Historians disagree as to the actual origins of coats of arms. Some say medieval knights designed them as brightly colored symbols to mark their armor, shields, and coats so that they could identify each other in battle or while jousting. Thus, the term "coat of arms" originates from the display of a knight's heraldic symbols on his outer coat. But other heraldry historians believe they were just decoration.
Unfortunately, it's because of their decorative qualities that thousands of people have adopted coats of arms without permission or an understanding of their significance. Because of this, heraldry can often lead the amateur genealogist in the wrong direction.
This practice of stealing or creating one's own coat of arms isn't new. It began as knights started to create their coats of arms. One would see another's design and adopt part of it as his own.
Today, online and direct mail vendors advertise that they can find a person's "family coats of arms" from worldwide computer databases. Of course, there's a fee for this service. But what the unsuspecting person doesn't realize is that without extensive knowledge of the individual's family tree, it's impossible to search for their coat of arms since only individuals or their direct descendants received them. So for a person to use what he believes to be his family's coat of arms, he must prove he's descended from a recognized holder of the arms. Later, some of these holders were women, especially if they inherited them from their fathers.
Besides being decorative, each coat of arms has meaning–at least to its designer. While some parts of the design may be obvious, others may have been added as pure decoration and have nothing to do with the family.
By trying to decipher an ancestor's coat of arms, you can often discover clues about him or her.
Begin by studying the overall design of the shield and its divisions. A shield is said to be marshaled when the designer combined multiple arms to show matrimonial and other alliances. Dividing a shield vertically indicates marriage, with the husband's arms to the left and the wife's to the right. If a child of theirs inherited their coat of arms, he or she might use both sets of arms on a quartered shield, with the arms repeated diagonally. This is referred to as cadency.
Coats of arms contain lots of symbols. Some are obvious–a lion representing courage or a sword representing martial skill. Others aren't so obvious–a bee symbolizing industriousness or a baton, symbolizing illegitimate birth. Some symbols indicate birth order. For example a ring often represented a fifth son. These symbols, called charges, often alluded to the original bearer's trade, such as a fish for a fisherman. And still other charges may have been taken from the coat of arms of an ancestor's city or country of origin.
In order the describe a particular coat of arms, herald designers over the centuries developed a language known as blazon which originated during the time following the Norman conquest of England, when the English aristocracy spoke Norman French. Blazon, the script of heraldry, helped designers to concisely discuss the complexities of their coats of arms. Blazon describes the background color of the shield followed by any basic patterns and their colors, followed by a description of the arm's charges, such as animals, plants, and other objects, followed by the pattern number, type, color, and adjectives–all in an abbreviated style combining English with Norman French. Designers referred to the visual display of a coat of arms, on the other hand, as emblazon.
Hundreds of rules govern heraldry. Arms designers called the colors they used tinctures, of which there are seven–five colors: gules (red), azure (blue), vert (green), purpure (purple) and sable (black); and two metals: or (gold) and argent (silver). Another category of tincture is fur. Patterns based on animal fur included ermine (argent with tails sable), ermines (sable with tails argent), erminois (or with tails sable), pean (sable with tails or), vair (interlocking bells alternately argent and azure) and potent (interlocking T's alternately argent and azure).
In some countries, each individual must have his or her own shield, even if they belong to the same family. To differentiate between them, they added marks of cadence to make each of their shields unique. They also had to adhere to a special set of rules with regards to the quartering of shields. And lastly, whatever design they created had to be able to be blazoned. In other words, they couldn't draw a landscape but instead had to use a symbol such as a castle on a blue background.
You can get help deciphering the coat of arms of one of your ancestors by contacting The English College of Arms, the official archive of the coats of arms of English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Commonwealth families and their descendants, at www.college-of-arms.gov.uk. For similar archives in other countries, search for either "heraldry office country name" or "genealogy office country name."