aspirations. For example, hope is shown by a wheat garb or sheaf and joy by garlands of flowers or a red rose. Crosses and religious symbols often meant the person felt a closeness to his god, or could have symbolized that the knight was a veteran of one of history’s bloodiest series of battles - the Crusades. Heraldic research is full of proud warriors boasting their war records via their Coats of Arms.

The first Arms were quite simple, consisting only of the shield. The design was set off with a horizontal or vertical band, star or half-moon; however, the renderings became more complex during later times. Immediately above the shield is the helmet, the style of which depends on the country and the status of the early bearer. The wreath, or torce, is mounted on top of the helmet. The crest wasn't included on the Coat of Arrns until the 13th century. The crest was the emblem that survived when the ba nner was destroyed and the shield shattered, as a rallying symbol of the knight's courage. It was painted on leather, sometimes thin metal or even wood, and was attached to the helmet, so that allies could easily pick out who was who. The lambrequin or ma ntling, now represented in strips, was once cloth which hung down from the helmet to cover the back of the neck. It meant that the bearer had been to battle. The mantling in most instances is of secondary importance to the shield and crest. Standardize d mantlings are often used to illustrate different Coats of Arms. The ornate mantling illustrated with your shield has been designed to be used with any particular Coat of Arms.

Some families have also passed down mottos through the ages. They may have begun as war cries or as a variation of a family name. They might express piety, hope or determination, or commemorate a deed or past occasion. The historical tradition of Coat s of Arms became more complicated as the designs became more complex. By 1419, Henry V of England found it necessary to impose rigid legal regulations over the use of Coats of Arms because court battles were becoming quite numerous.

The King forbade anyone to take on Arrns unless by right of ancestry or as a gift from the Crown. Later Henry VIII even sent the heralds (now Royal Authenticators of Arms) into the shires on what were called "visitations." Unbelievable as it may seem to us today, these “visitations" were held once every generation for almost two centuries for the sole reason of offlcially verifying, listing or denying Arms in use. It is interesting to note that the language most commonly used b y the heralds was Norman French, the court language of the time. For instance, the blazon written in the Norman French language, 'D'azur a une fortune, posse sur une boule d'or," can be translated as follows: "Blue with the figure of fortune s tanding on a gold ball." Interestingly, you'll find that even the most complex blazon is normally only one sentence long.

The Bearing of Arms

Under most heraldic rules, only first sons of first sons of the recipient of a Coat of Arms are permitted to bear their ancestor's Arms. Younger sons may use a version of their father's Arms, but the rules of heraldry say that they must be changed ("d ifferenced") some-what. If the bearer of a Coat of Arms (called an "Armiger") dies without male heirs, his daughter may combine her father's Arms with her husband's Arms. This process is called "impaling." Although these pri nciples seem formal today, they do give us an idea of the rich, protective tradition which surrounded heraldry through the ages.

There are over one million surnames in use throughout the world today. However, less than 75,000 of these names can be associated with a Coat of Arms. An early Coat of Arms might have been granted to a person with your surname. Although you may or may not be related by blood to this early namesake, you may wish to adopt this crest for your own use today.

Or it is possible to have your own Coat of Arms designed and registered depending on the country in which you reside.

The Symbols and Meanings

You can easily learn the different terms of heraldry and the parts of the Coat of Arms. A complete Coat of Arms consists of a shield, crest and motto (if one exists). The shield, or escutcheon, is the main element. The crest (usually an animal) rests on top of the shield. The motto may be in any language, but is usually Latin, French or English. For many Coats of Arms, the researcher will find a helmet, or supporters, or both have been added to the shield. Many Coats of Arms include accessories such as the mantling and wreath. The mantling was originally used to protect the knight from the d irect rays of the sun and to protect his helmet from rust and stains. The wreath symbolizes the device used to cover the point where the crest was attached to the knight's helmet. It is important to note that the word "blazon" is the correct tech nical description for a Coat of Arms.

Parts Of The Shield

The right side of the shield (from the knight's viewpoint) is called the dexter side, and the left is the sinister side. The term "tincture" is the name given to the colors used in a Coat of Arms. The tinctures represent two metals, seven colors and various furs.

The Field

The blazon of the Coat of Arms gives the tincture of the field first. For shields which have more than one tincture, partition lines in various forms are depicted. Each type of line has its own heraldic term. When a straight line divides the shield horizontally the shield is said to be blazoned "per fess"; vertically, "per pale"; diagonally from dexter to sinister, "per bend"; and diagonally from sinister to dexter, "per bend sinister." The lines which are not simple or straight have special names, such as wavy, indented, or raguly. A shield may be "quartered," or divided into four equal parts. Some shields have bands of color called ordinaries that have special meanings because of common usage.

The Charge

The blazon gives the description of the charge next. Almost anything that can be symbolized in color or form can be a charge. Charges include representations of animals, people, monsters, divine beings, natural and manmade objects. Often charges are one word that simplifies the task of describing them. For instance, a lion standing on one hind leg with the front paws raised is called "rampant". An eagle looking over its right shoulder and with its talons and wings out-stretched is called & q uot;displayed."

The charges on the field you will most likely see are the lion, the rose and the lily, the most widely used designs. Then there are the ordinaries: the honorable ordinaries and the sub-ordinaries. These are geometrical figures used as the charges on the field. The seven honorable ordinaries are the bend, the chevron, the chief, the cross, the fess, the pale and the saltire. The fourteen sub-ordinaries are the annulet, the billet, the bordure, the canton, the flaunch, the fret, the gyron, the inescutc heon, the label, the lozenge, the orle, the pile, the roundel and the tressure. The partition lines are used to separate the field and to border the honorable ordinaries and the sub-ordinaries. The eight basic styles are indented, inverted, engrailed, wav y , nebuly, embattled, raguly and dove-tailed. The ordinaries and partitions were added onto the shield to strengthen it. These were painted to enrich the decoration on the field and eventually became a traditional component of the shield and of the charges.

The Colors And Furs

You'll find that even the hues used in heraldry represent a clue about the bearer. The tinctures used are divided into metals, colors and furs. The metals used are gold and silver. Gold (or yellow) denotes generosity, valor or perseverance. Silver (or white) represents serenity and nobility. The colors are red, green, black blue and purple. Red represents fortitude and creative power. Green means hope, vitality and plenty, while black is for repentance or vengeance. Blue and purple represent loyalty and splendor.

The furs most commonly used are Ermine and Vair. Ermine represents dignity and nobility, Vair, a high mark of dignity. Rarely used are the colors reddish-purple and orange-tawny, both said to be marks of disgrace due to "abatement of honor." Because designs were so important on the battlefield, so was the display of colors. The important rule to remember here is that metal is always displayed on color and color always on metal. For example, blue on gold, not blue on green, as it would lose i ts clarity or distinctiveness of design.

(The World Book of Freers, 1997:pp 3.1 - 3.4, Halbert’s Family Heritage)

To Freer Coat of Arms

To Freer Family Research Directory