Heralds were professional mediaeval tournament organisers, early impresarios, and they acted as private secretaries, referees and judges who examined knightly credentials and announced the knights. Heralds also controlled and legally recorded the knights' colourful arms and were thus in a position of being able to recognise the knights in their area. Today heraldry is governed in England by the College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street, London EC4V 4BT and, in Scotland, by the Court of the Lord Lyon, HM New Register House, Princes Street, Edinburgh EH1 3YT. The Lord Lyon has recorded arms since 1672. It is illegal to use those arms registered to someone else. English heralds have recorded more than half a million Coats of Arms since the 13th century.[1] Sons must 'difference' their fathers arms in some prescribed way and this must be matriculated by the Lord Lyon. Any Scot or Scottish descendent may apply for arms to be granted by the Lord Lyon. Many other countries have similar authorities to regulate arms. The general rule in much of Europe is that a coat of arms can only belong to an individual, not to a family or clan. The use of the arms is typically passed from father to son through the system of primogeniture. 

Heraldry has been defined as the art of blazoning, assigning, and marshalling a coat of arms. Its origins are uncertain, but Sir Bernard Burke, Ulster King of Arms, has drawn his own conclusion: “[T]he registry of its birth may be found among the archives of the Holy Wars, ...its cradle was rocked by the soldiers of the Cross, and... its maturity was attained in the chivalrous age of Feudalism.” Between 1135 and 1155 A.D., seals show the general adoption of heraldic devices in Europe. Equally, there are many reports of earlier use - if not in England. Historians once theorized that a coat of arms enabled a knight to be recognized by his followers during battle. The coat of arms became hereditary just as a knight inherited the right to lead or the duty to follow another leader in battle.

Later historians dispute this theory based on the small numbers of knights who had any followers. "The service due from a military tenant in the feudal system was well-defined. He held his land by service of two knights, one knight, or half a knight,.... A single knight, let alone a fraction of a knight, had no band of followers, so he had no need to identify himself to them." Woodcock and Robinson suggest that it was much more likely that the depiction of arms on a shield was a form of "individual vanity" rather than a practical military device. The original purpose of identification in battle developed into a system of social status designations after 1483 when King Edward IV established the Heralds' College to supervise the granting of armor insignia.[2]


Henry I's lion


We know that by the 1300's arms were well established and a quick look at what happened 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.[3]

Heraldry, as we understand it in modern terms, was brought to Britain and Ireland by the Normans. However the ancient Irish seem to have had their own system of symbols which they used prior to the coming to the Normans and which they sometimes adapted to the Norman system. The general rule in England and much of Europe is that a coat of arms can only belong to an individual, not to a family or clan. The use of the arms is typically passed from father to son through the system of primogeniture.[4]

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 has since remained England's royal symbol.

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 thirteenth 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 thirteenth 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 used 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).[5]

French heralds were incorporated in January 1407, and the chapel of Saint-Antoine in Paris was given to them for meetings and a library. There were twelve kings of arms, chief among them Montjoye, followed in rank by Anjou (Montjoye's preeminence was not constant: While Charles VII was fighting for France with the English Henry V and Henry VI, created Gilles le Bouvier as Berry king of arms in 1420. Bouvier retained preeminence as the first king of arms of France and created an armory record with 1900 arms. In the sixteenth century many of the kings of arms (Valois, Champagne, Dauphin, Normandie) and heralds (Guyenne, Angoulême, Lorraine, Orléans) were paid by the king. In 1487, the Bourbon herald was appointed as maréchal d'armes des Français with powers to compose a catalogue of all noble arms in France and to rectify incorrect arms. 1535 by François I ordered heralds to research heraldic abuses (particularly usurpation of arms by commoners) and to prosecute them before the courts. Contrary to English practice, however, these orders had little effect, and in particular heraldic cases continued to be handled by the normal courts, rather than by a specialized jurisdiction.[6]

Our first Britlish 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 FitzGerald, Baron Llanstephan 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 Bolton 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 Bolton 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 these families 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 Vikings pre-dating 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 distinguish friend from foe.

Prior to the sixteenth century, heraldry was unregulated in England, just as it was unregulated in all European countries. No laws or institutions prevented anyone from adopting arms as they pleased. Heraldry spread from the noble and knightly class to the merchants, craftsmen, and wealthy farmers from c1350. [7]

Begriming in the early sixteenth century, Henry VIII decided to place heraldry under the authority of his heralds, who were instructed to draw up authoritative lists of acceptable arms then in existence (arms which had been in use long enough, were used by members of the gentry, and conformed to heraldic rules). They did so in the course of visitations throughout the shires of England, visitations which were repeated at intervals of 20-40 years. The later visitations often confirmed arms which had been used for a few generations. In parallel, the granting of new arms by the heralds became a common practice. By the seventeenth century, the Law of Arms in England had evolved to the point where only arms granted or confirmed in a visitation were considered lawful, and the bearing of all other arms was unlawful and subject to fines. This was undoubtedly the high point of heraldic regulation in England. In 1672 Scotland, a law was passed which helped regulate heraldry and which is still the Scots' governing authority.[8]

Arms Industry

All arms were displayed on a shield called an escutcheon, the focus of armorial achievement. As the Normans popularised heraldry in Britain, the Norman shield was used. The Norman shield was pointed at the base, to be used in a line as a defensive palisade. Shields were made of wood, covered with leather (boiled to make it hard) or linen and strengthened with metal bands, or bosses. Metal shields first appeared in c1100. By c1400, knights wore plate armour and shields were used in tournaments only.[9] The shield shape, since changed, is described in the following terms used to describe the main points. The whole enclosed area is known as the field. The right hand side is the dexter, and the left the sinister. The top is the chief, the bottom the base, and the centre the fess. Below are notional arms for three brothers against their father's crusader cross.

Armorial Differencing Marks Example (with escutcheon, or shield, & mantling)



First son (label)

Second son (crescent)

Third son (mullet)





Arms are based on simple symbols (such as those illustrated above) and the original coats of arms were worn over the armour to help identify the otherwise unrecognisable knight inside. Typically, the arms were depicted on a knight's shield (or escutcheon). With the addition if he chose, of a helmet, crest, and motto on a scroll a gentleman could depict his heraldic 'achievement'. The whole achievement includes the shield, helm, mantling, crest, wreath or crest coronet, motto, insignia, supporters, coronet of rank, and insignia of office.[10] This resulted in a considerable industry for lawyers, artists and craftsmen. In Europe, retainers wore their chief's badge around their necks on a metal plate (some armies retain this symbol to indicate the officers on duty). A badge comprises a crest, perhaps encircled by a strap and buckle bearing a motto. Family arms were also used to identify servants and property on various materials.

Mediaeval family histories are rich with heraldic traditions and the Mackenzie, Boulton and Moore heraldic arms are alluded to here. Stein notes "...Heraldry itself dates from the beginning of the twelfth century, when visual symbols called coats of arms began to appear and were adopted rapidly by the nobility throughout western Europe."[11] Since our family dates from this era, heraldry is an integrated part of our heritage. We no longer use signet rings to seal letters and few of us have our own crested tableware, carriages, or liveried servants. But these were important as the signet ring enabled people to authenticate letters, even if they were illiterate, and crests identified the owner visually, in an age when most people were illiterate. These mediaeval symbols were derived from Biblical, Roman and other societies (they are certainly more transportable than an earlier Egyptian symbol, the sphinx).[12] National heraldic symbols are still with us.

Flags Are Heraldic Symbols



Feudal concepts were based on the exchange of land in payment for personal service. This payment continued as long as the land was held and the feudal service provided the basis of mediaeval armies. Armies fought and heraldry enabled the lord and his subjects to recognise each other in battle. Of course, even local battles between neighbours led to the need for colourful pageants and tournaments in which knightly skills were practiced. The rich tournament was a spectacular event in the life of the local people. King Edward IV built competitive lists, which were 100 x 80 metres in size and supported several simultaneous jousts and thousands of people who travelled to compete would swell the area and bring in unimaginable wealth. Heraldry was widely established by the eleventh century and was accelerated by the Norman conquest of England.

Royal Arms

Selected English Royal Arms


Thirteenth century heralds in England retrospectively assigned arms to the Norman kings and although Henry I, (1100-1135), was the first English king to adopt a lion as a personal device a leopard had previously been used by Hrolfr Rollo Ragnvaldsson, and his father Ragnvald I Eynsteinsson. Rollo is more familiar as Robert, the first Count of Normandy. Their direct descendant was, of course, William the Conqueror. . At some point his successors added another leopard to have two facing leopards. In logic the original leopard represented the county in Norway and the second was to represent Normandy. Evidently they 'became' lions. As his father, Henry II, did before him, King Richard I also used heraldic lions as his personal symbol. Richard added a third lion for Aquitaine as a family territory.

Those same lions remain a part of the British coat of arms, and history and are incorporated into the Royal Arms today. The three lions represented the Norman English continental holdings of French Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine. The arms of England (gules three lions passant guardant or) are known since their appearance on Richard Lionhearted's second great seal, although he is believed to have used either a lion rampant or two lions affrontées 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.

William had two lions


Richard had three


King Richard also produced the first English Great Seal, which shows the King's shield bearing a rampant lion, and purportedly an additional lion was on the obverse. Richard and the Crusades were therefore both role models for feudal behaviour in mediaeval society and heraldry itself. Richard's rampant lions evolved to the three walking British Royal lions as his second choice: 'Gules, three leopards in pale or' (not 'Gules, three lions passant guardant in pale or'). The transition from leopards to lions is explained by the mediaeval belief that the lion's characteristic pose was rampant.

In 1340, Edward III asserted his claim to the kingdom of France through his mother Isabelle de France, sister of the last three kings in the direct Capetian line, against their first cousin Philippe de Valois, closest heir in male line, who had succeeded in 1328. Although Edward was not the French heir general (if females were allowed to succeed, there were still others closer than he was), he and his successors tried to conquer France. The struggle was called The Hundred Years' War. Although the English came close to conquering France many times, ultimately they failed. The claim was expressed by quartering the arms of England with those of France, with France in quarters 1 and 4. According to Froissart, this was done to assuage the Flemings who were bound by oath not to act offensively against the king of France. if Edward were to take the title, they said, they would acknowledge him as such and offer him assistance.[13]

Royal arms (when complete called the whole achievement) are as old as heraldry and they captured the important symbols for the nations involved. Since most of my ancestors are of British origins, I have focused attention there. In addition to Richard's English lions, the British Royal Arms, shown later, include the national symbols of a Scottish unicorn and an Irish harp. The numbers of very different charges, or figures that appear in arms now include every conceivable object from beasts to modern symbols, like trains or boats. Which way they face and what attitude they adopt has a deliberate implication. Clearly the selected charges vary with the individual personal experience, but in most cases heralds acted as the standard crest design advisors. The heralds also recorded all arms in their own authority.and ensured recognition of all others, who might visit. The examples below illustrate national arms.[14]

Royal Arms of France

Established by the Valois (1338-1574) and Bourbons (1589-1848). "Azure three fleurs-de-lys or." de France simple, moderne. first Instituted by Charles V.


Royal Arms of Scotland

Prior to 1603, James IV's arms had two unicorns & Or, a lion rampant within a double tressure flory counter-flory Gules. Scots' lion & unicorn now in UK arms.

British (UK) Royal Arms

Two sets of lions and a lion supporter indicate the dominant nation. In 1603, James I added the Irish harp and Scots' lion. These arms were fixed in 1837 for Victoria and are unchanged since then.


Royal Arms of Scotland

The Jacobean unicorn and English lion hold national flags aligned with their national lions (on the escutcheon), the unicorn is in the dominant position in these current arms.

Social Distinctions

Social rank was (and still is) important for the same reason that wolves all recognise who defers to whom and when it is time for a leadership change. Heraldry captured the distinctions of social rank and graphically depicted the subtleties of status, as personal symbols and crests identified many possessions. As has been described, a fathers arms were differenced, for his sons, and sometimes a wife's arms were impaled, or beside their husbands. The Mackenzie of Coul arms show the 'quartered' Chisholm arms.

Every family had arms created - if they felt they could justify and afford them. The details changed, but the purpose remained constant - to gain status. Even after the year 2000, new arms are being created and Canada now has its own herald and arms!

Primary Charges

There are literally hundreds of different symbols (or charges) that can appear on coats of arms. The colors that are chosen and even the shape of the shield itself can have significance for the Family, Clan or Sept that was to bear the arms. An individual coat of arms may have a symbolic meanings for its charges beyond the meanings given below for these few examples.[15]

From the earliest times, the Irish used flags and standards which they carried with them into battle. One of the earliest reports of battle flags is in relation to the battle of Belach Duin Bolg in 594 AD. According to the tale, while looking down on an armed camp the King of Leinster mistakes the battle flags of the army for "...a great stationary bird-flock of mixed colors, such was the number of banners floating on tall poles over the booths."[16]

Sample National Charges

British unicorn


Welsh dragon


Russian Eagle


Irish harp

Sample Family Charges & meanings














Efficient industry





French monarchy







Secondary Charges

Additional figures are termed Honourable Ordinaries and Sub-Ordinaries and were used as charges on the shield. The language is obscure, but the terms date from c1100. There are seven Honourable Ordinaries: Bend; Chevron; Chief; Cross; Fess; Pale; and Saltire. There are fourteen Sub-Ordinaries and nine principal methods of partitioning the [design] field. These names are important, but the choice of numbers of Ordinaries, etc was more important to the highly superstitious mediaeval men ruled by the Church and the Bible. Some of the ordinary figures are illustrated below, although the placing of lines and whether straight or wavy are additional considerations. Colours (tinctures) and background surfaces may contain patterns of geometric patterns, dots, or fur.[17] The Ordinaries are illustrated in Wikipedia.[18] The examples below are deliberately coloured to represent the historical descriptions.

Honourable Ordinary and Sub-Ordinary Examples



Honourable Ordinaries

Shapes enable complex designs.



John de Bickmore, c Henry III, bore Argent, a chief azure.



Baron Henry de l'Orti vel de Urtiaco, 1299, bore Vert, a pale or.



John Trelawney, c Edward I, bore Argent, a chevron sable.



Henry Lowther, c Edward III, bore Argent, six annulets sable.



Richard Dautrey, c Edward III, bore Or, five fusils conjoined in fess sable.



Timperley, knighted at Calais capitulation 1348, bore Gules, three escutcheons argents.






These are the arms of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane (1758–1832), who was a participant in the War of 1812. Note the honour of the double helm and crests. The coronet is a standard naval design. Further explanations can be found in Fox-Davies book.[19] The admiral would use these arms to announce his rightful status and to indicate his private, lofty, personal achievements. Perhaps arms then filled a similar status role as our expensive automobiles do today.

Dramatic heraldic artwork is illustrated in the Cullen arms, also taken from Fox Davies.[20] This is a marvelous book and certainly worthy of examination. Do not be put off by Fox-Davies' insistence that heraldry is a science. He clearly made a helpful Victorian contribution to our modern understanding in his 1904 vintage, 500 page, opus magnum.

The double-headed eagle was a symbol of power for the The Hittites, 1,000 years before the Romans. The Seljuk Turks later adopted the same symbolic, double-headed eagle to imply a legitimacy to their rule over the Byzantines. The eagle shown in the Cullen arms is clearly only one representation. The Byzantines used a double-headed eagle to symbolize their dominance of both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and also as spiritual and secular authority.

Eagles have been used as symbols in many countries in Europe, and both the Austrian and Russian Empires used double eagles (to signify the extension to incorporate Hungary in the first case and in the second to trumpet the Russian expansion to the Pacific). The Russian Federation continues to use the double eagle today, as do Albania, and Serbia.###


1               The Burke's Peerage World Book of Mackenzies, provides historical descriptions details and research suggestions for various countries pp. 3.1-3.11.

2               See 'Heraldry & the Parts of a Coat of Arms', The authors also cite Woodcock and Robinson, from The Oxford Guide to Heraldry by Thomas Woodcock and John Martin Robinson, Oxford University Press, 1988, in the discussion of purpose of arms. Woodcock and Robinson proposed that the function of arms related to "individual vanity", rather than any military function.

3               Sir Bernard Burke, Ulster King of Arms, Viccissitudes of Families and Other Essays, p. 344.

4               Adapted from Pat Brennan, "GAELIC HERALDRY & PRACTICE",

5               See Heralds, at

6               Ibid.

7               See Regulation of Heraldry in England,

8               Ibid.

9               HCB Rogers, The Pageant of Heraldry, p. 30.

10             HCB Rogers, The Pagent of Heraldry, pp. 18-19.

11             Barry Jason Stein, U.S. Army Heraldic Crests, p.3.

12             Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, The Art Of Heraldry, pp. 1-6.

13             Adapted from "The Royal Arms of Great Britain",

14             Adapted from 'Royal coat of arms of Scotland',

15             The Meanings Behind the Symbols,

16             See Brennan, "Ancient Irish Symbols", op cit. Brennan cites the story of the Borama, preserved in the Book of Leinster and the Book of Lecan. Brennan notes that his version is from PW Joyce, The Origin and History of Irish Place Names, Vol. III Dublin, 1913.

17               Marzieh Gail, Avignon in Flower, notes on p. 5, that the furs were ermine and squirrel. The latter is vair in French and she observes that bad translation might account for the improbable glass (verre) slippers worn by Cinderella.

18               See Heraldry,

19                Fox-Davies, The Art Of Heraldry, plate LXVIII.

20                Ibid, plate XLVIII.

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