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Coat of Arms  

Understanding the Basics

Coat of Arms Sample

In the days of the knights in armor, a basic problem of identification arose. Wearing a full suit of armor you could not tell one man from another. So each man wore a distinctive 'coat', by which he could be recognized. This was call his coat 'of arms' as it was worn directly over his armor.

As this trend grew, the 'arms" wre displayed on other items, including a man's banner, shield and even horsecloth. And over time, the custom bled into the mainstream of society, where even the man's family would wear these colors.

Because few people could read in those days, the coat of arms would be depicted on a shield, and eventually became a symbol that would not only identify a man and his family, but also his worldly possessions.

Sharing the Colors

Daughters were allowed by couresty to use their fathers' coats. When they would marry, they placed their own family coat beside their husband's (on his shield) in an act called impaling.

If their father had no sons, they become heraldic heiresses when he died. Then they were allowed to place their own family shield in the middle of their husband's and it is called an estucheon of pretence.

Because no two men were allowed to wear the same coat simultaneously, even the eldest son had to use a special label over the family shield. When the father died, the eldest would inherit the plain coat of arms.

Younger sons and their descendants also had to make some changes in their fathers' arms. This act of making permanent alterations was called differencing. In some cases, they would simply alter the color, or add a border, or combine it with another coat.

A son could inherit the coat of his mother (whenever the grandfather had no sons), but it had to be quartered with his own father's. Several generations of marriages to heiresses could bring a large number of 'quarterings' into a family, some with even more than four coats combined.

That Coat Belongs to Me

Having the same surname does not entitle a man to use another's arms. He must be able to prove a blood relationship, and even then he must difference the coat.

Not to be confused with a family's arms, communities, kingdoms, towns, countries and even companies could develop a distinctive coat. In the case of a monarchy, the arms were usually that of the king himself. Such arms are called Arms of Dominion, however, they were never to be used by the citizens.

If you are of English or Scottish descent, and can prove your male blood-line, you are entitled to the arms, even today. England officially records all coats at the College of Arms. While those in Scotland are handled by the Court of the Lord Lyon.


Copyright 1999 Illya D'Addezio All rights reserved. Portions of this article were inspired from "Simple Heraldry" by Ian Moncreiffe, c. 1957, published by Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd.


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