A coat of arms, in its most basic form, consists of heraldic colors, symbols and shapes positioned on a shield or escutcheon.
The coat of arms was originally developed to distinguish knights in battle. By the Middle Ages, Knights were fully encased in armor and wore a helmet which hid their faces. They were effectively unrecognizable from one another. To tell one another apart, they painted brightly colored symbols and patterns on their shields.
The use of symbols on shields before the Middle Ages was not unusual but the Medieval knights used their decorated shields to mark an individual instead of a tribe or nation. The popular expression “family coat of arms” is incorrect. Armorial bearings were granted to an individual and passed on to the ancestors or male descendants of the bearer.
The Coat of Arms on the Bayeux Tapestry
The use of coats of arms became widespread concurrent with the rise of the Crusades. Many believe the coat of arms origin can be dated as far back as the 11th century where some of the warriors on the Bayeux Tapestry, commissioned in the 1070s, had crosses displayed on the shields they held.
Eventually, these designs were placed on the cloth or surcoat, they wore to protect their armor from the elements. This is how the term coat of arms originated.
Knights originally designed their own coat of arms but as their use became popular, they were regulated by the crown and were officially granted to individuals who would eventually pass them on to their sons. As coat armor became an important means of identification, particularly in legal matters, their use was regulated by the King through the use of Heralds who were authorities on coat armor.
The language of coats of arms became strict, and arms were blazoned following the rules of heraldry.
A coat of arms for the surname Browne is a black two-headed eagle with its wings spread on a gold shield. According to the rules of heraldry, it is blazoned as “Or an eagle displayed with two heads sable.” Or is the heraldic term for gold and sable, black.
There are two metals used in heraldry: gold and silver, and five colors: red, blue, green, black and purple. Partition lines were referred to as dancety, nebuly, embattled, engrailed, inverted and more. There were three types of figures, or charges, used on the shield. Ordinaries, like a chevron or cross. Subordinaries, like the gyron and the fret and the Common like human body parts, beasts like lions, fish, fowl and inanimate objects like swords or shovels.
The shield is the most important part of a coat of arms and is often displayed by itself. An Achievement of Arms would consist of the shield, a helmet above the shield, a cloth called mantling extending from the helmet and around the shield. A torse or wreath, a fabric that has been twisted, sits on top of the helmet and at the base of the crest, often a symbolic beast.
As a means of identification, the coat of arms eventually extended to use in the tournaments, on seals, carriages and all sorts of possessions.
By the 12th century, coats of arms were being used by not only knights but high ranking men of the feudal system as well.. And in the 13th century the upper classes of Europe made use of coats of arms, which were now legal property and handed down from father to son, to distinguish their families.
Women were allowed to bear arms as wives and daughters but their arms were placed on a lozenge rather than a shield.
All over Europe it was mainly the Aristocracy who were allowed to use arms except in Germany where all classes of citizens were allowed their use.
Coats of Arms are still regulated in England and Scotland and to a much lesser degree in the rest of Europe. In England and Scotland the use of coats of arms are governed by heraldic authorities like the College of Arms.