Heraldry was a major part of the lives of the upper classes and nobility during medieval times.
Owning a heraldic shield and coat of arms was a significant statement, symbolising their position as part of the social hierarchy that was so crucial in Medieval England.
As such an important system, the exclusivity and significance of heraldry was upheld by a strict set of rules, many of which are still in place today. In this respect, heraldry is regarded by many as one of the most enduring aspects of the Medieval era.
A heraldic device was initially introduced in the 12th Century to ensure a knight could be recognised in battle. It was a matter of pride - a knight did not want to have acts of bravery or any other battle achievements missed by his peers. This was particularly important during this era as a knight’s credibility was measured by his bravery, and therefore his chances of being recognised by the king were significantly higher if he could be distinguished on the battlefield.
To ensure they were recognised by all, knights would display their chosen heraldic device as much as they could. Their badge would be found on the surcoat that covered their armour, on their shield, on their banners and on the coverings on their horse. Some even had it painted on their helmet. It was this practise, particularly that of having it on the surcoat, that led to the term ‘coat of arms’.
Once created, a heraldic device would become the property of the family, being passed down from father to son to ensure any reputation built from bravery in battle was maintained. However, this system became so popular that it was soon embraced by people from across the country. Other members of society including members of the church, lawyers and mayors all wanted a heraldic device of their own, as did towns and medieval guilds.
As many people were unable to read and write, heralds were tasked with creating rolls of arms. These contained lists of coats of arms and their owners, including paintings and descriptions that would make them easily recognisable. To achieve this, heralds would visit tournaments, castles and even battlefields confirming their rolls of arms were correct. During quieter times, heralds toured the country on ‘visitations’, ensuring the accuracy of coats of arms throughout towns and cities and making sure rules were followed.
This job was such a vital one that, in 1555, heralds were provided with a permanent base in London within which to keep all their records. Heralds were considered members of the Royal Household and were overseen by Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk. The work was split between three Kings of Arms, six heralds and four pursuivants, or junior heralds. Sadly, the original Collage of Arms was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, but a new building was constructed on the same site.
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