Coats of Arms and family crests 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. Most scholars associate the beginning of medieval heraldry with the Emperor Charlemagne who ruled the Frankish Empire from 768 to 814. There was a rapid expansion of the use of heraldry across Western Europe in the early twelfth century. 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. This practice of recording 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.
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.