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Family Crests and Coats of Arms: History

The question is still unanswered:

"Where does mere ornamentation end, and where does Heraldry 'as we know it' begin?" [1]


The First Shield

Many of the symbols adopted into armory have been used since the time of the ancient Egyptians, but heraldry itself did not begin until the 11th century. In continental Europe, the most ancient recorded Coat-of-Arms was discovered upon the monumental effigy of a Count of Wasserburg in the church of St. Emeran, at Ratisbon (Regensburg), Germany. The ensigns were "per fesse argent and sable, a lion rampant counterchanged", dated 1010.

Some argue that the Bayeux Tapestry gave the first clue that by that time Heraldry was well established on both the Norman and the English side, but this claim can easily be dismissed as:

"Furthermore, accounts of the Battle of Hastings relate that a rumour Duke William had been killed was only countered when he removed his helmet and showed himself to his followers, an expedient which would not have been necessary had he borne a shield with a recognizable device or surmounted his helmet with a recognizable crest." [2]


The argument continues. Which came first Arms or seals? Or perhaps the real question is were both in use at the same time? Generally it is agreed that the first known use of seals was during the reign of Stephen (1135-54.) Richard I (1157-1199) used at least two version of his seal:

"On his great seal (1189) he bore the two lyons for the Duchies of Normandy and of Poictou or Maine. In his second great seal (1198) he added a third lyon for the Duchy or Actquatine, or as some say for Anjou" [3]

For the reader, we leave this question unanswered, but in our opinion the practical use of seals for identification in sealed documents of the time in all probability came first.

Coats of Arms

The term Coats of Arms may seem a bit difficult to the lay person. Why not just use the term shield or use the root arms? The answer lies in a more practical explanation of the reason for the term and must first look at the Crusades (11th -13th centuries).

"To combat the effect of the heat of the eastern Mediterranean sun on their metal armour, the Crusaders devised white linen surcoats and these, painted also with their heraldic emblems, became the original 'coats of arms'. " [4]

Turning Back the Clock

By the reign of Edward II (1327-1377) heraldry was in general use and marked clothes, furniture, metal work, tombs, houses and church pews. Such was the enthusiasm that Arms were designed for kings and nobles that had long since passed away. "Egbert (802-839), is credited with bearing azure, a cross moline argent."[5]

So well developed had heraldry become by the 13th century that it acquired the rules and terminology which are the basis of its present laws and language. The specialists in this field became known as heralds.

With the suppression of private armies, and the gradual disappearance in the 16th century of both tournaments and closed helmets, the sporting and military uses of heraldry became less important and it became rather a decorative art.

College of Arms (England)

Founded in 1484 by King Richard III (1452-1485) this private corporation was granted to sole privilege of granting Arms in England. Considering the plentiful use of Arms, Crest and Seals before this point, it has always been a daunting task to enforce the authority. No one knows how many Arms were created and used before the College came into power. Before the College's creation, there was no central registry of Arms in England. So, by the time the College came into power, the famous Scrope v. Grosvenor duplicate Arms case had already been brought before the courts in 1389. Richard Scrope, 1st Baron Scrope of Bolton, Yorkshire and Sir Robert Grosvenor from Cheshire both discovered they were using the same Arms on the battlefield and both lay claim to the same Arms.

The College of Arms serves England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Other Authorities

As far as the rest of the world is concerned, most countries have authorities of their own.

See Also


  1. ^ Fairbairn James, Fairbairn's Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland, Great Britain: Mackays of Chatham PLC, (1892) pp. vii
  2. ^ Williamson David, Debrett's Guide to Heraldry and Regalia, London: Headline Book Publishing (1992) pp 10
  3. ^ Foster Joseph, The Dictionary of Heraldry, Feudal Coats of Arms and Pedigrees, London: Bracken Books (1989) pp xiii
  4. ^ Williamson David, Debrett's Guide to Heraldry and Regalia, London: Headline Book Publishing (1992) pp 12
  5. ^ Ibid, pp12
  6. ^ Swyrich, Archive materials

This page was last modified on 17 April 2018 at 12:54.

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