Knights and nobles in the Middle Ages often had a coat of arms. This was a special symbol that represented their family. Having a special symbol or coat of arms is often called "heraldry".
How did having a coat of arms get started?
The first coat of arms was used to distinguish one knight from another. When a knight had on his full armor, including plate mail and helmet, even his friends couldn't recognize him. Because of this, knights began to paint symbols on their shields. They eventually began to put the symbol on their banner and the coat they wore over their armor. This is how it got the name "coat of arms".
Royal Arms of England by Sodacan of Wikimedia Commons
Each coat of arms needed to be unique. However, there were so many knights that it was tough to keep track of who had what symbol. It became the job of people called heralds to keep track of the different coats of arms. They made sure that new coats of arms were unique. They also kept track of who each coat of arms belonged to.
Over time, there became strict laws in applying for a new coat of arms. Each new coat of arms needed to be registered with the government. A coat of arms belonged to the family of the knight. He would pass the coat of arms down to his eldest son.
Designing a Coat of Arms
The original coats of arms had fairly simple designs. As there became more and more coats of arms, the designs became more complicated in order for each one to be unique. All coats of arms have certain elements, however.
Escutcheon - The escutcheon is the main shape of the coat of arms. It was in the shape of a shield, but the exact shape could vary (see picture below).
Field - The field was the background color. At first the field was a solid color, but later patterns began to be used for the field.
Charge - The charge is the main picture in the center of the coat of arms. It was usually an animal, but could be other things such as a sword or a ship.
Ordinaries - Ordinaries were designs that appeared on the field. They added additional color and uniqueness to the coat of arms.
Different shapes used for the escutcheon or shield
What did the color mean?
Different background colors came to have different meanings. Red was the color of a warrior and nobility. Other colors included blue for truth and sincerity, black for piety and knowledge, and green for hope and joy. The colors in heraldry are called tinctures.
What did different charges mean?
The charges used as the main figure in the coat of arms had different meanings as well. For example, the lion stood for majesty and strength, the elephant for wit and ambition, the boar for courage and ferocity, and the sun for power and glory.
Interesting Facts about a Knight's Coat of Arms
Old French was used to describe the colors of the background. For example, gules (red), azure (blue), sable (black), and vert (green).
The coat of arms of English King Richard I has a red background and three lions. It is often referred to as the "arms of England".
The designs of backgrounds have names such as bendy (diagonal stripes) and lozenge (a diamond checked pattern).
An "achievement" in heraldry includes the shield plus other elements such as a motto, crest, supporters, helm, and coronet.
English heraldry has seven colors (tinctures) including two metals (gold, silver) and five colors (blue, red, purple, black, green).