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Coats of arms did not come into being until approximately the 12th century in Europe. The sudden increase in family coats of arms has been attributed to several significant events, such as: the First Crusade in 1097; the development of metal body armour; and the wide and general use of seals on personal documents. It is the general belief that the development and use of heraldic devices was closely associated with the need for better identification both in private life and upon the battlefield.

During the Middle Ages, wars were a constant occurrence and in order to better protect themselves against the increasingly deadly weapons, soldiers (knights) were forced to add more and more armour. Eventually, they were fully covered from head to toe. This made it extremely difficult for one knight to identify another on the battlefield. Therefore, in order to reduce the confusion, a clear means of identification was essential. The solution was to paint colourful patterns on the knights battle shields. These colourful patterns became very popular and began to be used on other items that belonged to the knights. For example, the patterns were woven into cloth coats that were worn over the knight's suit of armour and horse.
In the early days simple patterns were employed but as the use of surnames increased, during the later half of the 12th century, these simple patterns gave way to more complex representations of animals and natural objects.

Because of the popularity of these colourful identifications the knights and their families displayed them with great pride. However, this popularity made it necessary to register or copyright the designs to prevent two knights from using the same design. When a design was officially recorded the person who registered it was given exclusive rights for the use of the symbol.
The word "heraldry" became associated with Coats of Arms as the result of medieval sporting events. During these events a "herald" would present each knight to the spectators. In general the "herald" would sound a trumpet and then announce the knight's achievements and describe his Coat of Arms. It was also the duty of the herald to record the knight's Coat of Arms as a way of ensuring that a family maintained its protective rights to have and use its registered Coat of Arms.
Under heraldic rules, only the first son was permitted to bear their ancestor's Coat of Arms.
A Coat-of-Arms was granted by the crown to an individual, not a family, and represented the right to bear arms at a time when that was forbidden to the average citizen. Only the first son of the owner was entitled to the Arms of his father. Other sons would have to be granted their own Arms, usually a modification of the father's. For that reason, you will see different Arms for the same surname.
If a Coat of Arms bearer died without male heir, his daughter was allowed to combine her father's Coat of Arms with her husband's Coat of Arms.
The general rule is that the simpler the Arms, the older they are.... but that is not always the case.
Each of the devices used in the Arms normally had some significance or relationship to the bearer. The use of an ermine normally indicated a relationship to royalty. The scallop shell could be a reference to the sea or water, the boar's head to hunting, etc.

The Arms are presented on a shield because that was originally how they were used...to identify an individual on the battlefield by his shield. The Arms were sometimes worn on the armour itself, or on a coat over the armour... thus the name Coat-of-Arms.

The crown could award the bearer with a crest to the Arms...usually for some outstanding feat of valour during combat or war. The crest was usually worn as an emblem on a battle helmet, and the cordon of cloth or rope around the helmet.

When displayed, the Coat-of-Arms is normally shown with the crest above the shield and the surname of the owner underneath. Virtually anything else that you see on a Coat-of-Arms is simple (or elaborate) decoration.

As more powerful weapons began to emerge during the 14th and 15th centuries armour was found to be less useful in battle and its use began to decline. However, by this time Coats of Arms were prized for their decorative effect and fathers proudly handed down the family crest to their sons. But the very popularity of these Coats of Arms began to fuel a movement that would threaten the integrity of the Coats of Arms. People wanting to have their own Coat of Arms began to coin their own and adorn them with embellishments and devices of little historical significance.

To control this the crown (King or Queen) created a central authority to inquire into the validity of the new creations. In addition, the crown forbade anyone to take on a Coat of Arms unless by right of ancestry or as a gift of the Crown. To aid the authorities in their quest to eliminate false Coats of Arms, King Henry VIII of England sent heralds into the homes for "visitations" in an effort to discover whether or not a fake Coat of Arms was being utilised.

These visits took place at least once ever generation for about 200 years. However, none of these efforts proved to be effectual in maintaining the simplicity and purity of the earlier designs. They did, however, establish a set of records that have been extremely useful to researchers since the records show the usage of certain symbols and devices. This data is in many cases, the only means for unravelling the complex family relationships that existed in medieval Europe.

In England, the Royal College of Arms is charged with keeping these records.

Note: Some of the information given in this article was derived from a book by Sir Bernard Burke: "The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales," London: 1884. Genealogical Publishing Company in Baltimore, Maryland reprinted this book in 1969. This is considered the main reference source for English coat of arms.

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