by Bob Brooke
While some form of family insignia dates back to the ancient Greeks, coats of arms, as they're known today, originated in England in the early 12th century.
Fighting men of the time wore metal armor fitted with closed helmets that made knights in full battle dress undistinguishable from one another. To prevent friend from attacking friend, each knight painted an identifying design on his battle shield. In time these heraldic designs began to be displayed on horse covers, on lance pennants, and some placed distinguishing crests atop their helmets because their shields weren't always visible in battle. Many wore an embroidered cloth surcoat bearing their arms over their armor, thus literally creating a "coat of arms."
During the 13th and 14th centuries, coats of arms became more elaborate--so much so, they created the needs for heralds, experts who memorized the arms of each man. These heralds also introduced their master on public occasions by reciting his family history and military feats. They also acted as "masters of ceremonies" during knightly tournaments and announced each contestant by name as he rode into the arena.
While each knight tried to make his arms unique, duplications inevitably occurred, resulting in court battles. The situation became so critical that in 1419 Henry V of England forbade anyone from assuming arms unless by right of ancestry or as a gift from the crown. The king granted coats of arms to individuals, not families or surnames, for use by that person or his descendants. Two brothers might hold two different coats of arms if each received a grant, so often many people with the same surname had different coats of arms. A later descendant in the same family might not have any coat of arms.
Later in the century, King Richard III incorporated the Royal Heralds into the College of Arms and sent these royal authenticators of arms into the shires on what were called "visitations." Once every generation for almost two centuries, the Royal Heralds officially verified, listed, or denied arms in use throughout the kingdom.
The main component in a coat of arms is the shield or escutcheon upon which decorative devices, called charges, are placed. On top of the shield rests the crest, which often is an animal. As part of the crest, there's a helmet or mantle, an ornate representation of the protective cloth worn by the knights. And, finally, there's the motto, which may be in any language, but in England is usually in Latin.
When mail-clad warriors became a thing of the past, nobles retained their inherited coats of arms as identifying marks on jewelry, silver, carriages, houses, bookplates and tombstones.
While the essential elements of heraldry were the same throughout Western Europe, the system governing the inheritance of arms varied from kingdom to kingdom. Under English law, a father passed his coat of arms to his eldest son, while younger sons would be entitled to "differenced" or changed versions of the arms. If the possessor of a coat of arms dies without male heirs, his daughter may "impale" or combine her father's arms with her husband's.
Over 82 percent of Americans with at least one line reaching back to England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland have noble blood coursing through their veins, including someone who was granted a coat of arms. Some may even have a king or queen hidden in the upper branches of their family tree. This is because, in England and Scotland, unlike on the Continent, there were degrees of relationship between nobility and common folk. But that doesn't mean that today's descendant is necessarily the bearer of those arms.
The Royal College of Arms in England contains about 100,000 English arms, including those of Wales and Northern Ireland. Scottish heraldry is governed by different rules and traditions. Heraldry varies throughout the rest of Europe, depending on whether a country has had an ongoing monarchy.