A coat of arms is a heraldic design on a shield or banner that was used in the Middle Ages to identify a knight or noble family. The code of arms refers to the rules and guidelines that govern the design and use of coats of arms. Coats of arms emerged in Europe in the 12th century and were widely used until the 17th century. They served as a means of identification on the battlefield and in tournaments. The code of arms regulates things like colors, placement of charges, helmet types, and crest designs. Understanding the code provides insight into the traditions of heraldry.
Origins of Heraldry
Heraldry originated in medieval Europe dating back to the 12th century. Some of the earliest records of heraldic designs appear on the Bayeux Tapestry which dates to the 11th century. Heraldry emerged alongside more advanced armor and the need to distinguish knights on the battlefield or in tournaments. Bright, distinct colors and bold symbols allowed knights to be identified even when covered in armor.
The term “coat of arms” comes from the cloth surcoat that was worn over a knight’s armor to display their heraldic design. These surcoats displayed the emblem and colors associated with that knight. Heraldry started as a way to recognize knights and identify them in battle or competitions, but soon noble families began associating coat of arms designs with their lineage.
Elements of a Coat of Arms
A coat of arms consists of several key elements:
|Shield or escutcheon
|The focal point featuring the main design
|Placed above the shield indicating rank
|An ornament above the helmet such as feathers
|Stylized cloth around the helmet
|A phrase associated with the family
|Creatures that flank the shield
The shield is the most prominent part displaying the primary symbol or design. The colors used are also significant. The helmet style indicates the bearer’s rank with sovereigns having closed helmets and knights having open-faced helmets. The crest is a 3D sculpture above the helmet historically used to identify knights in tournaments when armor covered their bodies.
Heraldic Colors and Metals
In heraldry, there are basic colors and metals that are used. The primary heraldic colors are:
The metals used are gold and silver which are depicted as yellow and white. These colors were chosen for their visibility and symbolic meaning. For example, red symbolized military strength, blue was associated with truth, and green represented youth and fertility. The limited palette ensured that coats of arms were simple, bold, and recognizable.
There are special lines that can divide sections of the shield or surround a charge. These provide structure and detail. Common lines seen in heraldry include:
|A horizontal line across the top
|A vertical line down the center
|A diagonal stripe from top left to bottom right
|An inverted V below the top
|A horizontal stripe across the middle
These lines can be any heraldic color and are used to divide the shield into sections to place multiple charges. Thin lines called diminutives can be derived from these primary lines such as the closets, described as narrow chevrons.
A charge refers to a symbolic image or object depicted on the shield. Common charges seen in heraldry include:
|Symbol of courage and strength
|Symbol of boldness and power
|Symbol of protection and healing
|Symbol of peace and harmony
|Symbol of transformation and life
|Symbol of safety and defense
|Symbol of enlightenment and insight
|Symbol of life, wisdom and family
Charges are placed in specific positions to balance the design. Quarterly designs with charges in four corners are common. Repeating a charge (“semé”) can also fill the space.
One of the earliest records of heraldic designs is called the Marshal’s Roll compiled between 1295-97. It depicts coats of arms of English knights and lords with accompanying names and was likely used to record knights present at tournaments or in military service. The roll provides important insight into Medieval heraldry showing things like:
|– Simple bold designs
|– Limited palette of colors
|– Repeating common charges like crosses
|– Literary puns using canting arms
|– Helmets indicating rank
The roll displays the emergence of principles of heraldry that would develop into a complex code in subsequent centuries.
Coats of Arms in Architecture
Once associated with noble families, coats of arms came to be displayed prominently on buildings and architectural elements. Heraldic badges can be seen ornamenting medieval castles, churches, and cathedrals across Europe. Specific examples include:
|Features the coat of arms of Edward III
|Notre Dame Cathedral
|Displays fleur de lys coats of arms on the interior
|St. George’s Chapel
|Contains many ornate coats of arms of knights of the Order of the Garter
|Alcazar of Segovia
|Its keep is decorated with coats of arms of Castile, León, and the city’s governors
Prominent display of heraldry emphasized family lineages and status. It also personalized monuments and allowed artists to incorporate symbolic meaning.
Royal Coats of Arms
Royal coats of arms became more elaborate over time as monarchs accumulated territorial claims and titles. Royal arms traditionally incorporated symbols of the realms under their dominion. The royal coat of arms of England displays three lions which dates back to King Richard I in the 12th century. When the crowns of England and Scotland united in 1603, their arms were impaled. The current royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom tells the story of its history:
|3 lions of England
|Lion rampant of Scotland
|Harp of Ireland
|3 lions of England
Other elements like supporters and mottoes have changed over time as well. Royal arms follow the basic principles of heraldry but also incorporate unique elements reserved for sovereigns.
The Catholic Church made extensive use of heraldry and still observes principles of ecclesiastical heraldry. Instead of military symbols, church coats of arms feature religious charges like crosses, patron saints, Biblical figures, and symbols of the Trinity. Ecclesiastical heraldry follows the traditional heraldic colors but adds violaceous, a reddish purple. Clergy helmets were made of black leather rather than metal. Cardinal’s coats of arms feature a galero with tassels indicating their rank. Papal arms have unique elements like crossed keys of Saint Peter and a Papal tiara.
Modern Uses of Heraldry
While less prevalent today, heraldry is still used in limited contexts. Heraldry remains part of the identity of most European nations and can be seen on flags, currency, and in architecture. Coats of arms are still used by some cities, universities, churches, and families seeking to honor tradition. Elements of corporate logos can also be considered a modern form of heraldry. Professional organizations like heraldry societies keep the tradition alive by promoting the study of coats of arms. The code lives on in these applications as well as the timeless symbols found in heraldry.
The code of arms developed over centuries into a complex visual language. While originating in Europe as a way to identify knights and nobles, heraldry became much more. Coats of arms came to symbolize lineage, status, values, and history. The traditional colors, symbols, and rules of heraldry allowed this meaning to be conveyed in a stylized visual format. By studying old rolls and architectural displays, we can uncover the origins and evolution of this code. Though heraldry is no longer ubiquitously used, its influence remains in vexillology, symbolism, and art. The code of arms provides insight into the cultures that created it and leaves a legacy still faintly echoed today.