Perhaps one of the most enduring aspects of Medieval England is heraldry. Though it originated in the 12th century, coats of arms and other forms of heraldry continue to be used even today, be it by religious and educational institutions, by countries, and, most importantly for us here at Royal Central, by the Royal Family.
The concept of heraldry emerged around 900 years ago. A heraldic device was primarily used so that knights could be recognised in battle, something that their full suit of armour often prevented. For a knight, recognition by the King was vital, especially since the knight’s credibility would be measured by his courage on the battlefield. Once a heraldic device was granted to a knight or lord, it became family property and would pass on from father to son, thus preserving the family’s reputation for generations to come.
In an age when hardly anyone knew how to read or write, heraldic devices were also useful while maintaining records of ownership. A roll of arms contained a list of who owned what, which were then depicted in paintings so that people could link a coat of arms to a name. Such lists were maintained by royal heralds, who would visit counties during times of peace to ensure that the rolls of arms were accurate. Heraldry was a complicated tradition, with many rules, and so it was also up to the heralds to make sure that the rules were being followed.
Heralds originally served as messengers to Kings, performing tasks such as reading out royal proclamations and arranging coronations. However, when it became necessary to regulate the use of arms to identify noblemen, heralds were made in charge of issuing coats of arms. During the reign of King Richard III, the heralds were merged into a single College of Arms, with its headquarters in London. Even today, the College of Arms controls the issuing of arms.
Perhaps the most widely recognised coat of arms is the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom, which are used by Her Majesty The Queen. The distinctive shield, supported by a lion and a unicorn, can be seen on the exterior of courthouses and churches, and often, though they are not authorised to use it, outside hotels and pubs.
However, the Royal Coat of Arms have not always looked the same. The first Royal Arms were those of King Richard I, which consisted of three golden lions on a red field. Over the years, various alterations were made to these arms to accommodate the arms of other Kingdoms acquired by the King. During his reign, King Edward III claimed the throne of France and, as a result, quartered the Arms that he had inherited from his predecessors to accommodate the Arms of France – the fleurs-de-lis on a blue field. The Royal Arms of England were further impaled with the Arms of Scotland and Ireland in 1603, when the Union of Crowns placed the three kingdoms under one monarch. After France became a republic the French Arms were dropped, and the arms that were formed as a result continue to be used as the Royal Arms to this day.
Members of the British Royal Family each receive their own personal coat of arms. These arms are based on the Royal Coat of Arms, with a few adaptations to incorporate their own identities. For instance, Prince William’s coat of arms bears a three-point label with a red escallop, an allusion to the arms of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.
Consorts and wives of the monarch’s sons and grandsons also have a coat of arms, usually the arms of their husband impaled with the arms of their father. The Duchess of Cambridge’s arms consist of those of Prince William’s side by side with those of her father, Michael Middleton. The Middleton coat of arms, which features three acorns to symbolise the three Middleton children, was granted to Mr. Middleton shortly before his daughter’s wedding in 2011. However, Prince Philip, as the consort of a Queen, is not allowed to make use of the Royal Arms in any way and has his own coat of arms.
A typical coat of arms is made up of seven components. The shield is the central element in a coat of arms and bears the distinguishing elements or images of the House. The helm (or helmet) stands atop the shield and is used to indicate the rank of the bearer. The crest is a secondary hereditary device, used to distinguish the helm. The mantle is a flair of cloth, used to attract attention to the coat of arms, while a wreath covers the joint between the crest and the helm.
The supporters in a coat of arms are the two figures, usually animals, that are placed on either side of the shield and depicted holding it up. Different animals represent different virtues, such as courage or vigilance. Lions have been the most commonly used supporters for the Royal Arms, but there have been rulers who preferred others. The Tudor monarchs had a dragon and sometimes a greyhound, whereas Richard II had a white hart supporting his shield. Henry V used a black bull, and Richard III used a white boar to support his coat of arms.
The final part of a coat is the motto. It may be written either above or below the shield, and displays either the surname or the philosophy of the House to which the arms belong.
The current Royal Arms are a combination of the arms of all the Kingdoms that make up the United Kingdom, with the exception of Wales. However, the Arms of Wales are incorporated into the personal arms of Charles, Prince of Wales. The helm of the coat of arms is a coronet, to represent the bearer’s Royal status, while the crest is a lion, also wearing a coronet. The shield’s supporters – an English lion and a Scottish unicorn – symbolise the unity between the two nations. The Royal Coat of Arms bears the motto of all the English monarchs; Dieu et mon droit – God and my right.