Intro to Heraldry - A Primer for Genealogists

Sixteenth century coat of arms
Getty / Hulton Archive

While the use of distinguishing symbols have been adopted by the world's tribes and nations stretching back into ancient history, heraldry as we now define it first became established in Europe following the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066, rapidly gaining in popularity during the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century. More properly referred to as armory, heraldry is a system of identification that uses hereditary personal devices portrayed on shields and later as crests, on surcoats (worn over armor), bardings (armor and trappings for horses), and banners (personal flags used throughout the middle ages), to assist in the identification of knights in battle and in tournaments.

These distinctive devices, marks, and colors, most commonly referred to as coats of arms for the display of arms on surcoats, were first adopted by the greater nobility. By the mid-13th century, however, coats of arms were also in extensive use by lesser nobility, knights, and those who later came to be known as gentlemen.

Inheritance of Coats of Arms

By custom during the middle ages, and later by law through granting authorities, an individual coat of arms belonged to one man only, being passed from him to his male-line descendants. There is, therefore, no such thing as a coat of arms for a surname. Basically, it is one man, one arm, a reminder of the origin of heraldry as a means of instant recognition in the thick of battle.

Because of this descent of coats of arms through families, heraldry is very important to genealogists, providing evidence of family relationships. Of special significance:

  • Cadency - The sons in each generation inherit the paternal shield, but alter it slightly in a tradition known as cadency with the addition of some mark which, in theory at least, is perpetuated in their branch of the family. The eldest son also follows this tradition but reverts back to the paternal coat of arms upon the death of his father.
  • Marshaling - When families were merged through marriage it was common practice to also merge or combine their respective coat of arms. This practice, known as marshaling, is the art of arranging several coats of arms in one shield, for the purpose of denoting the alliances of a family. Several common methods include impaling, placing the arms of the husband and wife side by side on the shield; escutcheon of pretense, placing the arms of the wife's father on a small shield in the center of the husband's shield; and quartering, commonly used by children to display the arms of their parents, with the father's arms in the first and fourth quarters, and their mother's in the second and third.
  • Bearing of Arms by Women - Women have always been able to inherit arms from their fathers and to receive grants of coats of arms. They can only pass these inherited arms on to their children if they have no brothers, however - making them heraldic heiresses. Since a woman usually did not wear armor in the Middle Ages, it became a convention to display the coat of arms of her father in a lozenge (diamond) shaped field, rather than a shield, if widowed or unmarried. When married, a woman could bear the shield of her husband upon which her arms are marshaled.

Granting of Coats of Arms

Coats of arms are granted by the Kings of Arms in England and the six counties of Northern Ireland, the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms in Scotland, and the Chief Herald of Ireland in the Republic of Ireland. The College of Arms holds the official register of all coats of arms or heraldry in England and Wales. Other countries, including the United States, Australia, and Sweden, also maintain records of or allow people to register coats of arms, though no official restrictions or laws are imposed on the bearing of arms.

The traditional method of displaying a coat of arms is called an achievement of arms and consists of six basic parts:

The Shield

The escutcheon or field on which are placed the bearings in coats of arms is known as the shield. This comes from the fact that in medieval times the shield borne on the arm of a knight was ornamented with various devices in order to identify him to his friends in the midst of battle. Also known as a heater, the shield displays the unique colors and charges (lions, designs, etc. that appear on the shield) used to identify a particular individual or their descendants. Shield shapes may vary according to their geographical origin as well as the time period. The shape of the shield is not part of the official blazon.

The Helm

The helm or helmet is used to indicate the rank of the bearer of the arms from the gold full-faced helm of royalty to the steel helmet with closed visor of a gentleman.

The Crest 

By the end of the 13th century many nobles and knights had adopted a secondary hereditary device called a crest. Most commonly made of feathers, leather, or wood, the crest has traditionally been used to help distinguish the helm, similar to the device on the shield.

The Mantle

Originally intended to shield the knight from the heat of the sun and to ward off rain, the mantle is a piece of cloth placed over the helmet, draping down the back to the base of the helm. The fabric is typically two-sided, with one side being of a heraldic color (the principal colors are red, blue, green, black, or purple), and the other a heraldic metal (typically white or yellow). The color of the mantling in a coat of arms most often mirrors the main colors of the shield, although there are many exceptions.

The mantle, contoise, or lambrequin is often embellished on the artistic, or paper, coat of arms to give prominence to the arms and crest, and is usually presented as ribbons over the helm.

The Wreath

The wreath is a twisted silken scarf used to cover the joint where the crest is attached to the helmet. Modern heraldry depicts the wreath as if two colored scarves had been braided together, the colors showing alternately. These colors are the same as the first named metal and the first named color in the blazon, and are known as "the colors."

The Motto

Not officially granted with a coat of arms, mottos are a phrase which incorporates the basic philosophy of the family or an ancient war cry. They may or may not be present on an individual coat of arms, and are normally placed below the shield or occasionally above the crest.

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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "Intro to Heraldry - A Primer for Genealogists." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 27). Intro to Heraldry - A Primer for Genealogists. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "Intro to Heraldry - A Primer for Genealogists." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).