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The Armorial Register - International Register of Arms - History of Heraldry

The History of International Heraldry including other historic heraldic information from around the globe

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An Introduction to Western European Heraldry

Heraldry evolved in 12th-century Western Europe, probably in response to the growing difficulty of recognising men in armour as that armour became heavier and more enveloping. At Hastings, when a rumour spread among the Normans that WILLIAM I (THE CONQUEROR) had been killed, he had only to tilt his helmet back as he rode among them for all to see that he was alive. Two hundred years later such a feat would have required considerable exertion and the help of a squire. Men in armour could by now only distinguish one another by devices on their shields or on the surcoats worn over their armour. Noblemen's devices were used by their followers as badges on their own shields and coats, and in the feudal army men were accustomed to muster under the banner of their lord, which was marked with his coat of arms. Crests, which were also distinguishing marks, came later.

Heraldic devices became hereditary as first the son then the more remote descendants of the original feudal lord retained the original device so as to guide their followers in battle. The devices outlived the use of armour, however, and by the 17th century were being widely used in non-military ways. By now the granting and use of coats of arms in England had come under the supervision of a body of heralds called the College of Arms, which had been set up under royal authority in 1483. In Scotland the Lord Lyon, supervised the use of arms.

It is probable that arms were not originally granted by anyone but were assumed by various persons as and when they pleased. Thus from time to time two or more people might be using the same device. In the Scrope-Grosvenor case in the late 14th century, when Lord Scrope (see BLG 1965) challenged the right of Sir Robert Grosvenor (see WESTMINSTER, D) to use the same coat of arms that he did himself, the duplication was accidental. Indeed there was a third person mentioned as using those arms, a Cornish knight called Carminow.

This celebrated case was only finally settled by the King, RICHARD II, who found for Scrope. By now the Crown was assuming jurisdiction over the use of arms. A century later this had become firmly established, and since then it has been heraldic law that arms can only be borne in accordance with the rules drawn up by the heralds under royal authority; unfortunately, the forum for prosecuting illicit assumptions of arms in England, the Court of Chivalry, is obsolescent, despite a brief revival in the early 1950s. In Scotland the Court of the Lord Lyon has more teeth and still enforces laws against the irregular or illicit assumption of arms.


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History of Heraldry

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The History of Heraldry