What is Heraldry?

By Danièle Cybulskie

The iconic image of a mounted knight almost inevitably includes a colourful shield or surcoat, emblazoned with his family coat of arms or symbols. Heraldry, the use and identification of these symbols, developed slowly over the course of the Middle Ages, and expanded its use and reach across Europe, eventually settling in a language still used today for official coats of arms and flags.

According to Robert W. Jones, heraldry “is generally perceived as emerging in a recognizable from out of the Low Countries in the middle part of the twelfth century.” But these symbols didn’t necessarily develop for the purposes of warfare, as is often believed. Warfare, sadly, was not new in the Middle Ages; however, one form of martial activity was: the tournament. As Jones rightly points out, it can be difficult to read all the symbols of an army’s devices while in the midst of combat: “Heraldry was an effective identifier only when the viewer had the leisure to decode it.” It’s more likely, Jones suggests (following David Crouch’s argument in Tournament), that heraldry developed as a means to identify knights on the tournament field.


Although tournaments may have been the impetus for the development of heraldic devices and practices, heraldry was adopted far beyond the tournament field, from the battlefield to seals and livery. In fact, Jones suggests, it is the rise of the use of the seal by an increasingly charter-heavy society that may have led to its popularity away from militaristic action into the realm of more ordinary use, including that of people who were meant to be excluded from fighting altogether: women and priests.

As time went on, people drifted away from using full coats of arms to identify themselves in favour of badges which represented them in either a near-literal (punning) way, or in a figurative way. As Jones writes,


The political poems and ballads that were common during the Wars of the Roses used the badges of the great nobles to identify them. In part, no doubt, because it was easier to fit the word dog or boar or swan into the rhyme and meter of a poem than the heraldic blazon of a coat of arms, but also because there was a wider audience for these pieces, beyond the chivalric and heraldic community. The badge was a much more immediate and memorable insignia precisely in its practicality for the battlefield where, again, it had come to dominate.

Badges became more popular on the battlefield in the late fourteenth century in part, Jones suggests, because of the rise of plate armour, which made shields less practical, and in part (perhaps) because nobles may have thought their chances of being ransomed (not killed) were low anyway. Given Henry V’s treatment of his French prisoners at Agincourt shortly thereafter, perhaps they had a point.

Detail of a herald in a tabard of the arms of John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury, with the arms of his wife, Margaret Beauchamp, in pretence, holding a flagpole. British Library MS Royal 15 E VI f. 43

Still, it’s useless to have a series of badges or symbols to identify households and nobles if no one is able to read them. Those who took it upon themselves to memorize the arms and armour of knights were heralds. Heralds were, of course, useful on the tournament circuit, where they could identify the combatants, but they were much more useful on the battlefield, where there were many more fighters involved, and their identification was crucial to understanding their worth as prisoners. Although Jones mentions the difficulty of identifying people on the field while in the midst of combat as being a possible reason heraldry wasn’t adopted until the rise of the tournament, it’s logical to assume that heralds were extremely useful before battles began in relating to their leaders who it was that made up the ranks of the opposing army.

Jones says, “Like the priests that are only occasionally recorded praying for victory at the rear of their armies, infrequent mentions of heralds on the periphery of the fighting alert us to their routine presence and purpose.” Heralds were able to observe the actions of the parties involved and relate them later. Perhaps more importantly, they were relied upon after the battle had ended to establish who had died (an extremely difficult activity, emotionally, as Michael Livingston has shown). Jones goes a step further, suggesting that “it cannot be too much of a stretch to imagine they were the ones taking news of the fallen to their families.”


Heraldry, although no longer necessary as a means to identify the fallen, is still very much in use today, with many of the rules established in the Middle Ages still in play. The College of Arms is the official entity for the use and creation of heraldic devices in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and is still developing rules and usages for heraldry in the modern age, including how to combine coats of arms in a same-sex marriage. For more information on modern heraldry, their website has a whole lot of useful information.

For the information in this article, and the rest of Robert W. Jones’ informative work, see his article “Heraldry and Heralds” in A Companion to Chivalry.

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Top Image: British Library MS Harley 4328 f. 410