What is Heraldry and a Family Coat of Arms? A Beginner’s Guide

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Guest article by John Lehman Esq., Coat of Arms Database

Understanding Heraldry and Family Coat of Arms

Heraldry is both a study of history and of war. What we think of as a family coat-of-arms (commonly referred to as family Crest) was in fact, a method for soldiers or warriors to identify their opponents across a battlefield. It started out as the medieval form of creating a brand similar to the images used today to associate certain commercial products or companies.

Family Coat of Arms and Heraldry: Understanding the Basics

The shield became one of the basic means of defense in armed combat. From ancient times forward, the ability to tell friends from foes became paramount. The Greeks would paint images of Gods and Goddesses, or mythological creatures such as the Gorgon on their Hoplon or shield to ward off evil or obtain protection during combat; but it wasn’t a formal way of identifying an individual.In the melee or fog of war, it is easy to become disorientated and confused. History is replete with stories of friends and allies turning on each other by mistake. The first attempt to identify combatants on the battlefield was by the use of flags, banners, and standards, which were also used to signal troops and point them in the right direction. One can imagine an older combat veteran giving advice to a younger warrior, “Look for the flag. If you get lost, go there. Someone will tell you what to do.”It wasn’t until the 11 and 12th centuries that heraldry became important and even then it was at its most rudimentary forms. With a significant nod to the Invasion of England under William the Conqueror in 1066 and Pope Urban II in 1095 calling for the first Crusade, heraldry became important. Crusaders from various regions of Europe took up the cross. For the English knights and soldiers this was the white tabard with red cross, which was often referred to as the Cross of St. George. The Cross of St. George is the national symbol for England, and is part of the flag of the United Kingdom. One of the first ‘surviving’ examples of heraldry by a historical figure was Count Geoffrey of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, founder of the Plantagenet Dynasty, who established the first noble family to carry a coat-of-arms. His personal arms were granted to him in 1208--six gold lions on a field of blue in descending order of 3-2-1.By the arrival of the 14th century, basic rules for heraldry had been firmly established and for the most part universally agreed upon, across all of western Europe. The people chosen to codify these rules were called ‘Heralds.’ It is from here that the art of war or heraldry derives its name. These rules governed the use of colors, shapes, and even animals. The word Blazon/Blazoning describes a shield by its individual parts and mostly uses 14th century court French as this was the most widely spoken and written language in Europe at the time. To a person living in the 21st century, it can be intimidating. Luckily, there are multiple translations into modern English. (Google is your friend in this instance.)

Heraldry and Your Own Family History

A shield was used to identify someone or something. Think of it as a brand or logo in today’s parlance. What is your brand going to be about? Remember heraldry is suppose to be deeply personal. Your values, personal achievements, birthplace, and relatives are the fundamental basic requirements of good heraldry. Which is why the study of old shields and personages of note are important. They can give you a sense of balance and history. Just as your personal heraldic coat-of-arms is individual and unique to you, so are the ones you might view online associated with specific historical people. They can be a great inspiration and help you show allegiance to your familial history. They can be proudly displayed in your home or office; however, it should be noted, they are not your arms.

Rules for Your Coat of Arms

Simple rules to follow: The shield is where your coat-of-arms belong. The emblems on top of the shield are called a “Crest.” It usually consists of a type of medieval Helm facing to the left as you look at your shield. A symbol or some design element from your shield or personal life that you wish to show allegiance to can then be placed atop the helm. This is the actual “Crest,” the cloth that falls down from the back of the helmet, (Usually consists of two colors from the design of the shield) and represents movement of a knight riding in a tournament. Lastly, along the base or bottom of the shield is where a Motto might be displayed. I will display a friend’s coat-of-arms where you can see all of these elements.

Coat of Arms Example

The Arms of American Armiger DS Baker. His Shield-Shows his familial origins on both sides (Paternal and Maternal) The Leopard Jessant Quills-(Leopards impaled with a writing quill) are a nod to similar arms of Leopard Jessant Fleur de lis, long associated with the Duchy of Normandy. The Chevron Ermine-alludes to his mother’s family origins based in Brittany. The Crest is of a Winged Poodle, a beloved pet. (A Heraldic Pun. As Poodles are hunting and retrieving dog used in hunting birds-Hence the wings.) He grasps the writing quill of the Armiger. Lastly the motto “Loyaulte me Lie.” which iss medieval French for “Loyalty Binds Me.”All of the elements of basic heraldry are combined into this unique achievement. The Armiger’s family, his career, a beloved pet, a philosophy and a deeply held belief he ascribes to. This is a wonderful example of an American choosing to celebrate his family history and crafted something that no one else in the world has.Heraldry is a fascinating study of art, history and governance, which can become a life long passion. The more you research the more layers you will find. Such as why did family members share one design but added elements to it? Which could mean annotating different sons, or battle honors earned, or possibly new property added to the family fortunes. All of which can be found in studying the coats-of-arms of your family and their history. It is also a unique platform in the artistic world, where you try to describe something or somethings about your life in a visual sense that absolutely makes you or your family stand apart from the rest of the world; it can also be thrilling to know, at the end of the day your coat-of-arms will be the only one like it.

This entry was posted in Genealogy 101 and tagged ancestry, family history on November 11, 2016 by Natalie L..

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February 23, 2017
Wesley is the founder of hello@traceyourpast.com.

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