In the twelfth century, a new style of helmet completely covered the faces of knights. So they began to decorate their shields and armour in order to show who they were. Pictures and colours were a good way to do this at a time when most people could not read. The designs had to be simple and bright enough to be seen from a distance, or in the dust and muddle of a battle.
At this time there were international tournaments, and international groups going on Crusade. This meant that the knights had to be able to recognise fighters from other countries. Officials called heralds appeared, who organized tournaments, carried messages in battle, and worked out designs for knights to use. The design on the shield has come to be known as a "coat of arms" because Crusaders, fighting in the hot climate of the Middle East wore white cotton surcoats (tunics) over their armour, to keep them cool. This tunic was a good place to show their personal design.
The design on the shield was later put on seals (acting like a signature), or on belongings, to show who the owner was. A son or daughter would inherit their parents' coat of arms, when they inherited their parents' land and duties.
In the sixteenth century, knights became less important in warfare, partly as a result of the use of gunpowder. Also many families became newly rich, and wanted to stress that they now had high status. Therefore, coats of arms became a status symbol - something to show your family was important - rather than something useful in a battle. So coats of arms were used to decorate houses, furniture, crockery, clothes, and jewellery. Because they were not meant to be seen from a distance, the designs could become much more complicated.
Coats of arms help families and organizations to feel special, united, and different from others. Perhaps this is why they are still popular today.
Related Internet Sites:
Page last updated 23/05/2003 © Copyright, I.D.Lee,
Didcot Girls' School.