According to Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, “Heraldry is that science of which the rules and the laws govern the use, display, meaning, and knowledge of the pictured signs and emblems appertaining to shield, helmet, or banner.” Fox-Davies goes on to explain that Heraldry comprises everything within the duties of a herald while Armory is heraldry (the emblems and devises).
The herald was a messenger and proclaimer. Heralds might accompany monarchs on journeys, read official notices in town squares (remember most people couldn’t read), and act as announcers at events. As their status grew, they started wearing a uniform called a tabard. Heralds even went along to war as an observer and to record details, as documented by chronicler Guillaume le Marechal in 1173 at the Battle of Drincourt in Normandy. The heralds would record the coats f arms of those nobles fighting and later, at tournaments, they would announce the combatants (as seen in the movie “A Knight’s Tale”).
Coats of arms were developed in order for men to be identified on the field of battle by friends, or foes, for that matter. Alas, coats of arms could work against a man. There was nothing stopping one lord from using a symbol similar to another. Relatives could swear oaths and fight on opposite sides of a conflict. In 1340, the de Balleul brothers, William and Robert, did exactly that. Not only did the two fight against each other, it was recorded they sounded alike and wore similar coats of arms. This caused a critical mistake. The soldiers with William’s side heard Robert’s battle cry. It was said the day was misty, which might have contributed to the confusion. William’s men rallied to Robert, thinking they were going to Robert, who “...received them most fiercely, repulsed, and discomfited them”.
Wearing a coat of arms signified a social standing. Individuals may not have their own. Poor knights were lucky enough to have a riding horse in addition to a warhorse. The famous knight, Sir William Marshall started out as a house knight. He made his fortune and fame in the tourney circuit and although some of his exploits may have been blown out of proportion, there is no doubt his later deeds associated with the royal family are well documented. Knight and nobles who chose not to wear their symbols of statue in battle came to regret the decision. The Earl of Gloucester neglected, or decided, not to display his coats of arms during the battle of Bannockburn. During the conflict, he was killed by the Scots instead of being captured and ransomed as one of the nobility would normally have been. Knights did try to avoid killing one another when possible - holding one's enemy for ransom was more lucrative (besides, one never knew when the tides would be turned and he would be the one in custody). Mercy to a captive could pay off in more ways than one.
Banners and flags have been used as a form of identity as far back as the Egyptian period. Carrying a lord’s banner was a position of honor. Banners were used to signal troops or rally men. Queen Elizabeth flies the flag when she is in residence.
No one can say exactly when heraldry began to be commonly used but examples of emblems can be found going as far back as the Roman legions can be found. Was the banner carried by Roman forces actually heraldry? We know Norman soldiers carried heraldry because the Bayeux Tapestry has examples of such devises, but were banners or flags common or just carried by William’s men? Ships have long used flags to identify their country of origin and individuality. Some symbols used in heraldry come from other cultures, such as the sphinx or Pegasus. Early medieval cultures had no formal heraldry, although there may have been examples of individual use in the form of flags. It wasn’t until the Normans brought feudalism into vogue that coats of arms started to show up. The right to show a coat of arms and bear arms was directly correlated to one’s status. When a record was made of the known devices and heraldry in the 13th century, only those of the great houses were recorded.
As Heraldry evolved, the emblems became more complex. When formal tournament competitions became popular, knights came up with fancier coats of arms; instead of simple devices on their shield and surcoats they developed barding for their warhorses and often had outrageous accessories for their helms. Cadency marks indicated birth ranks within the nobleman’s family, but these marks tended to vary depending on the country. Cadency was strictly for male descent. In England, the cadency marks were as follows: firstborn son (or heir) used a label – which is a bar with three downward bars); second uses a crescent; third a mullet; fourth a martlet; fifth and annulet; sixth a fleur de lis; seventh a rose; eighth a cross moline; and, ninth a quatrefoil. Woman didn’t usually carry arms, but if they did she would display her father’s arms (if she was single) or her husband’s (if married) on a lozenge-form, which was the feminine style.
King Richard III established the College of Arms with the duty of recording all coats of arms. The College still performs its duties today. The governing body consists of 13 members: three kings of arms, six heralds, and four pursuivents (a person who seeks knowledge in heraldry). One can apply for a coat of arms through the College or research an ancestral right to bear arms. The equivalent in Scotland is called the Lyon Court.
A coat of arms consists of different components. The crest is attached to the helmet, which is based upon the coat of arms. The Torse, or wreath, is two skeins of twisted silk. One is a metal color and the other from the arms. The Helm itself is under the helm, in natural-colored metal. Next is the shield with the heraldic device. The Supporters are people, in representative dress of some sort. The Comportment or Ground is the stand for the Supporters. Finally, the Motto on a ribbon was used by the family, many times as a cry in battle.
Traditionally, coat of arms colors have a few rules. Color is not to be laid upon color, nor metal upon metal. They are usually referred to in French. The metals are: or (gold) and argent (silver). The colors are purpure (purple – usually on crowns and mantles), azure (blue), gules (red), sable (black), vert (green), teene (orange), and sanguine (dark red). The furs are ermine and vair.
Coats of arms are still used to this day. Most are not officially sanctioned by any official agency. There are online websites and books galore dedicated to creating coats of arms. Companies will help you research your family to see if you have any devices. In England, you can apply for a coat of arms, but it's not cheap and you have to justify your request. Some devices have been retired because the family line has died out.
For more on heraldry, see:
A Complete Guide to Heraldry
by Arthur Charles fox-Davies
1978 Bonanza Books
A Guide to Heraldry
by Ottfried Neubecker
2006 Barnes & Noble Books
Heraldic Design: Its Origins, Ancient Forms, and Modern Usage
By Hubert Allcock
2003 Dover Publications
Bloodied Banners: Martial Display on the Medieval battlefield
by Robert w. Jones
2010 The Boydell Press
Stay safe out there