What is Heraldry?
Updated on April 15, 2024
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What is Heraldry?

Heraldry is an established visual identification system that uses symbols on shields, flags, or emblems to tell people, families, or institutions apart.1 It also helps connect people in the present to their heritage and ancestry.

For instance, in ancient times, a unique design could be placed on a shield or a banner representing a person or a family. This is called a “coat of arms.” It often had colors, symbols, and pictures that were special to that person or family.

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Today, a coat of arms can tell you about a family’s legacy. Since it is inherited, it can help people identify if their ancestors have a noble or royal lineage.

Heraldry can be compared to modern-day logos and branding.

Just like how companies use distinct logos to identify themselves and stand out from competitors, medieval knights and families used coats of arms in heraldry to distinguish themselves from others.

These coats of arms served as a visual representation of a person’s or family’s identity, much like how a logo represents a company’s brand and values today.

The Origins of Heraldry

Heraldry can be traced back to medieval times, roughly around the 11th century. However, it’s a bit tricky to pinpoint the exact start, but back then, people already began using unique designs on shields for identification.

Take the Bayeux Tapestry. Medieval heraldry showcased shields with various patterns, but they weren’t consistently heraldic.2

Medieval heraldry started because people needed a way to visually distinguish each family, especially in the chaos of medieval warfare.

Think of them as medieval nametags—these flags, shields, and banners helped people get recognized on the battlefield, on official documents, and even during tournaments.

Heraldry was a way for everyone to ensure they knew who they were dealing with and to keep families and their armies from accidentally attacking men they weren’t supposed to.

How Has Heraldry Evolved Over the Years?

Heraldry started as a system of visual identification, especially in the context of medieval warfare.1

Adopting heraldic devices on shields and seals served practical purposes, allowing armies to be recognized on the battlefield, in official documents, and during tournaments.

Heraldry has undergone many changes and may seem a little different now. It grew to be used in other ways. Here’s how heraldry has evolved.

Seals and Official Documents

In the 12th century, seals became a big deal. This was a crucial moment in the history of heraldry, as people needed seals to guarantee important documents were legitimate.3

Ensuring a document was “official” entailed checking if the heraldic symbolism was accurate and placed on the document. It made it easier to identify letters sent by the family so that no one could falsify any documents.

Armorials and Coats of Arms

Around the 12th century, armorials and coats of arms emerged, solidifying heraldry language. These correspond to collections of family symbols defining the heraldic language.4

Many people and families began using these symbols for shields, banners, and outfits.

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Common Heraldic Symbols and Meanings

Heraldic symbols are not randomly chosen. They are full of meaning and usually reflect values and achievements. Here are some of the most common heraldic symbols:9

Symbol in HeraldryMeaning
LionCourage and royalty
DragonPower, wisdom, and protection
EagleStrength, dignity, and nobility
BirdStrategy
MermaidEloquence
CrownAuthority
HelmetProtection
CrossFaith, piety, and a connection to Christianity
StarsHonor, ambition, and a desire to achieve greatness
Laurel LeavesPeace
SwordJustice
AngelHonor
Hand or GauntletArmed combat
KeyGuardianship

Distinctive Features

Distinctive elements of heraldry, such as the surcoat and lambrequin, originated during the Crusades.1,4

The surcoat, worn over armor, displayed the same heraldic devices seen on shields, and the lambrequin served as a practical covering for the helmet, further enhancing knights’ visual identity.

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Relationship with Nobility

In the 13th century, heraldry became closely associated with nobility.5

The coats of arms were granted and inherited as symbols of social status. The association of specific arms with royal and noble houses became prominent.

Heraldic Colleges and Offices

In the 14th century, establishing heraldic colleges and offices, such as the College of Arms in England or Herald’s College, provided an institutional framework for regulating and recording heraldic symbols. These institutions played a key role in practices in English heraldry.6

The College of Arms was made official on March 2, 1484. King Richard III gave it a charter as an official organization.10

It is still the recognized authority for heraldry in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and many Commonwealth countries.10

Its main tasks include issuing official documents for coats of arms, badges, standards, and other heraldic symbols.10

Grants of arms are a form of legal recognition and conferment of a coat of arms. The Kings of Arms (senior rank officer) grants arms and crests, badges, and supporters. The Kings of Arms also has discretion over the design, but the applicant’s preferences are considered.

The College of Arms also keeps records of coats of arms, family trees, genealogies, royal permissions, name changes, and more.10

Global Heraldry

The Crusades, which lasted from 1096 to 1487, were a series of religious wars between Christians and Muslims to secure control of holy sites considered sacred by both groups.

It contributed to the dissemination of heraldic practices throughout Europe and the world since many Christian families wanted to distinguish themselves.4

The coming together of diverse European armies during the Crusades is likely the reason for the widespread use of armorial bearings.

Why is Heraldry Important?

In addition to historical evolution and cultural importance, heraldry is key in genealogical research.

Since heraldry serves as a visual record of a family’s history and achievements, it can provide a deeper look into a person’s heritage and ancestry.11

A simple symbol in heraldry can also help you trace a person’s family origins and migration patterns, unlocking a ton of information about a person’s heredity, genealogy, and genetics.11 This is because certain families were closely tied to their heraldic symbols, so if you can find them, you can probably tap into their well-documented family trees and history.

Originally serving as a practical means of identification on medieval battlefields, a coat of arms and a symbol in heraldry allowed families of warriors to distinguish friends from foes.

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Beyond combat, a symbol of heraldry became associated with social status and nobility, with coats of arms granted as a mark of honor. Coats of arms are passed down through the male lineage, traditionally going to the eldest son.12

The tradition extended to legal and official documentation, where heraldic symbols were a distinctive signature.

Moreover, heraldry expresses tradition and heritage because families passed down their coats of arms. This created a visual representation of lineage.

The rich symbolism within heraldic designs conveys values, virtues, and personal or familial stories.

Civic heraldry shows the identity of cities and societies.

Although its practical uses have evolved, heraldry remains valued for its cultural, historical, and symbolic contributions. It connects to the past and represents a unique form of visual language.

The Language of Heraldry

While heraldry is a system of visual identification and record, it uses the concept of blazonry to describe heraldic symbols formally. Blazonry paves the way for accurate reconstruction of the image from text alone.4

The language of heraldry is mainly based on French. It works like a special code or system of terms that has evolved over the years.4

The choice of language is based on the historical context of heraldry’s development.

In the Middle Ages, when knights and nobles were in heraldry, French was a widely used language by the ruling class in most of Western Europe, including England.

As heraldry emerged as a distinct field associated with knights, nobility, and chivalry, the use of French in heraldic terminology became more natural.

How Is This Language Used to Describe Coats of Arms?

In heraldry, this language is used to blazon coats of arms.

Blazoning is the verbal or written description of a coat of arms using accurate terms and phrases.4

This specific language provides a clear and standardized way to communicate the visual elements of a coat of arms.

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Blazonry on Coat of Arms (Source: 123rf)

It guarantees that heraldic descriptions are unambiguous, allowing artists, heralds, and others to reproduce or understand the design accurately.

It takes away all the confusion in communicating detailed information.

The Components of Heraldry

Heraldry comprises many components that collectively form a coat of arms. Let’s take a look at each one of them.

The Shield

The shield is a vital symbol in heraldry. It is the canvas on which people and families express their unique identities through symbols and stories. The shield tells a concise yet rich account of heraldic achievements, heritage, and affiliations.

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Different elements of the heraldic shield contribute to its symbolism.

The field, representing the background, is painted in distinct colors or patterns known as tinctures.

Ordinaries, such as the chief, pale, bend, fess, and chevron, are basic geometric shapes that divide the shield, each with a unique meaning.

Charges, symbols, or images are placed on the field, representing specific attributes, achievements, or affiliations.

For instance, animals, mythical creatures, or objects may symbolize qualities or historical connections.

The shield’s divisions and the placement of charges follow specific rules, ensuring clarity in representation.

The Coat of Arms

A coat of arms is a special in heraldry, usually placed on a shield, escutcheon (shield that has a coat of arms), surcoat (outerwear worn by soldiers in the Middle Ages), or tabard (sleeveless or short-sleeved coat or cape) used to cover and protect armor and to identify the wearer.

It represents a person, family, or institution. It symbolizes history, values, and heraldic achievements. It can serve as a visual representation passed down through generations.

A coat of arms can include the shield, divided into sections with specific names like chief, pale, bend, fess, and chevron. The sections can be filled with symbols called charges, which range from animals and plants to objects and geometric shapes.

Each charge’s meaning contributes to the overall story and symbolism.

A coat of arms may feature:

A helmet

Mantling – The protective covering on the helmet

Crest – Object placed on top of the helmet

Supporters – Figures on either side of the shield

A motto

Sometimes, a compartment or a badge

All these elements build a visually striking and meaningful family story highlighting heritage and values.

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Heraldic Colors (Tinctures)

Distinct colors called tinctures are used in heraldry. Each color conveys specific meanings.

The two primary categories are metals and colors. Traditionally, there are seven colors and two metals in heraldry. Metals include gold (or yellow) and silver (or white), while colors are red, blue, green, black, purple, maroon, and orange.

In addition to tinctures, patterns are of significance in heraldic symbolism.

Combining colors and patterns can create complex and beautiful coats of arms.

Heraldic designs focus on achieving clarity and distinction. They use the rule of tincture, which advises against placing color on color or metal on metal to ensure visibility and recognition.7 Following a limited palette promotes a rich and symbolic language within heraldic artistry.

Heraldic Charges

Heraldic charges are images or symbols on a coat of arms with specific attributes or meanings. They are an important element in heraldic design, which gives meaning to the overall symbolism of a coat of arms.

Heraldic charges usually have historical, regional, or familial significance. Images include animals like lions, dragons, and eagles. Other images may include swords, crowns, or shields, which contribute to the complexity of the symbolism of a coat of arms.

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Animals are often chosen for their symbolic meanings. For instance, a family may choose a lion to represent courage and nobility, while another may choose a swan to represent grace and beauty.

The choice serves as a crucial element in the visual autobiography of the family, covering the core of the family’s history, achievements, and future aspirations.

Shapes like crosses and chevrons can also be found in heraldic charges.

Heraldic charges are personal to the wearer and reflect history, aspirations, and achievements.

The Rules of Heraldry

The rules of heraldry are based on tradition. Typically, heraldic authorities establish and enforce these rules.

Heraldic rules aim to maintain the integrity and meaning of heraldic symbols. Let’s look at these rules:8

Authorization – A coat of arms should be granted or authorized only by heraldic authorities like the College of Arms.

Accuracy – Heraldic designs must adhere to established heraldic conventions and traditions to represent the intended meaning accurately. They should not be designed to confuse meaning.

Respect – Designs should respect heraldry’s historical and cultural traditions.

Adherence to Local Rules – Different regions may have specific rules when creating heraldic designs.

Prohibition of Offensive Symbols – Heraldic authorities may restrict using offensive or inappropriate symbols.

Intellectual Property – Legal mechanisms, including trademark and copyright laws, may be employed to protect heraldic symbols from unauthorized use.

Penalties or Corrective Actions – Heraldic authorities can issue warnings or take legal steps to address the situation in rule violations.

Heraldry Today

In the modern world, heraldry has gone beyond its historical roots. Coats of arms continue as symbols of personal identity and tradition that are still passed down through generations within families.

Heraldry is now used in various applications.

Family crests use heraldic symbols to represent a visual history.

Companies use heraldic symbols in their logos for a touch of tradition or prestige. Sometimes, they use these elements to relay a specific message.

Some modern brands that use heraldic symbols include:

Rolex – The luxury watchmaker uses the iconic crown to represent power, prestige, and luxury. The intention is for the wearer to feel privileged.13

Louis Vuitton – They use the LV monogram as a symbol of luxury. The logo also features stylized flowers that represent joy and protection.14

Burberry – Their first logo displayed an equestrian knight carrying a shield with the Latin word “Prorsum,” meaning “forward.” Burberry’s logo has undergone many changes but has kept its connection to heraldic tradition with the knight on a horse.15

Formal ceremonies, academic institutions, and official events frequently feature heraldic symbols to evoke a sense of tradition and continuity.

Heraldic elements are also used at important events, in the military, and even in art and fashion. They are used for their aesthetic appeal and historical significance.

If you are interested in genealogy, heraldry serves as a gateway to family history. It can help you explore your lineage through ancestral symbols.

Commonly Asked Questions About Heraldry

What is a motto in heraldry?

In heraldry, a motto is a short phrase that goes with a coat of arms. Unlike blazonry, a formal description that permits the replication of a coat of arms, a motto carries a message or values that the bearer wants to communicate. It is usually written in Latin, adding a touch of historical flair, but it can also be in other languages.

What is the difference between a shield and a crest?

A shield is the main canvas that tells the visual story of a coat of arms. It shows symbols and charges representing identity. A crest is positioned above the helmet. It is a decorative element like a three-dimensional symbol or figure that adds flair and uniqueness. Together, they create a distinctive heraldic design.

What is the symbol of honor in heraldry?

The symbol of honor in heraldry is associated with using a chivalric belt. This belt, or “belt of honor,” encircles the shield and serves as a mark of distinction and valor. It symbolizes the virtues of loyalty, bravery, and honor, reflecting the chivalric ideals that are deeply rooted in heraldic tradition.

Why is it called heraldry?

“Heraldry” comes from “heralds,” or officials who identified knights on battlefields using unique coats of arms. It evolved into a symbolic language expressing identity and achievements through special symbols and meanings.

Updated on April 15, 2024
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15 sources cited
Updated on April 15, 2024
  1. History of Heraldry.” Wikipedia.
  2. Bayeux Tapestry.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  3. Seals: Stamps of Authority.” King’s College Cambridge.
  4. Heraldry.” Britannica.
  5. Medieval Heraldry.” World History Encyclopedia.
  6. College of Arms.” Britannica.
  7. Rule of Tincture.” Wikipedia.
  8. Laws of Heraldic Arms.” Wikipedia.
  9. Heraldic Meanings.” American College of Heraldry.
  10. College of Arms.” College of Arms.
  11. Genealogy and Heraldry: How to Explore Family Coats of Arms, Crests, and Heraldic Symbolism.” Family History Zone.
  12. Law of Heraldic Arms.” Wikipedia.
  13. Rolex Logo: The Complete Story Behind The Iconic Crown.” The Watch Company.
  14. Celebrating Monogram.” Louis Vuitton.
  15. The EKD.” Burberry.
Katrina Canlas
Katrina Canlas
Content Contributor
KC Canlas is an experienced content writer for Know Your DNA. She combines her passion for storytelling with a deep understanding of DNA and genetics. She creates engaging content that can empower readers with knowledge about their genetic makeup, promoting a greater understanding of the role DNA plays in their lives.