Heraldry Origins - The Origins and
Meaning of Heraldry and Coats of Arms
Joseph C. Wolf
Curator Emeritus, Local
and Family History Collections, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.
Historically, heraldry began as a mark of identification in social
intercourse and found its full flowering as a useful art in the Middle Ages, when it came
to be used to distinguish the warriors on the battlefield.
Originally, a knight was free to choose his own device, but by the 15th century, the
multiplication of arms resulted in the complete systemization of the practice, and
heraldry became an exact science. All armorial bearings came to be granted by the King,
and all arms, both the recently granted and those established by right of ancient usage,
were registered with the College of Arms, if English, or with similar agencies in
Even the terms used in heraldry became exact and a coat of arms was not described, but was
blazoned. Terms for partition lines were developed such as engrailed, nebuly, inverted,
dancety, embattled, etc. Charges (figures in the field) were of three kinds: the
Ordinaries (chief, pale, bend, fess, chevron, cross, saltire, bar, baton, etc.), the
Subordinaries (roundels, fusils, orle, annulets, cinquefoil, etc.) and the Common (hand,
fish, lions, bears, birds, mullets, etc.). The colors used were: two metals: gold (or) and
silver (argent): and five colors: red (gules), green (vert), blue (azure), black (sable)
and purple (purpurs).
The need for this means of identification declined with the passing of chivalry, but the
custom was anchored in antiquity and had a definite appeal of its own.
There have been a great many people who insisted upon having a coat of arms, whether they
had a right to them or not, and there were also a number of pretenders calling themselves
heraldic artists, who were willing to supply anything for a price. A coat of arms does not
necessarily belong to a person just because some one of the same surname bore it. He must
prove descent from the owner.
Marks and designs were used to mark a warriors armor and his surcoat, which was the
garment that he wore over his coat of mail. From this use comes the expression coat of
arms. These marks were not at first hereditary. They gradually became so, however, and
were recognized as evidence of the wearers noble or gentle birth. The right to bear
a certain coat of arms came to be hereditary as early as 1390. In 1488 the Heralds
College was incorporated by Richard III of England and it was their duty to trace
ancestry, to approve coats of arms, to confirm titles of honor, and to examine claims to
armorial rights. Some inherit their fathers arms not equally but by law of cadency:
that is, each son has added to his inherited arms a particular sign indicating his order
Women’s Rights to Coat Armor
Womens rights to coat armor are strictly limited, unless she is a sovereign. She is
granted the right to use a coat of arms bearing the arms of her father or husband, but not
on a shield. She uses a lozenge, a diamond shaped frame.
Since a woman was not a warrior she could not use the shield, helmet, crest, mantling or
war-cry motto. Until her marriage, she used her fathers arms in a lozenge, and
oftentimes surmounted it with a true lovers knot of light blue ribbon. This later,
however, has no official sanction.
After marriage, she used her husbands arms on a lozenge, and continued the practice
if she became a widow. Sometimes the husband impaled his arms with those of the
wifes father. At first, impaling was the placing of the two shields side by side,
but later it became the practice to place the husbands arms on the dexter (left as
you face the shield), and the arms of the wifes father on the sinister.
If a woman was a heraldic heiress (having no brothers to inherit the coat of arms) her
husband placed a small shield with the arms of his wifes father in the center of his
own so it would show he was carrying the arms for the benefit of his children, the
grandchildren of his wifes father. This was called the "escutcheon of
pretense". The children carried both of the arms, which were quartered.
Heraldry in America
The situation in America was and is somewhat different. While this country was under
English domination, before the Revolutionary War. There was some general regulation of the
right to bear arms - or at least the rules and the customs have prevailed. Apparently,
however, no effort was made by the colonial government to compel citizens to abide by
there laws, and as a result, the later colonists did pretty much as they pleased about
displaying anything that struck their fancy.
At the close of the 17th century, this illegal use of arms was helped along by an obliging
carriage painter of Boston named Gore, who created arms and eventually made a roll of arms
which is completely without authority. About a century later, another gentleman, a Mr.
Cole, performed similar labors throughout New England.
Actually, the patriots of America who won the Revolution were "traitors" to
England, and this fact, in reality, cancels their rights and their descendants
rights to the coat of arms granted to their ancestors.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the unwarranted assumption of arms reached huge
proportions. Most persons took them without a shadow of a claim. Because of American
interest in Heraldry, the New England and Historic and Genealogical Society, of Boston,
has organized a committee on heraldry. It is the function of this committee to investigate
and establish the right of certain American families to bear arms, and it has published a
roll of authentic coats of arms. However, such registration has no legal effect, nor any
meaning other than that, in the opinion of the committee, such arms are rightfully used by
certain families. The committee accepts all coats where descent is proved from a grant of
arms where it can be proved that the first comer to this country used them; but if it be
shown that such user was without rights, the arms are removed from the list.
The use of heraldry and coats of arms in the United States is a matter of personal taste. There is no
American law by which you can obtain a coat of arms, as our government has not ever
recognized coat armor. In using coats of arms, we should abide by the laws governing its
use in the country in which the arms were granted. The right to bear arms in this country
is limited to those comparatively few families who can show a direct descent from an arms
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