A college of arms is an organization which oversees records and grants of heraldic material for a nation, and sometimes for citizens of other nations as well. Because genealogical research is an important part of determining whether or not someone is entitled to armorial bearings, a college of arms typically also serves as a repository of genealogical information, especially information which pertains to the nobility. The most famous college of arms in the world is probably the British College of Arms, which was founded in 1484; this august institution oversees armorial bearings for much of the United Kingdom and many nations in Europe as well.
The people who work at a college of arms are known as heralds. Heralds are very skilled individuals who are capable of performing extensive research to determine whether or not someone should be permitted to have a coat of arms. By tradition, someone who wishes to apply for a coat of arms must typically pay a fee to a herald, who undertakes the necessary research and determines whether or not the application will be approved. These heralds are personally given authority by the sovereign, and they are overseen by a king of arms, a principal official who often has the final say in a grant of arms.
On occasion, a sovereign may directly grant armorial bearings, in which case they are recorded in a college of arms. These extensive records can be quite fascinating to look through, as they can provide a window into the history of a nation and its prominent citizens. Someone who is entitled to bear a coat of arms is known as an armigerous person, and generally specific rules govern the use of a coat of arms.
The rules of a college of arms vary, depending on its own culture of heraldry. In general, descendants of an armigerous person are entitled to coats of arms, and armorial bearings may also be granted on the basis of prominent contributions to society. If someone unsuitable approaches a college of arms to request armorial bearings, a herald will usually suggest that his or her application should not be pursued, thereby saving the individual a substantial amount of money and time.
Typically, a college of arms is supported by the fees paid by applicants. Some of these fees can get quite substantial, and people have suggested that this system encourages grants to those who do not merit armorial bearings, as they can essentially buy a coat of arms. Most heraldic authorities hasten to say that one does not “buy” a coat of arms, but rather one compensates employees of a college of arms for their work. In addition, in most cases a government-appointed official has the final say on grants of arms, ensuring that people cannot buy their way into the college of arms.