What is Heraldry?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Heraldry is the practice of devising, granting, and blazoning armorial bearings, also known as coats of arms, and by extension performing historical research which is related to such bearings. This art form has been practiced since the 1200s in Europe, and various institutions which offer armorial bearings can be found in many parts of the world. Armorial bearings are used for identification, so they are protected by law in many regions; for example, only members of the British royal family may use the shield of the British monarchy.

Medieval knights wore heraldic devices over their armor to signify their identity during battle.
Medieval knights wore heraldic devices over their armor to signify their identity during battle.

Armorial bearings emerged in the 1200s, and they originally had a very utilitarian purpose: identification. Knights in full armor were often difficult to distinguish on the battlefield, so they began carrying specially decorated shields which allowed people to identify them. Over time, specific designs and colors came to be linked with particular people; knights also carried banners and other accessories ornamented with their identifying devices, and the concept of heraldry began to arise.

A coat of arms is still used as a form of identification, but there is much more than identification to heraldry. Armorial bearings imply social status and a sense of history, and they are very important to many people. In nations with strict rules about armorial bearings, a glance at someone's coat of arms can reveal important things. For example, membership in certain orders of chivalry entitles people to special insignia on their armorial bearings, and people above a specific social rank are allowed to have "supporters," figures which hold up the central shield in a coat of arms.

Heraldic terminology can get quite complex. For example, the term "blazoning" refers to very specific language which is used to describe armorial bearings; this formal language spells out the appearance of a coat of arms, ensuring that it can be replicated by anyone who understands this language. Specific sizes of objects on a coat of arms are not spelled out, and colors aren't either. Seven basic colors are recognized in heraldry, but people are welcome to use shades of these colors; they are not required to use a specific shade of vert or green, for example.

A whole coat of arms contains several parts, including a central shield with a patterned field of color, a crest which tops the shield, a motto, and a charge, a figure inside the shield such as a lion. Technically, anything can be placed on a coat of arms, from a Coptic cross to a wrench; charges are often related to the personal or family history of the armiger, the person entitled to a coat of arms.

In nations where heraldry is practiced, a college of arms typically oversees the research, granting, and blazoning of armorial bearings. Officials at the college of arms are trained in the art, and they are often skilled historians and genealogists. People who believe that they are entitled to armorial bearings can apply at a college of arms and pay a research fee.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments



I would add that many modern families in the states had humble backgrounds in the Old World, and therefore lack a strong genealogy. My ancestors in Ireland are shrouded in a veil of mystery due to surname changes and constant movement to avoid persecution by the ruling English elite. In addition to that fact, many of the wealthier dominant families of the old world have died out or are very few in number. Class and social settings have changed radically in the past 200 years.


It is sad to see that so much of historical familial records are being destroyed or neglected. Many people in America today do not acknowledge their old world roots, but simply take where they are for granted. It is an inspiring adventure to journey back and see where ones family came from, and thanks to the connectedness of the modern internet, the journey is made that much easier.

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