Coats of Arms – Exploring the Colourful History of Military Heraldry

Armoured knights needed to be able to identify themselves on Medieval battlefields. That’s why they painted colourful symbols and insignia on their shields. Soon an elaborate system of guidelines emerged to govern the practice of decorating armour and banners. It became known as heraldry. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“It emerged sometime in the late 12th Century, at a time when knighthood became prestigious, and the knightly caste and the increasingly wealthy nobility merged.”

WHY HAVE SO many European countries used double-headed eagles on their flags? Which famous English monarch introduced the lion and the unicorn to the British coat of arms? What’s the significance of the pyramid with an eye at the top on the back of every American $1 bill?

The answer lies in the ancient and mysterious medieval art of heraldry.

In an era when fighting men decked themselves out in steel breast plates and charged into combat beneath face-covering helmets, decorating shields, armour and banners with colourful emblems and insignia helped knights sort friend from foe on the battlefield. Later, Europe’s aristocratic families would design their own elaborate coats of arms using the same themes and imagery favoured by their warrior ancestors. Heraldry would continue to evolve into our own era. Today, everything from universities and military regiments to private companies and entire nations distinguish themselves using their own medieval-style crests and logos, the outlines of which were likely designed by an expert on heraldry.

One such authority on the subject is John Lehman, owner of the Coat of Arms Database ( The website is a repository of more than 20,000 historic blazons taken straight from the battlefields of the Middle Ages. Visitors can search his free online library for historic insignia and even look up the crests, shields and seals associated with their own family names. recently caught up with Lehman to discuss the fascinating history of heraldry. Here’s what he had to tell us.

A 14th Century illustration of assorted heraldic symbols. (Image source: WikiCommons)

What is heraldry?

Wherever you see a coat-of-arms – a shield with symbols on and possibly around it – that’s heraldry. The devices or symbols taken from a coat-of-arms are also heraldry, as is the study of the subject.

Nations and towns can have a coat-of-arms, as can organizations and companies. However, modern interest usually focuses on coats-of-arms belonging to individuals. Though often inherited, these can only belong to one person at a time. Heraldry usually displays family connections, but there is no such thing as a “family crest,” a term nevertheless in common usage since the 19th century.

In theory, coats-of-arms are granted by heralds according to fixed design rules (the “rules of blazon”). However, in the past, people adopted coats-of-arms whether they had a right to them or not, usually because they were a mark of social status. Nowadays, organizations such as the Society for Creative Anachronism run their own heraldic systems in parallel to the official ones.

Ancient Greek hoplites painted symbols on their shields. Was this an early form of heraldry? (Image source: WikiCommons)

We commonly associate this sort of thing with the Middle Ages. But how far back does this tradition go? What are its origins?

Scholars point to several elements that probably contributed to heraldry’s development. Personal seals for authenticating legal documents go back to ancient times. It’s possible that heraldry as evolved from personal images that appeared on shields and garments during the classical period. Some of the imagery used in heraldry also shows Arab influence, and the surcoats possibly adopted by crusaders would have provided a good display surface for such personal devices.

So, in a sense, heraldry is a bit like rock and roll – it’s a distinct phenomenon resulting from a coming together of various influences and traditions. The concept as we know it emerged sometime in the late 12th century, at a time when knighthood became prestigious, and the knightly caste and the increasingly wealthy nobility merged. By the end of the 13th century, heralds administered a body of rules under the patronage of kings and other magnates. At that time, heraldry was limited to the nobility.

For the aristocracy, heraldry was a way to display status and family connections. For active knights, especially those in the lower ranks of the nobility, heraldry had two additional purposes. First, in the sprawling tournaments of the time, it enabled competitors to distinguish themselves and thus build a reputation. And second, in battles, where it marked a defeated combatant as one worth holding for ransom, as opposed to an ordinary enemy who would simply be cut down. Of course, this could backfire in civil wars, when it made one’s political and territorial rivals all too easy to identify, hence the disproportionate aristocratic body count at the First Battle of St Albans.

Two Bavarian jousters compete in their own distinctive colours. (image source: WikiCommons)

What is a “coat of arms” and how would a knight or family choose one that’s unique and interesting? What sort of symbols were common on coats of arms and what would their significance be?

At minimum, a “coat-of-arms” is a shield displaying heraldic devices. It may also have supporters – figures or beasts on either side – and a crest, typically a stylized knight’s helmet with some kind of symbol such as might have been worn in later medieval tournaments.

Historically, a coat-of-arms was granted by a herald, rather than adopted by a knight (or other member of the gentry with the right to a coat-of-arms). However, we can assume the knight had some input.

Ensuring uniqueness was the herald’s job and involved consulting beautifully-illustrated armorial reference books, some of which survive to this day.

“Canting” or “punning” arms are coats that depict images related directly to a family’s name. For example, the left symbol features castles and lions for the Castile and León families. The middle coat is for Britain’s Bowes-Lyon family. It features bows and lions. On the right, the German town of Eberbach uses a boar on a wavy blue line. “Eber” is German for boar and “bach” means brook or stream. (Image source: WikiCommons)

When it came to choosing symbols for a coat of arms, symbolism was important. A knight being granted an entirely fresh coat-of-arms would want it to reflect who he was. This could mean a “punning arms” (based on his family name), or something symbolizing his territory, his deeds, religious affiliation, or office. Most knights, however, would create their own coats-of-arms by blending (quartering) them with those of their parents, sometimes also their wife, and adding elements to show their own territories.

By the Late Middle Ages, coats-of-arms were a sort of visual DNA and a CV. A good example is the arms of the Scottish Sir James, Ninth and last Earl of Douglas, who died in 1488.

The coat for the Earl of Douglas.

The first “quarter” of the main shield, top-left, is derived from the oldest Douglas arms, the three stars being probably a religious symbol. More importantly, the heart commemorates the heroic death of Good Sir James Douglas (he took Robert the Bruce’s heart on crusade). The remaining quarters represent: top right, the Lordship of Lauderdale; bottom left, his mother’s family, Murray of Bothwell; and bottom right, a now-obscure family connection. The central shield with the crowned lion refers to lordship in the former kingdom of Galloway. The wolf crest was probably a personal symbol and could have been used in tournaments, and as a badge by his followers, as could the “supporters,” savages with clubs, who may refer to the lordship of a forest.

And of course, all these elements have their own stories to tell.

(Image source: WikiCommons)

How did the symbols and traditions of heraldry vary from one region of Europe to the next? Were say Spanish coats of arms different from English, French, Italian or German ones?

In the Middle Ages, heraldry reflected local dynastic politics. It was common to echo the arms of one’s overlord, so, for example, lions are popular in both Scottish and English heraldry. In addition, the coats-of-arms of the higher nobility reflected the way they were all intermarried.  You might, for example, recognize a group of Scottish nobles because Murray, Douglas and Stewart kept appearing in their arms. In Eastern Europe, especially Poland, this went further and alliances of unrelated families adopted similar heraldry.

More esoterically, taste and the rules of heraldry diverged on regional lines. Germans (including those from Austria, Switzerland and Scandinavia) might have several crests, while Dutch, English and Scots would have used a single crest, while the French used none at all. Eastern Europeans preferred simple colors and devices; Western Europeans liked their heraldry colourful and elaborate. The Scots and French emphasized mottos; the English, their supporters; the French, their crest wreaths; the Spanish their decorative frames (“orles and bordures”) and text appearing on the actual shield.

Iberian heraldry — Spanish and Portuguese — is particularly distinct. Symbols were supposedly earned entirely through military service and the region had its own permissive rules of inheritance. Coats-of-arms often refer to heroic deeds. For example, the Gusmans include a snake in their arms because their ancestor reputedly killed one in Africa. One assumes the tale grew with the telling.

The Coat of Arms Database.

Tell us a little about your company. What drove you to establish this database of coats of arms?

Although heraldry is somewhat of a science, I appreciate it more as an art. I love seeing different arms. The near infinite combination of symbols and colors awes me. I established to share these images with others. “Family crest” websites are a dime a dozen, but mine if different for several reasons. First, I depict the supporters (animals or people holding the shield) and crest (symbol that rests on top of the shield), whereas other websites typically only depict the shield. Second, whereas most sites only show one to two arms per surname, I show as many as I can find. For example, I have 54 arms for the name “Allen” and 293 arms “Smith.” Third, I provide the written blazons and any historical/genealogical/geographic notes included by the heraldist when they compiled their blazon books. Fourth, whereas other websites continue to push the myth of “your family crest,” my  site offers the more nuanced view of arms.

(Image source: WikiCommons)

How long did it take you to complete? What texts and resources were available to you to draw from?

I started this website about two years ago. However, there were two predecessor versions that dated back to 2004. I wasn’t satisfied with their quality, so I decided to scrap them and start over. An excellent company known as Armorial Gold, based in Canada, has a large clipart package of tens of thousands of heraldic images. Its package is available to anyone out there at an affordable price — less than $100. My venture would not be possible had they not created the clipart.

As for blazons, there are hundreds of sources out there, but the two most popular sources I pull from are The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales (published in 1878 by Bernard Burke) and The Armorial General, which was published in the late 19th Century by Johan Baptiste Riestap. The former has around 60,000 blazons whereas the latter has around 130,000 blazons!

(Image source: WikiCommons)

Why might someone want to visit your site? What can they expect to find?

Mostly to see what the coat of arms of their ancestors bore or just those with the same last name. People often enjoy the arms as a fun gift, or they use them at family reunions, for t-shirts or even wedding invitations. Other, more academic types use my database as a point of research to quickly find what arms exist for a certain name. You can expect to find any coat of arms for a name, along with its blazon, and the ability to purchase a high-resolution copy of the arms for $12.99. We can also add the images to more than 100 products (including t-shirts, posters, mugs, watches, etc.). We can even put folks into contact with people who produce elaborate, high-end products, such as paintings, brass arms, or wood carvings, which serve as great pieces for display above the mantle or in an office, and are great to pass down from father/mother to a son or daughter.

Did you know the U.S. Army has its own heraldry institute? Established in 1919, the unit oversees all regimental and divisional coats of arms and crests. (Image source: WikiCommons)

How do heraldic traditions live on to this day? Where can we see their influence in the modern world?

Heraldry is still a living tradition, with European towns and cities displaying civic arms, aristocratic families updating and displaying arms with every generation, and, in countries where honors are still conferred, arms granted to new knights and peers. In countries with royal families, heraldry routinely features in state pageantry.

Heralds or heraldic authorities still operate in Europe, South Africa and Canada. In the USA, these ceased with the Revolution. However, individuals can apply to European authorities, and a government department handles institutional heraldry. There is, of course, a big interest in heraldry as an aspect of family history and genealogical research.

1 comment for “Coats of Arms – Exploring the Colourful History of Military Heraldry

  1. Keith
    17 September, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    Fascinating. Thank you for sharing this. I will pass this article along to a few friends who might be interested or enjoy it.

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