As the number of coats of arms increased there was a need to have a system of recording – this became the responsibility of “Heralds”. Initially “Rolls of Arms” were produced which were a collection of coats of arms usually painted, drawn or listed on parchment. Eventually “Ordinary of Arms” were produced which was more of a reference work that listed coats of arms in alphabetical order. These lists were usually a description of the individual shields, called a blazon. This practice of recoding a coat of arms or family crest in written, as opposed to pictorial format, is still used today. The control of coats of arms was vested in the High Court of Chivalry during the early 14th century with the college of arms being established by Richard III in 1484. However, by the end of the 15th century the system was very much abused and a number of audits (called visitations) were undertaken during the 16th and 17th centuries. Unfortunately most of these audits resulted in a proliferation in the granting of coats of arms to those who thought they deserved them and could afford to pay.
Throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries family crests and coats of arms have remained popular with some parts of the design growing more complex and ornate. Many people will associate themselves with a coat of arms via their surname. Where no direct male decendancy can be established it is common to use the oldest coat of arms associated with that name.
Family name origins and meanings of symbols on coat of arms are not uniquely associated with chivalry and knights in armour. Throughout all periods of history symbols have been used to represent affiliation and authority. The Romans made use of the eagle and distinctive markings on their shields to help identify specific legions. Similarly many other cultures such as the Egyptians and Greeks made similar use of a variety of symbols.
British Heraldry is often associated with the Norman conquest of England in 1066 although there is little evidence that the Norman’s used any such system. Most scholars associate the beginning of medieval heraldry with the Emperor Charlemagne who ruled the Frankish Empire from 768 to 814. It was via families descended from this region that heraldry spread across Europe. There was a rapid expansion of the use of heraldry across Western Europe in the early twelfth century.
Part of the Bayeux Tapestry producted to celebrate the Norman Invasion of England
Most coats of arms or family crests during this period were made up of geometric figures and stripes with the occasional use of a small number of animal figures. Heraldry has a close association with “seals” that were meant to be unique and used to authenticate documents. Initially coats of arms were awarded to individuals and it was not until much later that they became associated with families. Many complicated Coats of Arms and Family Crests can be found for famous people who lived long before the twelfth century. Much of this can be attributed to the medieval period and later when it was popular to produce “Attributed Arms”. A quick search of the internet can find coats of arms for Merlin, King Arthur, Satan and Christ. Heraldry reached its peak during the Hundred Years War (1337–1453) when it was considered to be an essential element of the law of arms and chivalry.
Early Coat of Arms of the
De vere Family -
note the simple Geometric pattern
"Attributed" Coat of Arms
of the Devil
Illustration of the "Battle of Cresey" from the Hundred Years War from a 15th-century manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicles
Dering Roll, depicting 324 Coats of Arms - about 25% of all English baronage during the reign of King Edward I