Exploring Coats of Arms

When i’m not studying National Heritage and History I moonlight as a storyteller and one half of a writing team with Kevin Brooke published Children’s author from Worcestershire.

This weekend as part of World Heritage Day [19-20 September] we were invited to Harlebury Castle to make some stories about their history and preform them to visitors on the day.

Hartlebury Castle tells the story of the bishops of a major middle England plot of land and their evolving role in English society, from political and military guardians of a frontier with Wales to active participants in political decision making in modern times. They number a pope (Clement VII) who played a key role in precipitating the establishment of the Church of England; Bishops Latimer and Hooper, Protestant martyrs of the Reformation; and Bishop Hurd, friend to King George III and creator of the Hurd Library.

The great hall at Hartlebury has some of the most interesting and rare examples of Coats of Arms and the Hurd library too contains much of the information in its ancient books on how and why we have Coats of arms.

So, how did shields become Coats of Arms?

The ancient Romans used various symbols called insignia on their shields so that they could identify their different military units of soldiers.

The first real use of what we now know as coats of arms is portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry which illustrates the Norman invasion of 1066, where some of the soldiers are carrying shields that have crosses and other symbols painted on them. However, by the 1100s, coats of arms came into more general use by feudal lords and knights in a battle to identify their soldiers and their opponents. By the 1200s, coats of arms had become a flag or emblem for noble families and inherited from one generation to the next. In Britain, only the aristocracy had the right to arms, with their serfs, servants and knights having these emblems as part of their ‘uniform’ when fighting on the battlefield for their Lord and Master. Eventually, the use of arms spread to the clergy, to towns, and places such as universities and trading companies; and so flags developed from coats of arms. The coats of arms that we are familiar with today were originally one person’s emblem. They were legal property which passed from father to son; however, wives and daughters could bear modified arms to show that they were related to the current holder. Other relatives of the original bearer of arms could use the family coat of arms but with a little bit of difference; maybe a colour change or an extra emblem. Coats of arms were essential in identifying people and used in seals on critical legal documents, and so their use was closely controlled. All coats of arms were tracked and recorded by heralds or agents to the King or Queen. which is why the study of coats of arms is called ‘heraldry.’

Did you know that the colours, animal, fruits, flowers and other objects used on the coats of arms all have different meanings?

Here are some of the meanings of the most used colours:

  • White stands for purity, innocence, peace and honesty
  • Gold stands for wisdom, glory, generosity and grandness
  • Green stands for happiness, love, and well-being
  • Red stands for strength and bravery
  • Purple stands for justice and is a royal colour used by Kings and Queens
  • Black stands for wisdom and sometimes grief
  • Blue stands for truth, strength and honour

The animals, fruit and flowers on coats of arms also have special meanings, here are some of the most used ones:

  • Apples, berries and grapes mean kindness, happiness and peace
  • Bay leaves stand for a poet or triumph
  • Oak trees or leave mean great strength and age
  • Olive branches or leavesstandfor peace and harmony
  • Roses are the mark of the seventh son -a red rose means grace and beauty; a white rosemeans love and faith
  • Bear stands for strength, cunning and defending your family
  • Dolphinmeans swiftness, love, charity and salvation
  • Dovemeans love and peace
  • Eagle is the sign for someone with a noble nature, bravery, strength and protection
  • Elephantmeans strength, happiness, luck and royalty
  • The horse stands for being ready for anything to do good for King and country
  • Lamb means gentleness and patience
  • The lion stands for great courage
  • Stagger stag’s antlers mean peace, harmony, strength and stamina
  • Swan means light, love, grace and perfection
  • Tiger stands for fierceness, bravery and fury

Mythological creatures are also often used on coats of arms, and these also have special meanings:

  • The dragon stands for a defender of treasure, courage and protection
  • Mermaidmeans eloquence
  • Pegasus (a winged horse)is the sign for inspiration and is considered a messenger of God
  • Phoenix is a symbol of resurrection
  • Sphinxstands for secrecy and knowledge
  • Unicorn(a horse with one horn)stands for extreme bravery, strength and truth

Crosses and angels are a sign of Christianity and stand for dignity, honour and glory.

here are some other meanings of the different angels and crosses you sometimes find on coats of arms :

  • An angel or a cherub means dignity, glory and honour and joyful news
  • Cross is a sign for faith and service in the Crusades
  • Celtic Cross shows heaven and earth as one
  • Cross Flory (flowered at each end)means one who has conquered
  • Seraphim(angel with three pairs of wings)means bearer of joyful news

Some other objects are also included on coats of arms and their meanings:

  • Anchor means hope
  • Bells mean the banning of evil spirits
  • Harp stands for the bridge between heaven and earth and also for a person who has good judgement
  • A plume of feathers is a sign of obedience and peaceful minds
  • Shell stands for a traveller to far off places
  • Sword, dagger or dart shows justice and military honour

Hope this helps you make or enjoy your own Coat of Arms.

The phoenix and the rose

The phoenix and the rose

How they stare in wonder

How they speak in whisper

Lookup to my brother

Looking at your golden glamour

Their awe you devour

For it gives you the power

And me my blood flower

We, you and I know

From the same ashes did grow

We both had to travel

Though a change so dreadful

The doubtful, fearful and dismal

From the crumbled ashes

New hope thrashes and flashes

The glint in our eyes

To our enemies surprise

Both you and I give rise

To new hopes and out cries

We move on, we survive

In the worlds adversity now thrive

Ours is the victory, nature contradictory.

artwork WEA 001