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What Is a Coat of Arms?

A coat of arms symbol was often displayed on a knight's shield.
A coat of arms is a collection of symbols relating to a particular family.
Medieval knights would wear the coat of arms of their household or lord into battle so that they could be identified on the field.
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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 August 2014
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A coat of arms is a symbol or collection of symbols, usually represented on a shield, that indicates the traits of a particular family. It is part of a practice called heraldry, which includes researching and describing traits of coats of arms, and recording them for future reference. Contrary to popular belief, a coat of arms is not awarded to an entire family, but rather to a particular individual within the family who has been deemed worthy of the honor of displaying it. Traditionally, it has been awarded to royalty, but not exclusively. While its origins are unknown, it became a representation for military means throughout the years and is still used in certain situations today.

Historically, the coat of arms is a European tradition that was often used in several different ways, but one of its most common uses was on the shield of knights. The symbols displayed on the shield would help the knights distinguish themselves from their enemies. The coat of arms could be passed from father to son with subtle changes made to make note of the passage of the arms. This might include a change in color or charge — the image in the center of the shield. The coat of arms became a symbol of nobility, and it eventually became a requirement for knights participating in tournaments. As time passed, they evolved from very simple designs into elaborate and intricate pieces of art.

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Some of the parts of a coat of arms include the charge, the helm, the wreath, the crest, and the motto. The motto is a statement — typically at the bottom or top of the image, but not exclusively so — that expresses the family’s motives or intentions within a society. The helm is the helmet at the top of the shield, usually representing a rank or time period in which the knight fought. The crest is any decorative work that appears above the helm; the wreath holds the mantling together, and the mantling appears as a drapery above the helm and serves as a backdrop for the helmet. Though some of these parts are not part of the official blazon — or description of the coat of arms — they appear on many, if not most, images.

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Discuss this Article

FernValley
Post 3

It can be really interesting to look at coat of arms history. The British royal family, for example, has had many changes as monarchs change, different families take the throne, and the era's values change.

panda2006
Post 2

I never realized that coats of arms had so many specific parts to them. While I knew each family coat of arms was unique, especially in medieval and renaissance times, this makes it seem much more deliberate and planned than I had previously thought.

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