It all began with...

Development & eligibility to bear coat of arms

British Library, 282,Boats with the soldiers, 3Heraldry is the system of symbols used to represent individuals, families, countries and organisations such as churches and universities. This differs from Royal Arms, which represents the United Kingdom and its monarchs.

It is generally thought that heraldry began with the need for leaders to be recognised, particularly in battle, in the 12th century. At first, simple identifiable symbols on a banner or shield were used. When closed helmets started to be used and faces could no longer be seen, crests were added to the tops of helmets.

This form of identification caught on very quickly and once it became hereditary, it became an indispensable tool not only for identification in battle, but increasingly in tournaments and jousting - for it was displayed on the horses and knight’s clothing to clearly indicate who was fighting whom. 

Heraldry soon became an important feature on gothic buildings, particularly on the exterior of churches or on church monuments - reminding the viewer to remember the benefactor or person commemorated and to pray for their souls in purgatory.

College of armsClose up of the Royal College of Arms, London. Copyright Andreas Praefcke

The increasing popularity of heraldry led to the establishment of the College of Arms, which was founded by Richard III in 1484. Since then the Kings of Arms have been in charge of regulation and ensuring that each design is appropriate and unique.

Between 1530 and 1689 the Kings of Arms visited all the counties in England and Wales to check that all those bearing arms were entitled to them. This period also saw the heyday of elaborate heraldic funerals, which were administered by the heralds, and could involve processions over one mile long - showing off the wealth and status of the deceased.

Court of chivalry

Holy Trinity Church, Wensley. Coat of Arms of Le Scope family. Since the 14th century, the Court of Chivalry has had jurisdiction to decide the rights to arms, claims of descent and the misuse of arms. A gentleman's arms represented his very identity and were of enormous importance to him, both as a matter of family pride and for practical purposes of personal recognition in battle and in legal seals.

 

Therefore if it was found out that more than one family used the same arms, accidently, it would be brought to the Court to decide who could keep them and who had to change their arms.  

One of earliest and most famous of these cases was Scrope vs Grosvenor in 1389. Eventually, Richard II had to give the final ruling, which was in favour of Sir Richard Le Scrope. The disputed arms can be seen on a hatchment at Holy Trinity church, Wensley in the name of Scrope.

The Grosvenor family, now the Dukes of Westminster, had to change their arms. However; they have not forgotten the ancient controversy - members of the family and their famous racehorse, who won the Derby in 1880, are still named Bendor. This is a play on the heraldic description of the original arms: Azure, a bend Or, which means blue shield with a gold diagonal bar from top left to bottom right.

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