Like others of their day, our family used heraldic symbols to distinguish their achievements and to establish their individual identities. (I have a large piece of silver identified by Sir John Johnson’s initials, rather than his crest.) As a soldier for more than forty years I can attest to the continuing influence that heraldic tradition still plays in the military. Heraldry began with military purpose and the military is still filled with heraldic symbols. Heraldry is a powerful institution of sovereign authority and thereby incorporates many connections to the historical origins of the state and leading figures. Military institutions still maintain their heraldic traditions, but the popularity of clothing which displays organisational badges, indicates that heraldic impact is felt by more than just the military.[1]

Chivalry has inspired more than just Hollywood movies. Real men tried to live up to the best of ideals and to protect the church and the weak. The Bayeux Tapestry shows us that heraldry had not been widely established by the mid-eleventh century, as there are only a few heraldic markings on the shields or helmets. I cannot identify Sir Other Geraldino FitzOthoere, friend and companion of William the Conqueror as one of those figures. Heraldry began with the shield and Richard I popularised the symbols of knightly prowess and mutual recognition in battle and the stuff of legends. Richard gained his title of the 'Lion Heart' because of his own bravery and the three lions, which were his personal symbol. Richard's lions, now integrated into the British Royal achievement, or arms, demonstrate that heraldry has a continuing relevance.

The purpose of crests and heraldic symbols was first to identify warriror leaders on the battlefield. These men were noble or gentle men entitled to bear arms.Historically, heraldry and coats of arms identified noble or gentle men entitled to bear arms. Later in the Middle Ages coats of arms were sought for the implied status and the implied distinction as warriors. The need for heraldry and coats of arms declined with the passing of chivalry, but the custom had become fixed in society.

A knight had been free to choose his own coat of arms, but by the 15th century the allocation of arms had become an industry. Heraldry became systemized and heraldry became an exact science. All coats of arms came to be granted by the King, and all arms, both the recently granted and those established by right of ancient use, were registered with the English College of Arms, or similar continental agencies.

Even the terms used in heraldry became exact and a coat of arms was not described, but was blazoned. Terms for partition lines were developed such as engrailed, nebuly, inverted, dancety, embattled, etc. Charges (figures in the field) on coats of arms were of three kinds: the Ordinaries (chief, pale, bend, fess, chevron, cross, saltire, bar, baton, etc.), the Subordinaries (roundels, fusils, orle, annulets, cinquefoil, etc.) and the Common (hand, fish, lions, bears, birds, mullets, etc.). The colors used were: two metals: gold (or) and silver (argent): and five colors: red (gules), green (vert), blue (azure), black (sable) and purple (purpurs).



Henry I's lion


We know that by the 1300's arms were well established and a quick look at what happend prior to then will give us a better idea of developments. To the best of my knowledge the earliest known European coat of arms was that of the Count of Wasserburg and this is found on his tomb dating from 1010. However, even here Pere Menestrier who made an extensive search of France, Italy, Germany and Flanders, suggested that the coat may have been added to his tomb at a much later date. Dates around 1200 and 1300 seem to be the most accepted particularly with respect to English heraldry. An official description of such symbols is called a blazon and to draw the symbol, or coat of arms, is to emblazon it - usually on a shield.

The oldest legal document seemingly being the Roll Of Arms made between 1240 and 1245. Thirteenth century heralds in England retrospectively assigned arms to the Norman kings and it is likely that Henry I, (1100-1135), was the first English king to adopt a lion as a personal device - it was in his reign that the first lion was seen in England, at the royal menagerie at Woodstock - and Henry himself was known as the "Lion of Justice" and the lion, as England's royal symbol has remained since that time.

The first mention of heralds is in a poem by Chretien de Troyes, written c1170. Heralds were initially of the same class as minstrels, itinerant entertainers associated with tournaments. Throughout the 13th century they are mentioned in connection with tournaments, identifying and announcing the participants. Knowledge of heraldry was thus one of their main requirements and heralds set themselves apart from other minstrels by that specialization. By the late 13th century specific heralds appeared as kings of arms (king of the heralds north of Trent in 1276, king of the heralds of France in 1290), who often use a device with three crowns. By the 1330s territorial heralds appeared (Clarenceux in 1334, Norroy in 1338 in England). In the 1300s territorial heralds gained responsibilities over the heralds of specified area. By then, the most important heralds were attached to a king and played ceremonial roles during court functions. The creation of chivalric orders paralleled the appointment of heralds attached to those orders (Garter in England, Golden Fleece in Burgundy: in both cases the king of arms ultimately became the principal king of arms of the country).[2]

Our first English family arms are those granted to Sir Other's grandson Gerald FitzWalter who defended Pembroke Castle against the Welsh in 1094 and married into Welsh royalty. His son Maurice was created Baron of Offaly by King Henry II and Maurice established the Irish FitzGerald family and the later Dukes of Leinster. The FitzGeralds provided men for the Crusades. Thomas de Boulton was also a Norman and Sheriff of Lincolnshire in 1263, during Henry III's reign. The Norman appointment of Sheriff, even in a remote part of England, was a political act. In the de Boulton case, since the last Crusade only began in 1270 there was probably a crusading rationale for either Thomas de Bolton's appointment or perhaps Moore, Willison, Claus, or Weisenberg. At least one of them is also likely to have been directly involved in the origins of heraldry.

Although lion symbols are plentiful in Greek and Roman drawings and in ancient statues from Assyria, Babylonia, China, etc, the Norman lions were probably home-grown. This raises the question of rationalising the official starting use of heraldic, legal, coats of arms. The explanation is simple: the Norman arms were used by the Vikings prior to a legally-authorising heraldic court. That does not seem so strange, why would Vikings be concerned about such details? Their function was adventure, or rape and pillage, not heraldic courts. So there are various start dates for the use of coats of arms and some are better documented than others. This class of warrior knights all had the same problem - how to reduce 'friendly fire' casualties. Colourful graphic symbols might help a German meeting an Italian (perhaps in Constantinople), to recognise friend from foe.

Coats of Arms

Today, the term "coat of arms" or "arms" is frequently applied in two different ways.[3] In some uses, it may indicate a full achievement of arms or heraldic achievement, which includes a variety of elements — usually a crest sitting on top of a helmet, itself sitting on a shield; other common elements include supporters holding up the shield and a motto (beneath in England, above in Scotland). Some people wrongly use "coat of arms" or "arms" to refer to the escutcheon (i.e., the shield itself), or to one of several designs that may be combined in one shield. (Note that the crest is one specific part of a heraldic achievement and that "crest of arms" is a misnomer.) The "coat of arms" frequently are adorned with a device - a motto, emblem, or other mark used to distinguish the bearer from others. If a motto is a part of the achievement, it sometimes has some punning allusion to the owner's name. A device differs from a badge or cognizance primarily because it is a personal distinction, and not a badge borne by other members of the same family successively.

Coat of Arms Components


Correctly, the term "coat of arms" should be applied only to the shield of arms, the design of which was repeated on the surcoat or jupon of the mediaeval armiger: hence "coat" of arms. However, it is now widely used to include all the component parts of an achievement - the shield, helm, crest, supporters, etc.[4] Armorial bearings consist of:

  • The Shield, bearing the basic device.

  • The Helmet, with its Crest, which sits on top of the helmet, both mounting a wreath.

  • The Motto in a scroll.

  • The Mantling or cape (which kept the sun off the wearer's armour in hot weather).

  • Supporters may occasionally be found on either side of the shield, as external attributes of the arms of Peers, Chiefs and a very few other persons of special importance, including Knights Grand Cross of Orders.

The shield is the essential element of a coat of arms and, with the banner, is the principal means of heraldic display. Effigies, monumental brasses, and other objects may be dated with reasonable accuracy by reference to the type of shield held by a figure or depicted elsewhere on a monument. In the eleventh century, and at the beginning of the twelfth, shields were long, narrow and kite-shaped, covering most of the body. They had rounded tops and were made of wood covered with tough boiled leather. Such shields were used at Hastings and during the first Crusade, where raised edges, studs and bosses were often picked out in colour. During the twelfth century the tops of shields became flatter, and the decoration was made more personal.

In the thirteenth century shields became shorter and were shaped like the base of a flat-iron. These last sheilds were called heater shields, and this style remained in use for heraldic purposes throughout most of the fourteenth century. The increased efficiency of the long bow and cross bow, and the rapid development of plate armour, reduced the effectiveness of the shield as a means of defence and by the fifteenth century the shield had been abandoned by mounted knights except for heraldic purposes, notably at tournaments.

The making and decorating of the shields lay mostly in the hands of the heraldic painters. In addition to the shield and crest, heralds also had charge of the riding paraphernalia, most of which was decorated. Many shield-worker artists won widespread fame for themselves, and enjoyed great consideration for their own talents. These later shields were made of wood, covered with linen or leather, the charges were made in relief and painted .

The earliest shields carrying coats of arms were simple. Many knights adopted unadorned stripes or crosses which may have had their origins in the bands of leather or metal which were used to strengthen wooden shields. Physical additions to a shield offered an obvious surface for painting a simple pattern. For instance chevrons originated in battens on the shield which evolved into 'V's due to the pointed convex surface of the shield. Others designs adopted specific objects such as the crescents, suns, lions, and eagles which may have descended from the symbolism of Charlemagne's court via the Flemish comtés. An important factor was the use of common charges by groups of families linked by blood or feudal tenure.

Shields: c1260-1490 (German, Italian, Hungarian, and French)

The shield is the most important part of the heraldic achievement. On a shield are depicted the signs and emblems of the family; the difference marks to note the members within that family; any augmentations of honour conferred by the sovereign; the inherited quarterings, and the impalements of marriage. Thus it is principally with the shield that the laws of armory are concerned, for everything else is dependent upon the shield. While shields were actually used in war, their utilitarian shape governed the artistic representation; but after the fifteenth century the shield's shape was determined by art and design. As noted above, the earliest shape was long and narrow, which became rare. Other forms of the same period were developed with curved tops in the shape of an inverted pear; but the form known as the heater-shaped shield is the earliest shape which was used for armorial purposes.

British Heraldry

The only evidence of any restrictions on the right to bear arms prior to the sixteenth century in England comes from writs sent by Henry V to the sheriffs (of Southamptonshire, Sussex, Dorsetshire and Wiltshire) on June 2, 1417.

To the sheriff of Suthampton.

"Order to cause proclamation to be made in singular the places within his bailiwick where the king has commanded proclamation of musters to be made, that no man of whatsoever estate, degree or condition shall assume arms or coats (tunicas) of arms called 'cotearmures' unless he possess or ought to possess the same in right of an ancestor or by gift of one having sufficient power, and that on the day of his muster he shall shew clearly to persons now or hereafter appointed by the king by whose gift he has the same under pain of not being admitted to sail upon the present expedition under the number of him by whom he is retained, of losing his wages, and of the defacing and breaking of such arms and 'cotearmures' at the time of the muster if displayed or found upon him, except the men who with the king bore arms at the battle of Agincourt; as the king has information that divers men who heretofore in his expeditions have assumed arms and 'cotearmures,' when neither they nor their ancestors used them in times past, and are purposing to wear the same upon this expedition; and although the Almighty dispenses his grace as he will upon rich and poor, nevertheless the king's will is that of his lieges every man shall be entreated as his estate demands."[5]

In Scotland, the Lord Lyon has criminal jurisdiction to enforce the laws of arms. In England, the use of arms is a matter of civil law. The College of Arms is the official repository for the coats of arms and pedigrees of English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Commonwealth families and their descendants. College records also include official copies of the records of the Ulster King of Arms the originals of which remain in Dublin.[6]


Heraldic lions


The arms of England (gules three lions passant guardant or) are known since their appearance on Richard Lionheart's second great seal, although he is believed to have used either a lion rampant or two lions affrontes before that (as shown on his first seal), and his father Henry II to have used a lion rampant. His younger brother John had a 1177 seal with two lions passant guardant.[7] There are older, less official origins elsewhere on the Continent and historically from most ancient civilisations. The lion was a popular symbol in Rome, Greece, Babylonia, and elsewhere.

Lions famously descended from Normandy and Guillaume Longsword, Duc de la Normandie adopted two lions as his symbol, or insignia. His father was Hrolfr, or Rollo, had been made the first count, or duke, of Normandy by King Charles of France. To note the occasion in 912, Rollo adopted a single lion as his inisgnia. Rollo's father had been declared an outlawed 'wolf' by King Harold Fairhair c 900 for raiding in a prohibited area. It will be no surprise to learn then that Rognvald had chosen a wolf's head as his symbol, or coat of arms. The one Norwegian wolf apparently became two Norman lions, and then logically developed into three English lions.

Royal Arms



There are various English and British Royal arms. Their purpose was simple to advertise the owner's presense. Such national arms indicated some state presence: historically the monarch. They were deliberately colourful and their designs and colours carefully worked out and registered. Richard's three lions are shown on the left.

You will recall that the English king, Edward III, claimed the French throne on the death of his uncle, Charles IV of France. Seemingly incomprehensible today, King Henry II of England controlled more French territory than King Louis VII of France when Louis died in 1180. Sadly for Henry, 25 years after Henry died Philip II (who followed Louis) had recoved the continent from the absent Richard and careless John. The next arms appeared in 1340 to represent the latent claim to France by their French lillies. These arms were for Edward II and the third is for Henry IV. Henry's arms encorporated the Valois change to the French lillies. The last arms are much more familiar, they were for Queen Victoria. This final depiction displays the Irish harp and the Scot's lion en garde, and have remained unchanged. Note that the colours are consistent and recall that the same colours carry into the dress uniforms of state and national formal military dress.

The second and third English arms carry different French lillies. The 15 French lillies were used during the Capetion dynasty (1108-1322). To denote a change of dynasty, the Valois kings changed the lillies to the larger three shown. Since this was incorporated into all national symbols, the new lillies were used (1328-1574) for the Valois kings and also the Bourbons (1589-1830). Individual kings 'differenced' their own arms with some additional marks.[8]

The arms of France, since the late 12th century, have been Azure, a semis of fleurs-de-lis or, changed in 1376 to Azure, three fleurs-de-lis or. The mediaeval crown was open with fleurs-de-lys. The supporters, since about 1423 were two angels (prior to that royal seals show the arms of France surrounded by the emblems of the Evangelists). In the sixteenth century the angels were shown each wearing a tabard and holding a banner with the arms of France (and later Spanish Navarre). A 1515 frontispice to the translation of Robert Gaguin's Chroniques de France shows a closed crown (previously only the Emperor had used a closed crown), and the shield was supported by Saint Denis (in whose abbey the kings of France were buried) and Saint Remi (the bishop of Reims, who baptized the all-conquering Clovis).[9]

The Coat of Arms of Canada


Canada's Coat of arms


The Royal Coat of Arms of Canada (formally known as The Arms of Her Majesty in Right of Canada) was proclaimed by King George V on November 21, 1921, as the Arms or Ensigns Armorial of the Dominion of Canada. Canada's coat of arms is very closely modelled after the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom.

The shield has five elements: The first quarter at the viewer's top left contains the three lions that are a symbol of England introduced by Richard I. The second quarter bears the Red Scottish lion in a double tressure border with fleurs-de-lis,

The third quarter shows the Irish harp of Tara. (Legend states that this golden harp with silver strings was used in royal banquets at Tara, the capital of ancient Ireland, and was later given to Henry VIII by the pope during his attempt to succeed to the Irish throne.)

The golden fleurs-de-lis of royal France, the first European emblem raised in Canada by Jacques Cartier during his landing at Gaspé, fill the fourth quadrant. They also appeared on the arms of the British monarch until 1801.

The fifth element, a sprig of red maple leaves at the bottom is a distinctly Canadian symbol that became gradually identified with the country throughout the 19th century. Initially, the leaves were coloured green on the coat of arms because it was thought to represent youth, as opposed to the red colour of dying leaves in autumn. The leaves were later redrawn in 1957 with the current colour to be in line with the official colours of Canada. (They are blazoned "proper," so they could be depicted as being any natural colour of maple leaf.)[10]

The ribbon is marked desiderantes meliorem patriam, meaning "they desire a better country." It is the motto of the Order of Canada. This component was added, by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister, to the arms used to represent the Queen in 1987, after a new Canadian "law of arms" was created, which included the rule that the motto of the Order of Canada would be included around the personal coat of arms of any Canadian who received an appointment to the Order, while the arms used by government ministers and departments remained without the ribbon. Since 1994 the arms used by government ministers and institutions also reflect the personal arms of the Queen.

The cimier, a crest in heraldry, is based on the Royal Crest of England but differenced by the addition of a maple leaf, and appears on the Governor General's blue flag denoting that the Governor General is a representative for the Sovereign.


1             For an overview of heraldic terms and background see HERALDIC GLOSSARY for the CLANN ÓGALLCHOBHAIR WORLD-WIDE, at http://ogallchobhair.org/heraldry/index.htm, which quotes extensively from A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry, by James Parker, first published in 1894.

2             See Heralds, at http://www.heraldica.org/topics/heralds.htm.

3             Wikipedia, Coat of Arms, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coat_of_arms.

4             Much of this description of coats of arms was taken from Central European University description at http://www.ceu.hu/medstud/manual/SRM/shield.htm.

5             The Writs of 1417, Cited at http://www.heraldica.org/topics/britain/writ1417.htm.

6             College of Arms, http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/.

7             The Royal Arms of Great Britain, http://www.heraldica.org/topics/britain/royalarm.htm and more generally the Regulation of Heraldry in England, http://www.heraldica.org/topics/britain/england.htm.

8             Ibid.

9             The Arms of France, http://www.heraldica.org/topics/france/frarms.htm.

10           Quoted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coat_of_arms_of_Canada.

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