Heraldry: The beginnings

From earliest times people have wanted – and often needed – to identify themselves by a personal sign or device. Their first efforts – seen as impressions in the seals on early documents – grew with the addition of further graphical representations of their owner or his family. Eventually the symbols migrated to battlefield shields and from there to the surcoats of men in armour, from which we may derive the term ‘coat of arms’.

For those who can decipher it, heraldry is an algebra – a language
Victor Hugo

It is thought that troubadours (strolling minstrels) formed the first body of messengers for the monarch. They couriered small items, relayed orders and ‘heralded’ the king’s arrival. Landowners too had a use for them. Land acquired by marriage or by grant of the monarch could be scattered about the country and the services of these travelling messengers – soon to be called ‘heralds’ – was essential.

Geoffrey Plantagenet
Count of Anjou

As they became known to one another, the heralds amassed an encyclopaedic knowledge of their masters’ signs and devices. With duplication almost inevitable, it would prove useful. It was in everyone’s interest to achieve unique identification and, initially at an informal local level, the heralds’ persuasion brought about changes and an attempt at regulation. Their knowledge of the craft was respected, sought after – and eventually termed ‘heraldry’.

The first formal appearance of heraldry as we know it was in 1128 when Henry I presented a shield to his future son-in-law, Geoffrey of Anjou, during the ceremony at which he was knighted. Also present at the ceremony was Geoffrey’s father Fulk V, count of Anjou, recently returned from the Crusades. Fulk became King of Jerusalem in 1131, which likely has some bearing on the respect accorded to his son’s shield. Upon the death of their owner, an eldest son would frequently continue to use the device of his father, thus associating it over the generations with a particular family line. In this instance, Geoffrey’s shield would descend to his grandson, the unfortunately named William Longespée, and then in turn to his great grand-daughter, Adela, Countess of Warwick.

William Longespée
William Longespée

Impetus was given to the development of heraldry by the 12th century Crusades, particularly the Third Crusade in 1189, by which time heraldry had ‘broken out all over Europe’. The earliest shields had been simple affairs in one or two colours and, later, sported geometric shapes in a contrasting colour. With the arrival of the graphical image – animate and inanimate objects in all their potential varieties – the Heralds must have struggled to maintain even a semblance of order.

Their reward came in 1484 when Richard III founded the College of Arms and they were incorporated by royal charter. In the following century, with a set of groundrules formulated and disputes to be settled, they began the Visitations: a series of tours in which they visited families to record their arms or grant new ones. The latter task has been the prerogative of the Heralds ever since, now ably represented by Her Majesty’s College of Arms in London, the Court of Lord Lyon in Edinburgh, and the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland in Dublin.

Associated at the outset with people, arms were soon to be granted to places (towns, cities) and corporate bodies (colleges, societies, the armed forces). Sometimes they have become intertwined; regularly they have called across the centuries to tell of the people who forged our society, the places they lived and the institutions they created: the very history of our islands. For the researcher and genealogist they are truly “the shorthand of history”.

But heraldry isn’t merely a thing of the past, a hangover from a bygone age. It changes with the times, readily incorporating graphical images previously unimaginable, and flourishes still because it “absorbs the new, links with the past and provides continuity with the present”.

Whether we are aware of it or not, heraldry has woven itself into the tapestry of our lives. It is all around us, if we but look – and constantly growing: grants of arms are issued on an almost daily basis. Families, civic authorities, the law, the services, the church: all have seized upon – and continue to grasp – this powerful tool of identity. It features in their letterheads and in their pageantry.

To this day people, places and corporate bodies still seek to identify themselves uniquely – whether by the display of a registered heraldic shield and motto, or a simple trademarked logo and catchphrase. History demonstrates that it has been heraldry which endures.