A graphic showing a variety of heraldic devices.

Vickie Wallace

The Birth of Heraldry

Shortly after the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066, the great nobles and later the lesser nobles and knights adopted certain symbolic devices by which they could be easily recognized in battle, tournament and on their seals. The devices were painted on their shields and coat armour, the protective coat worn over the amour; for this reason the devices came to be called 'coats of arms', or simply 'arms.'

Such a system of personal recognition would serve no useful purpose unless every man had a distinct and different coat of arms, which argued that there had to be officials controlling it, and seeing that the devices used were bold and beautiful, and could clearly be seen by all except the most myopic. Who could exercise this necessary control? Fortunately, there were officials at the Norman court who fitted the job description admirably; they were called heralds. Heralds were messengers, proclaimers, marshals of the tournament and the battle array and ceremonial officers; they were also literate, and, because of their job, must have known who was who among the ruling class. It is suspected that at first they simply advised the nobles what to use for arms, helped with designing them and made lists of which man bore what coat of arms. Many of these lists or rolls of arms survived from the middle of the 13th century.

As time went by, the heralds came to be more than advisors; they assumed control of coats of arms, a monopoly which they still enjoy, under the Sovereign, in England. This Heraldry - Coats of Armsbecame their principal occupation, which is why the study and science of coats of arms has for long been termed 'heraldry' although strictly speaking, the word refers to all the business of a herald.

The Nature of Heraldry

What distinguishes heraldry from other systems of symbolism? The following criteria may be applied:

  1. The principal vehicle for the display of the arms is the shield, other forms of display such as flags, or indeed the coat amour itself, are derivative.
  2. The symbolic devices used and the way in which they are displayed on the shield follow certain rules and conventions developed by the heralds over the centuries.  Heraldry - Coats of Arms
  3. The bearing of arms is in the nature of an honour, stemming from the Sovereign and therefore subject to legal control. Arms may not be assumed, but are granted to worthy people of good standing by the Kings of Arms, the senior heralds, acting with the Royal authority.
They are hereditary in character. Thus, arms descend to all the male descendants in the male line of the man to whom they were granted, or were allowed and recorded by the early heralds. Cadets difference their arms slightly from those of the head of the family and women bear their father's arms until they marry.

Development of Heraldry

Heraldry was not ordained and approved on a certain date, but advanced rapidly  Heraldry - Coats of Arms during the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century. For example, the first Great Seal of King Richard I depicts the King on horseback with a convex shield on which one upright lion is visible; his second seal, probably struck in 1195, shows three horizontal lions, which design from that time onwards has been the Royal arms of England. From the early 13th century the evidence of seals tells us that arms had assumed their hereditary character, an eldest son's seal being engraved with the same arms as his father. It also became clear that anyone of importance was using a shield engraved on his seal.

Heraldry developed rapidly and by the end of the 13th century many nobles and knights had adopted a secondary hereditary device called a crest. This was modeled on top of the helm, from which flowed a short cloak or mantling. By this time, it was usual for a man to depict his arms and crest artistically in stained glass, on monuments, silver and the like; normally the shield was shown, surmounted by the helm and crest, the design of the mantling often being exaggerated by artists in order to make a splendid picture. This is why the uninitiated often refer to mantling as 'seaweed' or 'foliage'. At the end of the 15th century the arms of the greater nobility were supported on either side by various creatures, from human beings to mythical monsters. People also began to add a motto, perhaps a war cry, a pious platitude or even a pun on their  Heraldry - Coats of Arms surname, on a scroll beneath the arms.

In another area, heraldry was concurrently developing. Because by the 14th century a sophisticated, controlled system of personal heraldry had been firmly established, corporate bodies, who needed to use a seal and to have a symbol of its corporate unity on which the loyalty and pride of its members could be centered, sought to use arms and to become part of the heraldic system. As they wished to use a unique and legally protected symbol, why not arms? The Kings of Arms saw no reason why such bodies-as long as they were of consequence and excellence-should not be granted arms. So it was that the colleges, bishoprics, towns, trade guilds, and more recently professional associations, banks, insurance companies, and even commercial concerns, have been granted arms and crests and in certain special cases, even supporters.


The History of the Heralds

In the early middle ages, not only the Sovereign but also some of the nobility employed heralds and it was an ancient custom to give them whimsical titles. The career structure for someone wanting to be a herald was first to be employed as a pursuivant of arms (literally a 'candidate' but here used as 'an apprentice') in a noble household. Thereafter, having learned his business he would essay to become a herald proper, if possible a royal herald of arms and then, he would hope to reach the top of the profession, a royal king of heralds  Heraldry - Coats of Arms of arms, usually called a 'King of Arms.' To avoid the confusion which can be caused by the term 'herald' being both generic as well as particular to the middle rank, the expression 'officer of arms' is often used to describe all three degrees.

Towards the end of the 15th century the nobility ceased to employ private heralds, thus only the royal heralds were left. They acted as a tightly knit group within the Royal Household, and in 1484, King Richard III granted his heralds a Charter of Incorporation and a house in London in which to live and to keep their records in safety and as the property of the corporation, rather than of individual heralds. This corporation was known as the Heralds' College, or the College of Arms, the preferred name today.

Unfortunately, when King Henry VII defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, the heralds lost their house and probably their incorporation as well; however, they continued to act as a corporation until they received a new home and Charter from King Philip and Queen Mary in 1555. The present College of Arms, rebuilt after the Fire of London in 1666, still stands on the land granted to the officers in the 16th century.

The heralds were incorporated by the titles of their offices and the successors to these offices in perpetuity. Thus the present officers of arms hold the same title as those of their predecessors, namely: Bluemantle, Rouge Croix, Rouge Dragon and Portcullis Pursuivants; Cester, Windsor, Lancaster, Somerset,  Heraldry - Coats of Arms Richmond and York Heralds; and Norroy and Ulster, Clarenceux and Garter Kings of Arms.

The officers form the Chapter of the College, which is the governing body. All officers are members of the Royal Household and are the custodians and interpreters of the official heraldic records; all are in private practice advising on all matters concerning heraldry, genealogy, ceremony, precedence and the like and charge professional fees for their services. The heralds and pursuivants act as agents for the Kings of Arms if approached about a grant of arms, as the kings alone are empowered to grant arms.

As will have been noted, the kings of arms differ from their brethren inasmuch as they actually grant arms. Norroy and Ulster has jurisdiction north of the River Trent and in Northern Ireland, and Clarenceux south of the Trent. Garter has no territorial jurisdiction, but he is the Chairman of the Chapter and the Principal Herald of England. He countersigns all grants of arms.

Heraldic Health Warning

It will be apparent from what has been written that for a person to establish a right to an English coat of arms, he or she must have a direct, legitimate, proven descent in the male line from someone to whom arms have been granted or  Heraldry - Coats of Arms allowed by the kings of arms. This being so, the commercial firms who contract to sent you 'an authentic copy of your coat of arms', or being more legally devious, 'a coat of arms associated with your surname', not having details of your descent, cannot possible send you a coat of arms which is authentically yours. They simply look through about four well know books listing arms, both genuine and bogus. This process is described in their advertisements as 'carefully researched' and they then send you one at random; usually the simplest to reproduce, or that which has noble connections. Sadly, it is a con, or a trick which has been used on well-meaning, ignorant, or uncritically vainglorious and self-deceptive suckers since the 17th century.

Useful Information

Those who want to know more about heraldry can write to:

The Heraldry Society
44/45 Museum Street
London, England WC1A 1LY

The secretary will be pleased to send details and, on request, a list of books and pamphlets for sale. The Society is an educational charity and much of its work is geared to helping teachers and young students.

Serious inquiries about genealogical research and heraldic matters should be addressed to:

College of Arms
Queen Victoria Street
London, England EC4V 4BT.

Text by John P.B. Brooke-Little, Norroy and Ulster King of Arms
Illustrations: Vicki Wallace

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Last updated: April 14, 2015

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