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The Origins of Coats of Arms

Coats of arms, often known as family crests, appeared first in England in the early 1300s and quickly spread throughout Europe. The ‘science’ of heraldry was thus established with rules and terms.

Coats of arms were displayed on banners, tabards and, of course, shields. The term coat of arms was derived from the surcoat, a linen garment that was worn over the suit of armour when a nobleman, knight or landowner fought in battle. ‘Surcoat’ led to the term ‘coat of arms’.

Although coats of arms were very decorative, they grew out of a need to identify who was who in battle. Landowners had their own small private armies and took their followers off to battle, particularly during the Crusades. When battle was joined, the suit of armour completely covered the knight who was thus unidentifiable and risked an early form of ‘friendly fire’! So, to enable their rabbles of followers to identify them and rally to their side, the knights stated to paint symbols on their shields and surcoats.

It is difficult to prevent a good idea from being copied and, before long, what we would now call the middle classes started to produce their own coats of arms. The nobility objected and, at their request, the King sent heralds to try to stamp out unauthorized arms and save them for the privileged few. It was to no avail though, and a compromise was reached that allowed any ‘gentleman’ to display a coat of arms.

Today many people display a coat of arms in their family name. The prints and shields are much smaller than those displayed in medieval times – but so are the houses!

Coats of arms are sometimes referred to as ‘family crests’. Technically, the family crest is the part of the arms that is found on top of the helmet. You will often find a family motto shown as part of the coat of arms. The first mottos appeared around 1660, although not all arms included a motto.

About the Author: Tony Luck has always been interested in family history. You can learn more about family history at his site.

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