by Matthew Roser

The Origin of Heraldic Achievement

Heraldry is the study or art of emblazoning arms with achievement. The true origin of this ancient practice is debated and can be seen in Egyptian artifacts dating from 3100 BC. However, the type of heraldic designs we most commonly associate with in our modern time are of European influence.

The idea of an inheritable emblem was created in the 12th century during the Norman conquest of England. Henry I of England knighted his son-in-law Geoffrey V, who was bestowed a shield with golden lions. In 1151, this design became the first recorded coat of arms in history and was found on Geoffrey’s funerary enamel. By the middle of the 12th century, the practice of an inherited coat of arms became common and widespread across Europe.

The Purpose of a Coat of Arms

The original intention of these markings were to distinguish military commanders from common soldiers. Men were often masked by metal helms and quickly became unrecognizable in the thick of battle. Eventually, these gaudy effigies transcended their military distinctions to become short history pieces on valor and family achievement.

Why Your Family Should Have its Own Coat of Arms

The coat of arms is a perfect way to visualize your own family’s successes and values. Our world is becoming fuller and faster by the minute, and fewer people are maintaining their connection with the generations that preceded them. This type of decoration is a unique way in which your children will proudly carry on your name.

Although the coat of arms cannot capture every ideal and happy achievement, it rests in a grand, supernatural-like solitude that commands a certain air of awe and respect. Because its origins are rooted in royalty and honor, the coat of arms represents the high morals of love and dignity that accompany a strong family legacy.

Components of Heraldic Achievement

All of the conventional elements found in heraldic achievement can be shown in the figure below.


  • Dexter and Sinister: Are the words for right and left in Latin. These refer to the bearer’s orientation and not the spectator’s.
  • Motto: Mottos are generally inscribed in a place above the entire piece or just below it. A motto can be written in any language and is usually an important saying, family name, etc.
  • Crest: A “family crest” is often erroneously confused with a coat of arms. In reality, the crest is an ornament that sits atop a helm, such as a feathery plume, hawk, or other image.
  • Torse: A torse is type of twisted fabric that wraps around the top of the helmet and base of the crest. This material was meant to hide the join between the helmet and crest and to also hold the mantling in place.
  • Mantling: A drapery tied to the helmet that forms the backdrop for the shield. This type of material may have been used to reduce the wear of sword-blows to the helmet and to also protect the knight from the elements.
  • Helmet: The helmet in heraldry symbolizes rank and stature and was not merely of decorative purposes. Differing styles imply a change in rank and military sophistry.
  • Coronet: This instrument is similar to a crown, but was only worn by noblemen, whereas a crown is only be worn by kings, queens, emperors, empresses, etc.
  • Escutcheon: The escutcheon is a shield in which the coat of arms is displayed. Often the coat of arms was emblazoned on a shield, but could also be found on a surcoat or tabard in the center of an heraldic achievement.
  • Field: The entire shield or “canvas” of the escutcheon is known as the field. This area is compromised of many components such as tinctures (colors). Usually there would be a chief, a band running horizontally across the top of the shield.
  • Ordinaries: This area of the escutcheon represents a painted geometric figure such as a cross.
  • Charges: Represents some kind of emblem to adorn the coat of arms. This symbol could be a person, tree, sun, etc. A charge may even be an ordinary, such as a cross (or other geometric pattern).
  • Division: Divisions are simply lines that divide the different aspects of the escutcheon.
  • Supporters: A supporter is a figure that is depicted as holding the escutcheon upright.
  • Order: An order may be of an actual party in which the person belongs. These may represent emblems found in a school, police force, military branch, etc.
  • Compartment: This area of the heraldic achievement is usually grass, earth, or another depiction in which the shield rests.

Modern Twists and Variations on Heraldic Achievement

Heraldry has evolved over the centuries and can be seen throughout our daily lives. Gone are the days of knights and noblemen, but the virtues they embodied are still alive and well. Below are some examples of coat of arms designs that depart from tradition:

Harvard University's coat of arms. Originally designed in December of 1643 and January 1644, but forgotten until 1843 when it was rediscovered and remains in use today.
Harvard University’s coat of arms. Originally designed in December of 1643 and January 1644, but forgotten until 1843 when it was rediscovered and remains in use today.

The seal of the president of the United States is born out of heraldic influence.
The seal of the president of the United States is born out of heraldic influence.

Creating your Own Coat of Arms

Creating your own coat of arms can be a very rewarding experience for you and your family. This type of exercise doesn’t have to be restrictive. You can add or omit as many elements as you desire. In fact, you can create new pieces and form the coat of arms in the way that you want.

There are many artists for hire or maybe one of your family members can start the design themselves. The most important fact is that your family comes together to create this symbol.

Begin by creating your own escutcheon — this ornament might be the iconic shield, badge, or some other shape. Then play around with colors that are important to your family to paint the field.

You can then add symbols or other figures to the coat of arms. Try framing it with some supporters or complete it with a lovely family motto or saying. Emblems and other pieces can be added and removed at will.

If you are short on ideas, simply search the thousands of examples online or consult with your artist on what kinds of images speak most to your family name. The true purpose of this coat of arms is for it to represent you. And as long as it does that job, it will be able to endure the generations that inherit it.

For more articles on legacy planning, click here to read Legacy Arts Magazine.