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What is a Coat of Arms?

Coats Of Arms

Peter O'Donoghue (Bluemantle Pursuivant ) gives expert video advice on: What is a Coat of Arms?; Can anyone have a Coat of arms?; Where would they come from? and more...

What is a Coat of Arms?

A Coat of Arms is an arrangement of devices such as lions, other animals, or geometrical shapes placed on a shield. The term Coat of Arms comes from medieval times when knights going into battle would wear surcoats over their armour, which are garments embroided or painted with their Coat of Arms. That's where the term comes from.

Can anyone have a Coat of arms?

Coats of Arms were originally granted to members of the nobility, the peerage, the gentry, professional classes, administrators such as servile servants, and the clergy. They are generally historically associated with the upper classes. Today they are more widely used and belong to people from all walks of life. They are granted to people that have eminence in the community, which has a variety of meanings in the modern world.

Where would they come from?

People would inherit their coat of arms from their ancestors, from their parents. It would pass in the male line as it still does today. A father would pass it to all of his children, but only the sons would pass it onto their children.

What will a Coat of Arms tell me?

A Coat of Arms can tell you firstly who owned an object. If an object has a Coat of Arms on it then that's an indication of ownership and secondly they can tell you a lot of genealogy. Because the Coat of Arms pass on the male line, they are brilliant indicators of ancestry. And they can be used as science of ancestry.

Can I make my own Coat of arms?

In the United Kingdom, the Coats of Arms come under the Royal Prerogative, and it's actually unlawful to make up your own Coat of Arms. Only Coats of Arms granted or confirmed by the Kings of Arms, who are officials appointed by the Crown, can lawfully be used.

Are Coats of Arms only linked to the crown?

In medieval times; nobles, knights, and the members of the gentry would assume their own Coats of Arms. Then in the 15th century, the Coats of Arms were brought increasingly under the control of the crown, and since that period, they've only been linked to the crown under the Royal proxy of the United Kingdom.

If I have a Coat of Arms does this mean Im Royal?

Coats of Arms are connected to royalty in that they're part of the royal prerogative and they're a bit like dignities. They're a little bit like honors, OBEs, and things, and they're a little bit like knighthoods or peerages. But it doesn't mean that you're royal to have a Coat of Arms.

Is my Coat of Arms important in tracing my family history?

Coat of Arms can be very useful to trace family history. They appear on all documents, on seals, buildings, and on other objects. If you know that your family has always used that Coat of Arms that can be a brilliant way of tracing the line backwards in time.

What is a Charge?

We use the term charge in heraldry to denote objects, things, animals, and geometrical shapes that are placed on the shield.

What are Common Charges?

Common Charges in heraldry would be the objects often found on the shield or in coats of arms. So with lions, for example, the lion passant guardant found in the Royal Arms of England are familiar to most people from their football shirts. And also geometrical shapes, these often take the shape of horizontal, vertical or diagonal stripes, and they are very, very common charges in heraldry.

Have they changed over the years?

Heraldic design has evolved over the centuries to quite a considerable extent. In the earliest years of heraldry the designs were very simple, geometrical arrangements with very few objects placed on the shield. By the time we get to the early Tudor period, coats of arms were becoming much more complicated and thousands and thousands of people were getting coats of arms, so in order to make them all different to each other they seem to get much more complicated. There have been trends and fashions in heraldic design over the years. The late 18th century saw the introduction of what's known as landscape heraldry, where people would depict landscapes on the shield, perhaps a great military victory or some other kind of incident in their lives. Today we're returning to what we think of as being the medieval inspiration of heraldry, so we keep our designs as simple and geometrical as possible, include as few different colours and as few different objects as possible, to make the design as simple, clear, and identifiable as we can.

Do Coats of Arms differ for men and women?

Men and women use heraldry in Coats of Arms in slightly different ways. Men show their Arms always on a shield, whereas widows and spinters show their Arms on a lozenge, which is a diamond shape. Wives use the Arms of their husbands as well as of their fathers, and spinters show their Arms on lozenges as do widows.

What is a Blazon?

Blazon is the vocabulary, the language of heraldry. It's a special and slightly arcane language derived from Norman French, which we use to describe coats of arms in a very succinct and precise way.

What is a Fur?

Furs are a bit like a colour in heraldry, so we use furs called vair and ermine as colours.

What are the Divisions of the field?

The Field is the term we use in heraldry to refer to the shield, so it's the background color on the shield. And in heraldry that background color can be divided by straight or wavy, wiggly lines of one kind or another into two or more colors. And we call these lines Lines of Partition, and they divide up the shield, the Field, that is, the background into different sections.

Do animals have different meaning in Heraldry?

There is no fixed symbolism for animals or for any other object in Heraldry. In particular examples of Coats of Arms, an animal might well have some symbolism possibly known only to the person who it was originally granted to, but sometimes we know still today, quite often it is a pun on a surname of a person. But there is no fixed symbolism so you can't say that eagles always mean one thing or lions always mean another.

What are Tinctures?

The word "Tincture" is used in heraldry to denote the colours of the shield and of the object on it.

What are the seven basic colours of Heraldry?

The seven basic colours of heraldry are gold and silver, or often shown as yellow and white, red, blue, black, purple and green.

Do colours have different meaning in heraldry?

There's no fixed meaning for any of the colours or other objects and devices in heraldry. Although in individual examples there might be a meaning. There's no general meaning, so green doesn't always mean one thing, and black doesn't always mean another.

What is a motto?

Motto is derived probably in the main from war cries, which were very popular in Scotland and Ireland clan warfare, and they are pithy sayings or ethical statements placed surely in association with the coat of arms.

Do all Coats of Arms have a motto?

Not all Coats of Arms have a motto. It's not compulsory, and they're not controlled in the same way that Coats of Arms are, so families can change them. Lots of families want the same motto and there's no regulation of them.

What is the importance of Latin in Heraldry?

Latin doesn't have any specific importance in heraldry. Historically it was sometimes used in the text of grants of arms, which are made by legal documents called letters patent. And it's often found in the mottos associated with heraldry, but other than that there's no specific relevance of Latin.

What is the importance of French in Heraldry?

The importance of French is mainly that it's French from which derives the language of Blazon. The capillary by which coats of arms are described, is based on Norman French.