During medieval times, knights would don a complete suit of armour which often concealed their identity during battle.
To resolve this and to generally identify themselves, knights began using painted symbols on their shields so that they could be distinguished on the battlefield.
Soon, the very same symbols also began to be used on banners of the knights and became exclusively identified with individuals. Since the knights also used these symbols on the coat they wore above their armour, they came to be called the “coat of arms”.
The earliest use of the coat of arms on the shields of the knights can be dated back to an 11th-century tapestry that depicts knights carrying cross-painted shields.
By the 12th century, a coat of arms was in widespread use among the knights in many European regions who routinely used them on their shields and banners to identify themselves. Later the coat of arms also came to be used to identify knights during tournaments.
Although the coat of arms was initially used by individuals, they were later made hereditary. In the 13th century, the use of the coat of arms expanded beyond the class of knights and it was then that laws and regulations began to be formulated which would overlook the allotment of different coats of arms to individuals and families.
The typical coat of arms as used by a knight is comprised of several components encased within a certain shape. The shape of a given coat of arms was called the escutcheon.
This shape could be in the typical imitation of a shield or it could be different, for instance in a square-like shape.
The coat of arms was a symbol representing a given knight, so every part of this symbol denoted something important.
The colour of the field used on the coat of arms, for instance, was meaningful. If a coat of arms used a red colour, this meant that the coat of arms belonged to a warrior knight who had participated in battles. The use of black colour denoted knowledge while green was the colour of joy, blue represented loyalty and maroon represented victory in battle.
Charges refer to the different shapes that were used in the middle of the knightly coat of arms.
Many varieties of such shapes were routinely used and each denoted a different meaning. A lion-shaped charge, for instance, denoted majesty and was often used on the royal coat of arms. The shape of boar denoted ferocity while a bear denoted strength. The bull was the charge denoting bravery while a two-headed eagle denoted protector of vast realms.
Although the early coat of arms of the knights typically used a solid-coloured single-shade background, later variants began using patterned backgrounds.
These were then defined in heraldic work and different patterns were given specific names. A band of colour diagonally traversing the escutcheon was called the Bend.
The Fess was a broad horizontal band along the shield. The Saltire referred to two bands of colour crossing over the shield while the cross was another popular pattern frequently used on knightly coat of arms, with hundreds of variants prevalent in medieval ages.
Initially, coats of arms were rarely used, so it was easier to distinguish between different individuals and their symbols. Over time, the number of knights increased substantially and at the same time, a large number of coats of arms began to be used.
To tackle this, proper laws were enacted by the Kings in different medieval realms, overlooking the allocation of symbols to different individuals and families when allowing them a coat of arms. A Herald kept detailed records of families coats of arms.
It was during this period that laws allowed an individual to transmit his coat of arms to his heirs. While initially, individuals could create their own coat of arms, later periods required individuals to first apply to the crown for the permission of the coat of arms and only then create one.
As the coat of arms came into widespread use among the knightly class, the position of a Herald was created. The primary task of a Herald was to keep track of the different symbols used on different coats of arms and to comprehend the meaning of these symbols.
The heralds, due to their knowledge of the coat of arms, were able to help families or individuals who wanted to create a new coat of arms by advising them on finding new and unique symbols.
In time, the heraldic achievement expanded to include many other components besides the coat of arms, such as a motto and the supporters. This further enhanced the importance of the herald and in time, entire departments in different countries were created to overlook the creation and regulation of coat of arms.
The knightly coat of arms began to be used in the early Middle Ages when knights began using specific symbols on their shields during battles.
This was primarily done by the knights to identify themselves during the fighting. Since the knights also used these symbols on the coat they wore over their armour, the symbol came to be called the coat of arms.
Although dated back to the 11th century, the coat of arms became more widely popular in the 12th and 13th centuries. It was frequently used by knights to identify themselves at tournaments and battles. In time, the coat of arms became akin to the public identity of different individuals and families in medieval Europe.