What Is Heraldry?

Heraldry is one of the first things that comes to mind when picturing things like knights in shining armor, flags of different countries, and even pop culture like Harry Potter. Heraldry is the use of colors and symbols to represent individual people, families, and geographic regions. The first examples of what would become heraldry date back to ancient Egypt, but the art form came into its own in the Middle Ages. Dating back to the early 1000s, royal courts and battlefields were filled with images of animals, plants, and objects decorating their armor, shields, and flags.

There are many different theories about why heraldry was developed. One of the most popular theories is that coats of arms were a security measure on the battlefield: These emblems could be used to identify participants in a battle quickly so that their supporters could ensure their safety. It's also possible that people found heraldry useful as a means to identify a person's heritage to those who couldn't read. Coats of arms would be used on ceremonial armor and flags for medieval tournaments.

The word "heraldry" often refers to the artwork associated with a coat of arms. This includes the coat of arms itself and all of its accompanying elements, such as a crest, supporters, and embellishments. A coat of arms may include a motto or battle cry, a crest, a helmet, a crown, supporters, and the symbol of a chivalric order. The shield itself may contain a variety of symbols, colors, and sections where different designs may be placed. Each element has its own unique symbolism, and even where different items are placed can carry meaning.

Heraldry Resources

International Heraldry

This guide examines the history of arms and the different elements that can be used in heraldry.

A Complete Guide to Heraldry

This book written in 1909 covers the history, elements, meanings, and uses of heraldry from the Middle Ages.

A Guide to Heraldry

Learn about the symbolism in heraldry by making your own heraldic shield with elements based on your background.

The History of Heraldry

Examine what heraldry is and how it has been used on this page.

Heraldry in America

Heraldry and genealogy share many of the same goals and can be used together to help find a person's family history.

The Heraldry Society

The Heraldry Society is an organization created to help educate people on all the different uses of heraldry and related fields.

Medieval Heraldry

This site looks at early examples of heraldry and studies how it has changed from its early incarnations into more modern uses of the art form.

The College of Arms: Keeper of British Heraldic Records

The College of Arms is the heraldic authority for England, granting new coats of arms and maintaining the pedigrees of coats of arms.

Distinctive Characteristics of Scottish Arms

With the Scottish tradition of deriving many people's arms from those of a clan chief's, it has become necessary to use many approaches to ensure that each person's arms are unique.

Origins of Heraldry

This page investigates the meaning of the number of colors, the choice of colors, and the symbols of early heraldry in Celtic regions.

Medieval English Genealogy and Heraldry

The study of genealogy can be helped with the use of heraldry, especially for big events like marriages, and deaths.

French Royal Heraldry

As the ruler of France has changed over the centuries, so, too, have the symbols used to represent the nation and its leaders.

Learn more about the evolution of the arms of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, that of the British royal family, which was later renamed the House of Windsor.

The Language of Heraldry in Modern Times

The terminology for heraldry can often be confusing, and it has been misused many times.

A Guide to Heraldry for Genealogy

This guide teaches how the symbolism in heraldry can be used to help with genealogical research.

Misconceptions About Heraldry

Over time, much confusion has arisen about the terminology of heraldry and the traditions associated with it.

Clan Maclean History Project

Every element of Clan Maclean's heraldry is explained to help genealogists and other researchers understand the clan and help them compile more information about it. Many other Highland clans have also undertaken such research, and members will sometimes bear their clan's arms.

Understanding Heraldry

Heraldry evolved as a system of battlefield identification but is today more a matter of family pride.

The Origins of Heraldry

English and Scottish arms are likely to have derived from those of the Flemish.

The Language of Heraldry

The College of Arms Foundation describes the terminology of heraldry and some of its design considerations.

Basics of Heraldic Backgrounds: Tinctures and Furs

Many different colors and patterns can be used for the background of a coat of arms, including some meant to represent animal fur.

Heraldry and the United States

The United States has had a history of heraldry dating back to when St. Augustine, Florida, was granted a coat of arms in 1715.

Japanese Heraldry: Kamon

Japan has its own style of heraldry, known as Kamon. These symbols are used by all types of people and are still prevalent today.

Heraldry in the Military

Medieval coats of arms were rich in symbolism and unique to their bearers.

List of Heraldic Symbol Meanings

Find a list of common symbols used in heraldry and their meanings on this page.

Modern British Heraldry

Traditions associated with granting arms in Britain are still followed today; recipients even receive their arms on painted vellum scrolls.

Heraldry in the Victorian Era

Heraldry had a resurgence during the Victorian Era, which also helped renew interest in the study of historical heraldry.

Heraldic Law in Scotland

Heraldic law established how coats of arms could be passed down through the generations. In some places, any descendant of a person with arms may use the same arms, but in others, like Scotland, only the eldest heir may use their father's arms undifferentiated.

A Study in Polish Heraldry

Poland has its own long history with heraldry, incorporating many of the same design elements as in other countries.

Heraldry Symbols and Meanings

Look at pictures of different symbols used in coats of arms and learn about their meanings on this page.