What is Heraldry?

Heraldry is both an art form and a science dating back to the middle ages, and even though its origins may be old, its use today is still widespread.

Heraldry is by its most basic definition a system of emblems which are both unique to the individual who bears them and are heritable (at least theoretically) by either inheritance through a family line or by the willing of arms to an appointed heir. Arms are often borne as a “full achievement of arms”, comprising of a shield (also called the coat of arms), a crest, and often additionally: a helm, mantling, and motto.

To illustrate the basic achievement of arms we invite you to look here at the fictional coat of arms of a Mr. John Smith. Mr. Smith’s Arms are blazoned (the term for a written description of arms) as: Azure a chevron Argent. His Crest, found upon a plain gentleman’s helm, would be blazoned as: A bald eagle displayed Proper. The crest sits upon the helmet’s torse, which can alternately be called a wreath or lamberquin, is in the liveries of his arms. That is to say the principal color and metal if the shield. The arms could also be borne upon a flag, often called a Banner of Arms, which is simply his coat of arms shown as a square. It may also have fringe of his liveries. His son or rather his appointed heir could bear his arms differenced with a label of three points, to denote their status. Though in this country cadet differencing is not enforced and is up to the armiger if he or she wishes to use it.

Within most heraldic traditions there is no such thing as a “family” coat of arms. There are of course exceptions to this, but for the English speaking world this is not the case, and in the United States it is considered bad taste to attempt to use so called “family arms” taken from the UK, Ireland, and the Commonwealth. For more information on this please see our page Researching Ancestral Arms.

In the United States we follow what may be considered the “basic” rules of heraldry. We do not have a government run heraldic authority, as may be found in the United Kingdom or Commonwealth, but are free to assume arms as individuals. Individual armigers may allow any and all of their descendants to use their arms without cadet differencing, though that is not entirely recommended. If you have made it this far and are now interested in researching ancestral heraldry or in attaining arms for yourself we invite you to read through our website, especially our Guidelines for Heraldic Practice, and invited you to Join The American Heraldry Society and explore the multitude of resources available in our Members Library.

The Arms of Mr. John Smith
The Banner of Arms of Mr. John Smith