Understanding the Basics
In the days of the knights in armor, a basic problem of
identification arose. Wearing a full suit of armor you could not tell one man from another. So each
man wore a distinctive 'coat', by which he could be recognized. This was call his coat 'of arms' as it
was worn directly over his armor.
As this trend grew, the 'arms" wre displayed on other items, including a man's banner, shield and
even horsecloth. And over time, the custom bled into the mainstream of society, where even the man's
family would wear these colors.
Because few people could read in those days, the coat of arms would be depicted on a shield, and
eventually became a symbol that would not only identify a man and his family, but also his worldly
Sharing the Colors
Daughters were allowed by couresty to use their fathers' coats. When they would marry, they
placed their own family coat beside their husband's (on his shield) in an act called impaling.
If their father had no sons, they become heraldic heiresses when he died. Then they were allowed to
place their own family shield in the middle of their husband's and it is called an estucheon of
Because no two men were allowed to wear the same coat simultaneously, even the eldest son had to
use a special label over the family shield. When the father died, the eldest would inherit the
plain coat of arms.
Younger sons and their descendants also had to make some changes in their fathers' arms. This act
of making permanent alterations was called differencing. In some cases, they would simply
alter the color, or add a border, or combine it with another coat.
A son could inherit the coat of his mother (whenever the grandfather had no sons), but it had to
be quartered with his own father's. Several generations of marriages to heiresses could bring
a large number of 'quarterings' into a family, some with even more than four coats combined.
That Coat Belongs to Me
Having the same surname does not entitle a man to use another's arms. He must be able to prove
a blood relationship, and even then he must difference the coat.
Not to be confused with a family's arms, communities, kingdoms, towns, countries and even companies
could develop a distinctive coat. In the case of a monarchy, the arms were usually that of the king
himself. Such arms are called Arms of Dominion, however, they were never to be used by the
If you are of English or Scottish descent, and can prove your male blood-line, you are entitled
to the arms, even today. England officially records all coats at the College of Arms. While those in
Scotland are handled by the Court of the Lord Lyon.