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English Heraldry Coat of Arms & Family Crests

Posted by Jeff Ezzell on

English Heraldry

 English heraldry is the form of coats of arms and other heraldic bearings and insignia used in England. It lies within the so-called Gallo-British tradition. Coats of arms in England are regulated and granted to individuals by the English kings of arms of the College of Arms. They are subject to a system of cadency to distinguish between sons of the original holder of the coat of arms. The English heraldic style is exemplified in the arms of British royalty, and is reflected in the civic arms of cities and towns, as well as the noble arms of individuals in England. Royal orders in England, such as the Order of the Garter, also maintain notable heraldic bearings.


The first use of heraldry associated with the English was in the Bayeux Tapestry, recounting the events of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, where both sides used emblems in similar ways.

 The first Royal Coat of Arms was created in 1154 under Henry II, the idea of heraldry becoming popular among the knights on the first and second crusades, along with the idea of chivalry. Under Henry III it gained a system of classification and a technical language, confirming its place as a science. However, over the next two centuries the system was abused, leading to the swamping of true coats-of-arms.

 For the rest of the medieval period it was popular within the upper classes to have a distinctive family mark for competitions and tournaments, and was popular (although not prevalent) within the lower classes. It found particular use with knights, for practice and in the mêlée of battle, where heraldry was worn on embroidered fabric covering their armor. Indeed, their houses' signs became known as coats-of-arms in this way. They were also worn on shields, where they were known as shields-of-arms. As well as military uses, the main charge was used in the seals of households. These were used to prove the authenticity of documents carried by heralds (messengers)[citation needed] and is the basis of the word heraldry in English. One example of this is the seal of John Mundegumri (1175), which bears a single fleur-de-lis. 

 The Royal Arms of England


12th century

1127: King Henry I presents Count Geoffrey of Anjou with arms, the earliest recorded royal bestowal of arms in the kingdom.

1198: King Richard the Lionheart introduces royal arms, depicting three lions; they remain the arms of England to this day.

13th century

Early examples of arms in Wales: Prince David ap Llewellyn 1246 and John ap John of Grosmont in 1249.

1256: Walter le Vyelur, a painter, is an early example of a tradesman bearing coat of arms.

c1276: The earliest reference to a Norroy King of Arms.

1290s: The earliest known diocesan arms, for the See of Ely.

14th century

1334: The earliest reference to a Clarenceux King of Arms.

After claiming the French throne in 1340, King Edward III quarters the French and English royal arms. The French coat of arms remain part of the English coat of arms for 460 years.

From 1340, the customary method of differentiating the royal arms is a label (plain for the Prince of Wales, bearing charges for other royals).

1345: The Court of Chivalry hears its first heraldry case.

c1380: London assumes civic coat of arms.

1385–90: The famous case of Scrope v Grosvenor in the Court of Chivalry.

1390s: Johannes de Bado Aureo publishes Tractatus de Armis.

15th century

By 1410, "a non-armigerous gentlemen is a rarity needing explanation."

1411: Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, is an early example of bishops impaling their personal coat of arms with those of their sees.

1415: King Henry V establishes the office of Garter King of Arms, and makes him senior to the other kings of arms. William Bruges is the first Garter 1415–50.

1418: Henry V temporarily prohibits the bearing of self-assumed coat of arms during his campaign in France; for some reason, this was later interpreted as a ban on self-assumed coat of  arms throughout England.

The three kings of arms are authorized to grant coats of arms, but self-assumption remains the norm.

By 1423, St Bartholomew's Hospital in London has assumed coat of arms – probably the oldest example of medical heraldry in the kingdom.

1439: Garter Bruges grants coat of arms to the Worshipful Company of Drapers – the earliest known grant by a king of arms.

King Henry VI grants arms to King's College (Cambridge) in 1441 and Eton College in 1449 – the earliest examples of academic heraldry in England.

1484: King Richard III organizes the royal kings of arms, heralds, and pursuivants into a College of Arms, under authority of the Earl Marshal.

 College of Arms in England

1485: King Henry VII revokes the College of Arms' charter.

c1500: Garter John Wrythe introduces a system of distinguishing younger sons by adding marks of cadency to their paternal coat of arms.

16th century

In Wales, the bards attribute coat of arms wholesale to the ancestors of the tribes. These are then "inherited" by their descendants.

1530: King Henry VIII introduces heraldic visitations to record coat of arms in use and prohibit any that are usurped or are borne by men of inferior social status.

1538: Gloucester obtains a grant of arms, the first civic coat of arms to be granted in England.

1555: Queen Mary I of England reincorporates the College of Arms with a new charter.

1561: The College of Arms rules that heraldic heiresses may not transmit their fathers' family crests to their descendants.

1562: Gerard Leigh publishes The Accidences of Armory.

1573: The University of Cambridge is granted a coat of arms.

1574: Arms of the University of Oxford and its colleges are recorded in a visitation.

17th century

1603: King James VI of Scotland inherits the English throne in 1603. The English and Scottish royal arms are combined, and a quartering depicting a harp is devised for Ireland.

1610: John Guillim publishes A Display of Heraldry.

1646: During its civil war again King Charles I, Parliament closes the Court of Chivalry and appoints its own kings of arms in place of those who have remained loyal to the king.

1649–60: While England is a republic ('Commonwealth'), the royal arms are replaced by new state arms.

1660: The monarchy is restored and King Charles II nullifies grants made by the Commonwealth heralds.

1667: The Court of Chivalry reopens.

Garter Sir William Dugdale states that assumed arms that have been used in a family for around 80 years are allowed to be borne by prescription.

1672: Charles II makes the office of Earl Marshal hereditary to the Dukes of Norfolk.

1673: The College of Arms opens a register of coat of arms.

From 1673, the kings of arms require the Earl Marshal's authority for each grant of coat of arms.

1681–87: The last round of visitations is held. The system lapses after the 'Glorious Revolution' 1688–89.

18th century

Garter Henry St George begins to undermine the principle of bearing self-assumed arms by prescription by refusing to confirm them without formally granting them.

1707: England and Scotland unite to form the Kingdom of Great Britain, but retain their separate heraldry laws and authorities.

1737: The Court of Chivalry ceases to function.

From 1741, gentlemen have to be "eminent" to be eligible for grants of a coat of arms.

1780: Joseph Edmondson publishes A Complete Body of Heraldry.

1798: Annual licensing of coats of arms is introduced to raise money for the war with France. It is discontinued after the war.

19th century

1801: Great Britain and Ireland amalgamate to form the United Kingdom, but the English, Scottish and Irish heraldry authorities remain separate. The royal arms are altered to reflect the union, and the French arms are dropped.

From 1806, an officer of the College of Arms is Inspector of Regimental Colors, to oversee British army heraldry.

1815: The College of Arms confirms that only peers and knights of the Garter and the Bath are entitled to supporters to their coat of arms.

1823–1944: Annual licensing of coats of arms (whether they are officially recognized or not) is reintroduced.

1842: Bernard Burke publishes The General Armory.

1859: James Fairbairn publishes A Book of Crests.

1863: Charles Boutell publishes The Manual of Heraldry.

1889: West Sussex County Council obtains a grant of arms, the first to a county council.

1889: Charles Elvin publishes A Dictionary of Heraldry.

1892: James Parker publishes A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry.

1894: Arthur Fox-Davies publishes The Book of Public Arms.

1895: Arthur Fox-Davies publishes Armorial Families.

1894: Mr. Lloyd of Stockton registers personal coat of arms containing 323 quartering’s.

20th century

1902: Joseph Foster publishes Some Feudal Coats of Arms.

1906: The Earl Marshal authorizes the granting of badges to armigers of all ranks.

1909: Arthur Fox-Davies publishes A Complete Guide to Heraldry.

1919: The Royal Navy introduces a standard system of ships' badges. HMS Warwick is the first to bear an official badge.

1924: The Royal Air Force College Cranwell obtains a grant of arms, the first to the RAF.

1927: Bocking is the first parish council to obtain a grant of arms.

1935: A standard pattern for Royal Air Force unit badges is introduced.

1939: Anthony Wagner (Portcullis Pursuant) publishes Historic Heraldry of Britain.

1943: King George VI transfers the office of Ulster King of Arms to the College of Arms and combines it with the office of Norroy, with jurisdiction limited to Northern Ireland.

1946: Anthony Wagner publishes Heraldry in England.

1947: The Society of Heraldic Antiquaries (later the Heraldry Society) is established. It launches a journal, The Coat of Arms, in 1950.

1950: The College of Arms introduces a mark of difference for the coat of arms of divorced women.

1951: The first grants of arms to Northern Ireland: Londonderry and Tyrone.

1954: The Court of Chivalry is reactivated for a test case between the Manchester City Council and a local theatre.

1960: The Earl Marshal authorizes the kings of arms to devise arms, on request, for towns in the United States of America, subject to approval by the relevant state governors. This is extended to other corporate bodies in the USA in 1962.

1967: The Earl Marshal authorizes ecclesiastical hats for the arms of Roman Catholic clergy.

1971: Geoffrey Briggs' Civic & Corporate Heraldry

1973: John Brooke-Little (Richmond Herald)'s An Heraldic Alphabet

1976: The Earl Marshal authorizes ecclesiastical hats for the coat of arms of Anglican clergy.

1988: Thomas Woodcock (Somerset Herald) and John Robinson (Fitzalan Pursuivant) publish The Oxford Guide to Heraldry.

1993: Peter Gwynn-Jones (York Herald) and Henry Paston-Bedingfeld (Rouge Croix Pursuivant) publish Heraldry.

1995 and 1997: The College of Arms revises the rules for women's coat of arms; inter alia, married women may now bear their coat of arms on shields, with a mark of difference.

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