You may have found your family crest or coat of arms as part of your family history research. Heraldry is often defined as the adoption and use of coats of arms by families, but it also involves the design and production of these symbols. Because heraldic symbols are passed from father to son, they can be useful in genealogical research.
The University of North Carolina's website on heraldry traces its origins to the personal or national colors and insignia worn by ancient peoples such as the Egyptians, Celts, and Romans. These helped warriors distinguish friend from foe on the battlefield.
According to The Hereditary Society Community, some scholars believe the early use of heraldry symbols in Europe can be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry, a large embroidered fabric depicting the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The knights are portrayed with shields featuring symbols and coats of arms.
However, it is not known whether these symbols were being handed down from one generation to the next at the time the Bayeaux Tapestry was made in the late 11th century. That hereditary feature is an essential aspect of true heraldry.
The College of Arms, the heraldic authority for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland claims heraldry as it is known today began in the 12th century. Heralds organized the jousting tournaments of early medieval courts, introduced the contestants, and kept score. Knights clad head to toe in steel armor were recognized by the arms painted on their shields and the crests on their helmets.
Heralds became experts at recognizing these symbols and started recording them. In time, they became the authorities on who had the rights to use the symbols. They also designed new ones as noble families intermarried.
Passing It On
International Heraldry describes the first recorded instance of a heraldic symbol being passed from one generation to the next. A contemporary chronicler wrote in 1127 of England's King Henry I knighting his son-in-law, Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou.
As he inducted young Geoffrey into the knighthood, the king hung a blue shield painted with gold lions around the boy's neck. That symbol also appears on Geoffrey's tomb and that of his grandson, William Longespée.
When military armor designs changed, coats of arms were no longer needed to distinguish one warrior from another. The practice of heraldry changed in response, finding more social and historical uses. Heraldic designs grew more colorful and elaborate and began to appear on documents and in architecture and artwork.
The College of Arms, located in London, maintains centuries worth of heraldic documentation, including registers of grants of arms, records of coronations and state funerals, and pedigree rolls. These documents are made available to researchers through numerous library and online exhibits.