Heraldry: The Coat of Arms

heraldry coat of arms

Coats of Arms have been around for centuries and are very interesting and sometimes elaborate pieces of artwork that represent the individuality of many things. A coat of arms is a heraldic visual design, logo or emblem on a shield that celebrates the name and honor of a person, family or country. They come with a sense of wealth, royalty, prestige and respect.

History of the Coat of Arms

The coats of arms originated during the 12th century, a part of the Middle Ages. It represented Feudal lords and knights in battle in the 12th century. By the 13th century, coats of arms had spread beyond their initial battlefield use to become a flag or emblem for families in the higher social classes of Europe and were inherited from one generation to the next. Exactly who had a right to use arms, by law or social convention, varied between countries.

For example, German-speaking regions both the aristocracy and non-noble free citizens used arms, while the rest of Europe, they were limited to the aristocracy.

The use of arms later spread to the clergy, to towns as civic identifiers, and to royally chartered organizations such as universities and trading companies.

Flag designs were developed from coats of arms as the arts of vexillology and heraldry are closely related.

Breaking Down a Coat of Arms

There are numerous pieces that comprise an official coat of arms.

  1. Torse or Wreath – A rope of size parts that use the main two colors.
  2. Mantle – A decoration that lays outside of the shield.
  3. Supporter – Usually two animals, birds or persons that appear on either side of the shield.
  4. Compartment – A decoration under the shield, usually rocks, a grassy mount or other landscape where the supporters are depicted as standing
  5. Crest – A decoration that appears above the helmet
  6. Helm or Helmet – not usually identified
  7. Charge or Device – The charge or device is the emblem occupying the field of the shield. This may be a geometric design or a symbolic representation of a person, animal, plant or object.
  8. Shield – This is where the elements of the crest appear (placement, color, etc.)

European Countries That Celebrate a Coat of Arms

Coats of Arms are recognized throughout Europe for numerous countries.

  • England
  • Ireland
  • Scotland
  • Germany
  • France
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • Denmark
  • Many more…..

Fun Fact: Wikipedia has a complete and up to date list of European countries and their respective Coat of Arms graphic. Check it out!

Surnames Associated with Coats of Arms

With the history and age of coats of arms going back to the 12th century, there are common debates on the authenticity of the surname attached to a specific coat of arms.

There are many online companies that provide database lookups and various products for common surnames that will return what they believe to be a family’s coat of arms.

How legitimate are these websites? It’s wise to include this in your own family research on this if you are interested to see if your family had a specific coat of arms. You may get lucky and find a family coat of arms that has been passed down over the centuries. However, has it been altered over time or is it simply a marketing gimmick to make a sale? Can you certify what you’ve discovered?

Be Original! Maybe it’s time that you make a new coat of arms for your family. What would you put on your family’s coat of arms? What would it represent and mean to you?