Return to Historical Background Index page HERALDRY - Armorial Bearings

John Plantagenet, Earl of Cornwall, 1316-1336

John Plantagenet, Earl of Cornwall, 1316-1336

John Plantagenet, Earl of Cornwall, shown top left

Heraldry or the art/science of armorial bearings (armoury was the medieval term for heraldry), more commonly 'coats of arms', was in common practice throughout Europe although much of the evidence has disappeared due to various revolutions, wars and political changes which have ocurred throughout Europe over the past 700 years. In 1484, Richard III by Royal Charter incorporated the College of Arms, or Heralds' College, which controls the use of armorial bearings in England and Wales to this day.
Most people think that in medieval times only the nobility and the knights had the right to bear their coat of arms but this is not so. Indeed, in some European countries the lower orders began to assume coats of arms and continued to do so until heraldry no longer had a purely military role. The earliest known example is that of the French sheperd Haquier le Brebiet: his arms show three sheep and a girl (1369). This practice was stamped upon by Henry V who in 1417 sent Letters Patent to sherrifs in three counties declaring that 'whereas in recent expeditions abroad many persons had taken to themselves Arms and tunics of Arms called "Cotearmures" which neither they nor their ancestors had used in times past, no man of whatever rank should henceforth take arms unless he possessed them by ancestral right or by grant of some person having authority sufficient thereunto'. That same year Henry created a new heraldic officer, Garter Principal King of Arms of Englishmen, whose province was the whole of England and Wales and who was responsible for issuing Patents of Arms for peers.

Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, 1345-1401

Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, 1345-1401

Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, 1345-1401 The Earl is on the top left

Shortly after these steps, Thomas, Duke of Clarence and brother to Henry V, appears to have issued ordinances which granted to the Kings of Arms the right to assign arms to persons within their provinces. The oldest known Patent issued by a King of Arms is dated 10 March 1439, and was issued by Sir William Bruges, first Garter King of Arms, to the Drapers' Company of London.

Text copyright © James McCafferty 2000 Photographic images copyright © John Credland and James McCafferty 2000