Heraldry and Coat of Arms

The word “Heraldry” comes from the German “heer” which means army, and “held” which means champion. The word “blason,” used in heraldry by the German, French, English and Italian comes from the German word “blazen” which is the act of blowing a horn. As the knights at a tournament would take to the field, a herald would blow a tune on a trumpet announcing the knights. Because most of the knights used helms that were closed face with visors, it was the herald’s job to call out explanations to the designs on the shield and other adorned articles containing the devices belonging to each and every knight. This knowledge of the symbols and colors was called heraldry, and its announcement was accompanied with the trumpet being sounded, termed “blazoning the arms.” [Source: Burke, Bernard, The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, Heritage Books, Inc., 1996].

Heraldry and its use are defined by the art of blazoning , assigning and marshaling a coat of arms. Its origins are not certain, but between 1125 AD and 1155 AD, archived seals on documents show the use of Heraldic symbols and designs in Europe. The oldest document baring a coat of arms borne on a shield is where King Henry I bestowed on Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou (his son-in-law) in 1127 AD. The shield was set in azure(blue) and contained four gold lions rampant. [Source: The Oxford Guide to Heraldry by Thomas Woodcock and [Source;John Martin Robinson.] In the book Origins of Heraldry author Beryl Platts notes that “family identification” was used in Europe before the Norman Conquest, and that all heraldry in England is derived from the heraldic devices brought by the families who came with William the Conqueror. Whatever the exact origins, coats of arms became noble and military status symbols, the growth of their use is closely connected to the popularity of the tournament, which came about in the mid-eleventh century in France. The tournament was a place where knights from various families and regions could come together and train and compete, and its pageantry became more elaborate as time passed. By 1400 A.D., it was a prerequisite that a knight bare his coat of arms to participate in a tournament due to the importance of social standing in such pageants. In the early days, most coats of arms were assumed by the bearers and not “granted” by any authority. King Richard I changed his coat of arms from two lions combatant (or a lion rampant) to three gold leopards (or lions passant guardant).

Historians had theorized that a coat of arms allow a knight to be recognized by his followers in the midst of 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.” [Source: The Oxford Guide to Heraldry by Thomas Woodcock and John Martin Robinson (Oxford University Press, 1988)] In this book Woodcock and Robinson suggest that it was not a practical use of military device but much more likely that the depiction of arms on a shield was a form of “individual vanity.”

There are literally hundreds of different symbols (called charges) that are used on coats of arms from around the world. The earliest coats of arms were simple bars or wavy lines, a lion rampant or an eagle displayed, or an arrangement of fleurs-de-lis. 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. Nevertheless, the art of heraldry has broadly assigned significance to the symbols. There can be little doubt that ancient armorial bearings were chosen at will by the man who bore them, many reasons guiding his choice. Crosses in plenty were taken. Old writers have asserted that these crosses commemorate the badge of the crusaders, yet the fact that the cross was the symbol of the faith was reason enough. No symbolism can be found in such charges as bends and fesses; they are on the shield because a broad band, aslant or athwart, is a charge easily recognized. Medieval wisdom gave every noble and magnanimous quality to the lion, and therefore this beast is chosen by hundreds of knights as their bearing. The legends which assert that certain arms were “won in the Holy Land” or granted by ancient kings for heroic deeds in the field are for the most part worthless fancies.

Below I have listed some of the basic meanings behind the colors used in coats of arms. The colors can be used on the shield as well as the symbols, however an individual coat of arms may have a history to it that far exceeds the meanings given here and that further investigation may be necessary.

Gold for Generosity or Argent; Silver or White for Sincerity or Peace; Purple for Justice, Sovereignty, or Regal; Red for Warrior, Martyr, or Military Strength; Blue for Strength or Loyalty; Green for Hope, Loyalty in Love; Black for Constancy or Grief; Orange for Worthwhile or Ambition, Maroon for Victorious or Patience in Battle.

Here are six basic crest taken from the Stronghold 2 repitior. I have given a basic description of their meaning for charge and color.

(1)Blue Bend on Black
The solid blue line on a forty five degree angle from right to left or left to right (which also can change the meaning) is what is known as a bend. It is one of the more commonly used charges in heraldry. The most common meaning of the bend is a scarf or shield suspender of a knight commander; signifying defense or protection. The blue could mean strength and/or loyalty.The black has been known to symbolize constancy and/or grief. A combined meaning behind this coat of arms could mean; knighthood constantly loyal, or a knight that has been made strong by grief, maybe over a lost love one?

(2) Green Tower
The tower charge is one that has been used for over a milinia. It stands out as bold as its meaning. The tower without color can mean safety and/or grandeur. The color green means hope or loyalty in love. The combined the meaning of this crest could mean there is hope for safety or that there is love and hope.

(3) White Chevron on Red
The chevron like the bend is one of the most commonly used charges. The chevron can be seen through out the world even today. The meaning of the chevron could be protection; builders or others who have accomplished some work of faithful service. Red means warrior, martyr and /or military strength. The meaning behind this crest could be strong warrior or army or a faithfully martyr maybe one who died for the church.

(4) Orange Saltire on Black
The Saltire is a symbol known in connection with Saint Andrew. It is also one part of the British Flag (Scotland’s Flag). It means resolution. Orange can mean worthwhile and or ambition. Combine these meaning to get a resolution that is worthwhile.

(5) Black Lion on Yellow(Gold)
The lion is a powerful charge in the line of heraldry. The lion means dauntless courage. The lion being black backs up the dauntlessness with its meaning on constancy, while the yellow or more likely gold back ground (or field) means generosity and elevation of the mind. A combined meaning would be something like one that is a well rounded being courageous and wise.

(6) Purple Eagle
The eagle has many meanings some of them are a person of noble nature, strength, bravery, and alertness; or one who is high-spirited, ingenious, quick-witted, and judicious . Purple means justice, sovereignty, regal. A combined meaning here could be anyone that is royal and or regal with any of the traits listed above.

Heraldry is a very interesting subject and can be a lot of fun when researching your own families coat of arms. If you have a West or East European origin surname them theres almost a 99% chance theres a coat of arms out there for you that has been used for your family name. Another subject that might interest you is family mottos. Many families had their own mottos and the meanings are some times difficult to define. I recommend everyone take the time and research your families name and its coat of arms.

By Sir Mills