The origins of heraldry are hotly debated, with some scholars assigning the rise of the coat of arms with the military, functioning to identify knights wearing armor on the battlefield. Others attribute the rise of heraldry to the popularity of tournaments, whose participants wandered the countryside in search of yet another event, spreading the use of the coat of arms throughout medieval Europe.
But what exactly is heraldry? John Shannon, President, The College of Arms Foundation writes, “Heraldry is a science, art and craft whose origins can be traced back to the late 11th century, at the dawn of the Middle Ages” and is rooted in a hereditary device known as the shield. The arrangement of an individual’s symbols on a shield, known as the coat of arms, is unique and is handed down through one’s descendants for all time to come.
Although heraldry and the coat of arms symbols are most commonly associated with monarchs and magnates, families from any walk of life or economic status can assume arms. In medieval times, some arms were granted, and even today, you can apply under certain conditions to the College of Arms in London or to the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland.
One of the most fascinating and little known facts about heraldry and in particular the coat of arms, is that it is not a static representation, but can change, with new elements added by the heraldic artist. Heraldry is actually described in words and it is up to the individual artist to represent those words in symbols on the shield.
The coat of arms consists of six parts: the shield, the crest, the helm, the mantle, the wreath and the motto, each with its own purpose and function. The most prominent part of the coat of arms is the shield, the field on which the elements of the design such as lions, bears, acorns, books or other symbols (known as charges) are placed. Shield shapes can vary and are based on factors such as geographical location or the time period in which the shield originated.