Guest Blog – A short introduction to Heraldry

Heraldic Shields - Forter Castle

Heraldic Shields – Forter Castle

In these days of everything being ‘instant and then thrown away’, many people find that Heraldry is a fantastic link with the past and for many people a direct link with their ancestors.

It may only take a few moments on the internet to look up an ‘associated’ coat of arms to your surname, but that can start a wonderful journey into heraldry. Weather just for yourself and your family history, or on a much wider and deeper search to understand all things connected with this symbolism of the past.

We all know the English “three lions” (in fact they were originally leopards) on our national sports shirts and the arms of our country; royalty, city, town, college or one’s university. So heraldry, in its widest sense is around us every day and as the saying goes “the more you look the more you see”!

Inspired by our local historic town of Battle in East Sussex, we’d often see in the Abby the names of Norman knights displayed with their arms; small colourful illustrations of shields with strange beasts, swords and crosses.

The medieval feudal system required every baron and landowner to provide knights and soldiers to serve their king. It became important that large numbers of illiterate men could simply identify their own baron in a mass of tents and other soldiers in the camp. By displaying a bold emblem on a shield, a tabard or a flag, it was a way to rally one’s own troops and to strike terror in the hearts of the enemy during the fight.

The feudal lords also found it necessary to have some form of recognizable symbol as a seal to mark important documents that they issued to their largely illiterate subjects. The seals would often show the lord himself, mounted in battle, bearing his arms.

When heraldry was in its infancy, it is generally thought the designs were adopted for their simple and distinctive symbols, but with the passing of time with more knights being created for their help in battles, many of the more basic designs had been used and could not be used again.

It therefore became important that designs became more complicated and were more than just crosses and circles in various colours.

As crusading knights returned from wars to their villages and towns, they instructed the local cart painters to paint his coat of arms on wood metal of fabric and to proudly display these items in their large houses or castles.

When a knight died, his son would continue to use his father’s devices, rather than create a new one, but may have added a small device or a symbol of his own to his late father’s arms.

In my next short introduction to heraldry, I will look at the actual designs, the meaning of their devises and how this had to be regulated so only persons who were entailed to use a heraldic device, did so.

By H. Martin Easton of 1066 Heraldic Shields. Visit >