Heraldry was a very important part of life for the higher social classes in Medieval England. A heraldic shield and coat of arms was an implicit statement that you and your family were part of the social hierarchy that upheld Medieval England at that time. However, along with many other aspects of social life in Medieval England, there were clear rules by which anyone associated with heraldry had to abide by. These rules have essentially stood the test of time as well as many of those found in Medieval times still exist in the 21st Century. In this sense, heraldry is one of the most enduring aspects of Medieval England.
A heraldic device was first perceived so that a knight could be recognised in battle. If a knight wished to impress his peers, or even the king, with acts of bravery, he could not do so solely dressed in his armour, which covered him from head to toe and disallowed any form of recognition. In an era where your credibility as a lord or knight was a measured in your deeds of bravery, such recognition was vital. Hence the creation of heraldic devices, which if seen in battle would identify one knight only as only one knight had such a device. Heraldic devices were first seen in the twelfth century. Likewise, in tournaments where a knight had to demonstrate his bravery against other knights, a full set of armour would disguise a competitor. Hence the use of heraldic devices at jousting tournaments, for example.
Any individual knight not only had a shield with his heraldic ‘badge’ on – the same pattern would be found on his banners, the coverings of his horse and on his surcoat that covered his body armour. The phrase ‘coat of arms’ came from this practise of having your heraldic device/pattern of your surcoat. Knights also took to wearing a crest on the tops of their helmets.
A heraldic device became family property and a father who had impressed in battle desired to pass on to his sons the same heraldic pattern. In this way a family’s reputation was maintained.
However, a heraldic shield was not only the preserve of fighting noblemen. It became a sign of others making in society and churchmen, lawyers, lord mayors etc all wanted a heraldic device as a statement of who they had become in society. Towns of importance and medieval guilds also wanted a heraldic device for the same reason.
In an era when few could read or write, the best source for who owned what heraldic device was rolls of arms. A roll of arms contained a list of who owned what in heraldic terms – and it was done in paintings and descriptions so that people could link a shield with a name. Heralds did this work. Heralds visited tournaments, battlefields and castles to ensure that rolls of arms were correct. In times of peace, heralds toured counties in what were called ‘visitations’. Their task was not only to ensure that the rolls of arms were accurate. They also checked that heraldic rules were being adhered to.
In 1555 heralds were given a permanent base in London where all heraldic records were kept. The College of Arms was burned down during the Great Fire of London in 1666 but a new College was built on the same site. Heralds are members of the Royal Household and the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, oversees their work. The College is divided into three Kings of Arms, six heralds and four pursuivants (junior heralds).