The family coat of arms is a powerful symbol dating back nearly a thousand years.
A family coat of arms is a decoration representing a family or, more properly, an outstanding individual within a particular family whose honor passes on to his descendants. A family coat of arms is sometimes erroneously called a family crest, although the crest is usually part of the coat of arms and was used as a clan badge by families of Gaelic heritage. The art and study of creating and assigning a coat of arms is known as heraldry. One who issues coats of arms is called a herald, and the issuance of a coat of arms is controlled by the country's office of the heralds. Only a single family member can display the coat of arms and only the eldest male heir is eligible to inherit a family coat of arms.
There is no consensus on the origin of the family coat of arms. The concept is thought by some to trace from the need to identify knights fighting under a particular lord to their underlings because of the development of the full-face helmet during the late 11th through the mid-12th centuries. This belief is questioned by those who point out that few knights of that era had underlings, as most lords needed only one or two knights at most to fight for them. Others hold that the practice began in Northern Europe and was introduced to the British Isles with the Norman Conquest of 1066; however, the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the invasion from the Norman perspective, shows soldiers sporting various shield designs, none distinctive to any army or individual.
The oldest documented incidence of a coat of arms used on a shield is that of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, who allegedly in 1127 was given a shield depicting four rampant lions in gold by his father-in-law, King Henry I of England. However, the documentation was made roughly 50 years after the fact, and the shield itself has been redated to 116065, as Geoffreys seal of 1149 shows no such coat of arms.
Some now think that decorating shields with coats of arms was preceded by their use on banners, as shown by a critical review of seals prior to 1160. The oldest precisely dated coat of arms seal belonged to Raoul of Vermandois and dates to 1146; an earlier seal from around 1135 shows the same design used on a banner. During the first four decades of the 12th century, decorative motifs evolved into permanent, individual emblems, followed in the next four decades by the creation of precise rules for using them as hereditary emblems.
Eventually, coats of arms became military status symbols that grew in popularity along with jousting tournaments, which provided knights with a training ground and an avenue to fame. By the year 1400, knights had to display a coat of arms to take part in a tournament, thus, making it a mark of noble status.
As described by Fleur-de-lis Designs, a family coat of arms consists of all or some of the following design elements:
A written description of the parts, known as the blazon of arms, is created along with the coat of arms itself. The blazon includes the shield elements, supporters, crest and words in the motto, but not the motto banner design, helm or mantling. It is written in a form of jargon designed to describe the components with as few words as possible.
The symbols, or charges, on the shield of a coat of arms each have a particular meaning. Symbols include beasts of land and water, birds of the air and plants. Some symbols have concrete meanings, such as an anchor representing a seafaring family, while others represent peerage, such as a red hand representing a baronet. Still others represent personal qualities, such as a red rose representing hope or joy or an eagle representing a person of action or strength.
Colors, or tinctures, used on the shield also have special meanings. Tinctures actually consist not just of colors but also metals (or gold, meaning generosity, and argent silver or white, meaning sincerity or peace) and furs (ermine and vair). The most common color tinctures and their heraldic names include:
The exact color shade used in a family coat of arms is usually at the artist's discretion. In general, metal tinctures are not placed against metal tinctures (i.e., silver and gold don't touch) and color tinctures are not placed against other color tinctures, but fur tinctures can be displayed against anything, even other furs.
More exhaustive lists of symbols and their meanings are available at Heraldica and Fleur-de-lis Designs.
While stores and Web sites offer buyers the opportunity to display their family coat of arms on anything from T-shirts to key chains, there is not really a family coat of arms, and this is really a marketing gimmick. Only one person at a time is allowed to display a particular coat of arms. The College of Arms in England states the right to a coat of arms by inheritance requires proving descent from an ancestor who is already recorded as entitled to arms. Individuals and corporations may also petition for a new grant based on criteria such as awards from the Crown, military commissions and charitable services.
Properly owning and using a coat of arms design associated with a given family name from Western Europe or the British Isles requires applying for permission with the relevant country's King of Arms or office of heraldry. Once a person who is assigned a coat of arms dies, the eldest male heir may apply for the use of that coat of arms. No heir may use the family coat of arms, however, until the officiating herald verifies the claim of legitimacy.
However, there is no rule against creating one's own family coat of arms using the rules and symbols of heraldry. The Society for Creative Anachronism offers an online primer for those seeking a basic knowledge of heraldry.