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Understanding your family coat of arms

Brief history of coat of arms

During the Middle Ages, knights and noblemen used a padded linen, covered by metal, called a "surcoat" to protect themselves from the heat.

The "charges" of armorial devices were embodied on these surcoats (with very colorful crests, shields any symbols), which is where the term "coat of arms" comes from.

The knights used a coat of arms to identify themselves.

However, one knight in armor looked similar to another, so the coat of arms was important in identifying a knight in battle. It made it easy to see who was a friend or foe with a quick glance.

Parts of the coat of arms

Coat of arms can have many parts but the main part is a shield.

A charge is what is shown on the base color of your shield.

The shield can have a crest above it, a motto, and supports (usually animals supporting the shield).

Animals were frequently used as a main charge in coat of arms

Animals were shown in certain traditional postures, but they were not meant to be realistic pictures of the animals. They were drawn to depict the animal as a symbol. Usually the animals chosen were fierce, some are mythological animals, and they were often show in the positions of combat.

Here are a few of the most common animals on shields of coats of arms:

  • Lion
  • Bear
  • Boar
  • Eagle
  • Horse
  • Dragon
  • Wolf
  • Unicorn
  • Hawk
  • Raven
  • Griffin

There were also names for the positions in which the animals were shown. Here are some of the most common:

  • Rampant - standing on hind legs
  • Rampant Guardant - standing on hind legs, facing the viewer
  • Passant - walking
  • Sejant - sitting
  • Couchant - lying down

The "blazon" is a description of the shield in words, using a special vocabulary similar to a kind of old French. The terms used in heraldry are used by the aristocracy during the Middle Ages, and French was the language.

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Passing the coat of arms down from family to family

The oldest son would often inherit his family’s coat of arms without any changes but the younger brothers would add symbols identify themselves.

The symbol a younger son added was usually a smaller picture placed in the middle of the shield.

When a woman married, the coat of arms of her family was often added to her husband’s arms.

Many times the coat of arms were quartered, or divided into different parts.

Are you entitled to use coat of arms?

There are organizations like the College of Arms that anyone may apply to. Provided you are "worthy persons" and have no criminal record, you will be rarely refused. However, they charge fees for their services.

Many coats of arms have belonged to the same family, being handed down from father to son for generations, Royalty were the first to have heraldic coats of arms.

There is some controversy in the genealogy world about authenticity of coat of arms because in olden times they were presented to individuals, and as mentioned before, passed down through the generations. So it is important to find historically correct coat of arms.

No matter what the official verdict is, one thing is clear - It is very exciting for all family members to see the coat of arms or family crest for their family name.

In these modern times, coat of arms are still used as a means of identification many companies, clubs, organizations and town and County Councils.

Also, there are reputable companies who will search your last name and find the coat of arms for your surname and offer a wide variety of outstanding products with your family coat of arms on them.

Copyright 1995-2007 by Robert Ragan - All Rights Reserved.