For centuries before the beginnings of what we call heraldry, badges or symbols were used as tribal signs. The tribal warriors would carry shields decorated with these signs when they went into battle. Later, important individuals developed their own personal insignia.
Early designs were simple, single colour crosses, diamonds, circles, wavy lines, animals such as lions, stylised flowers and so on, depicted on a background of a contrasting colour.
These devices sometimes were a pun or allusion on the name of the person or his particular land-holding and are known as canting or allusive arms. By the twelfth century things were becoming not only more colourful but more organised.
Heraldry seems to have started in Germany and France, soon spreading to Britain and the rest of Europe, helped by the coming together of knights of various countries during the Crusades. It evolved into an elaborate system regulated by the heralds.
It was important to distinguish between the bearers of these arms not only in battles, but as most people were illiterate, in legal matters with the use of seals on documents and deeds. The misuse of another's arms was treated as equivalent to forgery.
Richard III. Creator: Hollar, Wenzel, Rijksmuseum. Public domain image.
In 1483, Richard III incorporated the English heralds into a College of Arms whose business is still tracing of genealogies and the granting of armorial bearings. Garter King of Arms is the head of this institution. The Scottish heralds constitute the Court of the Lord Lyon.
It is for a good reason that heraldry is called a science. Heraldic terms describing the pictorial representation or achievement of arms are precise, detailing the various elements and based on the shield on which the coat of arms is emblazoned.
A shield can be in various shapes from the most common simple shape to more florid and even notched designs.
Different names are given to the different parts or points of the shield. For example the left hand side is known as sinister, right hand as dexter (in relation to the wearer, not the spectator). The upper part is the chief, the lower is the base.
The tinctures of the field or surface of the shield and the charges or designs upon it can be metals, colours, and furs, their names like most of heraldic terms deriving from Norman French. Or and argent are gold and silver. Red is known as gules, blue as azure, black as sable, green as vert and purple as purpure.
The helm rests above the shield and mantling hangs from this. Mantling was originally cloth, generally linen, draped over the neck and shoulders for protection against the weather. In heraldry it is used as a decorative feature, often slashed and trailing.
Ecclesiastic heraldry replaces the helm with other characteristic items. The Church of England (English Anglican) bishops surmount their shields with a mitre. The heraldic mitre of the Bishop of Durham is encircled by a ducal coronet.
The number of tassels on the broad-brimmed ecclesiastical hat denote rank. A patriarch's hat is green and has 30 tassels and an archbishop's has 20 tassels while a cardinal's hat also bears 30 tassels but is red.
The British Government uses a version of the royal coat of arms which bears neither helm nor mantling, with a crown resting on the shield. This is used on official buildings, law courts, embassies etc.
The language of heraldry is extensive and colourful. We've prepared and handy guide to the world of heraldry.
If you want to know the difference between 'couchant' and 'sejant', or ever wondered what an 'opinicus' is, visit our Heraldic Glossary
→ Click here to view our heraldic glossary
This is an example of ecclesiastical heraldry. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson is located in northern New Jersey.
Instead of a helm there is a green ecclesiastical hat, the galero, with six tassels (fiocchi) in three rows on either side of the shield. These are the heraldic insignia of a bishop.
The dexter impalement bears the coat of arms of the Diocese of Paterson. The sinister impalement bears the personal arms of Bishop Serratelli.
The Paschal Lamb is the ancient symbol for St. John the Baptist. The trefoil or shamrock refers to St. Patrick. The wall on which the shamrock is mounted represents the Lord's protection of the city.
These can be considered canting or allusive arms: the shamrock meaning Patrick and the Paschal Lamb also representing the Son of God, you get the word Pat(rick)-son. or Paterson.
The motto is Vivere Christus Est - 'To live is Christ'. This piece stands at 3ft high and was made in January 2005.
→ Read more about the design and construction of this coat of arms