Armorial Bearings granted to Robert Lord alias Laward of London in 1510; College of Arms MS L10 folio 105b; copyright of the College of Arms, London. Used by permission.

A Coat of Arms

What we call a "Coat of Arms" today is derived from an age and time so ancient and with concepts so unfamiliar that perhaps here is a good place to stop for a moment and become more comfortable with its structure, derivation, and the terminology used to describe it.

The designation and design of coats of arms is called "Heraldry" and the products of Heraldry may, in the abstract, often be viewed as works of art. In fact, the term the "Art of Heraldry" is often applied. What we call a "Coat of Arms" is correctly termed an "Achievement," as it summarizes in symbols the status and accomplishments of the family, often rooted in the ancient military exploits of medieval times.

According to one theory, these devices arose hundreds of years ago from the need to be identified on the field of battle. A knight in full armor was unrecognizable. So he wore a "coat" over his armor which bore distinctive colors or decoration. This coat "of arms," or simply "arms," might also decorate his battle flags, his shield, and his horse cloth, as well as other pieces of equipment, and soon came to be identified as a general symbol of the man himself, and his family.

Once these arms became specifically identified with one man, since no two men had exactly the same identifying symbols, they could be used as "signatures" of the family on documents and seals. In this form, arms are usually portrayed on a simple shield, much as they might have first been seen, when the knight returning from battle hung his decorated shield on the wall of his dining hall.

The arms.

This shield, then, makes up the central element of the "Achievement," [see the illustration to the right] and is termed merely the "Arms."

Obviously, just as with cattle brands in the Old West and trademarks in 19th century manufacturing, no two arms could be absolutely identical. So soon the earlier shields, often merely painted one or two colors with simple patterns, became more complex and elaborate. Decorative devices, often small pictures of animals or objects of some special meaning to the owner, were added, and more and more variations of number, position, and color for these "charges" were developed.

The second part of the "Achievement," and one that allows even further differentiation of the individual lineage, is the "crest." This is usually depicted suspended over the top of the "arms" or shield, and often represents some form of animal. Originally the crest, and in the opinion of some historians, the entire coat of arms, evolved in the colorful days in English and European history when elaborate tournaments and jousting competitions were held. Although in the early years these contests were frequently deadly, this form of embellishment was probably more related to sport and entertainment than military action.

Crests were actually small sculptures made of light wood or boiled leather and were worn on top of the helmet. As used, these crests became closely associated with individuals, while the arms identified the family (or male lineage) being represented in the tournament. However, once established, both arms and crest functioned in much the same manner - as trademarks for a particular branch of some ancient family line.


The final item of the "Achievement" is the "mantling," which in actual use was a silken cape or mantle which hung down behind the crest and kept the heat of the sun off the back of the armor. [Early helmets of this period preserved in museums display holes and fastening points for these crests and mantles.] It also provided another element of color and decoration in a time when such embellishment was of value .

This mantle was often simply a piece of cloth draped over the top of the helmet and held in place by a rope of twisted silk [below, center] that fit around the helmet, just under the crest. This braid is often displayed in the coat of arms as a two-color twisted bar above the shield on which the crest is supported.

The braid.

A simplified Lord arms.

In the simpler depiction, the arms [shield] and crest are presented alone [left - a version of "Lord" published in 1908], perhaps with the family name or a motto on a banner.

In its most elaborate presentation, the full achievement is depicted artistically [below]. The arms are shown on a shield, at the top of which is a helmet on which is mounted the crest over a twisted braid. Flanking this array is depicted the mantling, often rendered in an elaborate but abstract style. As thus depicted, the achievement perhaps derives from ancient funeral tradition, where a knight's coffin was arrayed with his mantle, shield, and helmet or from the carved stone sarcophagus lids on which the knight in full scale is shown lying in repose in all his armor and accoutrements.

Full achievement.

Whatever the derivation, over the centuries this "Coat of Arms" came to visually represent and validate the lineage of the man to whom they belonged.

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