According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary heraldry is:

  1. the study of armorial bearings

  2. the practice of blazoning and granting armorial bearings, tracing and recording genealogies, recording honors, and deciding precedence

  3. a heraldic device or devices

  4. ceremonial splendor

No one seems to know the exact origin of heraldry, but Sir Bernard Burke, Ulster King of Arms, has drawn his own conclusion: “The registry of its birth may be found among the archives of the Holy Wars,... ...its cradle was rocked by the soldiers of the Cross, and... its maturity was attained in the chivalrous age of Feudalism.”

Historic evidence seems to indicate, however, that there was a  general adoption of heraldic devices in Europe between 1135 and 1155 AD. Historians once theorized that a coat of arms enabled a knight to be recognized by his followers during battle. The coat of arms became hereditary just as a knight inherited the right to lead or the duty to follow another leader in battle.

Later historians dispute this theory based on the small numbers of knights who had any followers, and suggest that it was much more likely that the depiction of arms on a shield was a form of individual vanity rather than a practical military device.

According to the Oxford Guide to Heraldry  the oldest documented example of a coat of arms borne on a shield is that which King Henry I of England gave his son-in-law, Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, in 1127 AD, consisting of an azure shield which bore four gold lions rampant.

Regardless of their origins, coats of arms became military status symbols, and their popularity increased along with the popularity of the jousting tournament, which developed in the mid-eleventh century in France. The tournament became a training ground for knights, and its pageantry became more elaborate as time passed. Some knights made their living roaming from tournament to tournament.

By around 1400 AD, one could not participate in a tournament without a coat of arms, and due to the importance of the social standing in such pageants, a coat of arms also became a mark of noble status. In the beginning most coats of arms were merely assumed by the bearers, and not granted by any authority.

The earliest coats of arms were fairly simple, usually using bars or wavy lines, with a lion or an eagle displayed, or perhaps an arrangement of fleurs-de-lis. The designs became more complex as the years passed, and the practice of quartering (incorporating the arms of other families acquired through marriages) developed.

In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, heraldry became a highly developed discipline, regulated by professional officers of arms. As its use in jousts became obsolete, coats of arms remained popular for visually identifying a person in other ways; impressed in sealing wax on documents, carved on family tombs, and flown as a banner on country homes.

Eventually a system of rules developed into the modern form of heraldry. Today, in its most general sense, heraldry encompasses all matters relating to the duties and responsibilities of officers of arms.

In the nineteenth century Irwin McMahon was a leading expert on heraldry. He contributed a chapter on the subject in History of the McDowells, Erwins, Irwins and Connections, authored by John Hugh McDowell. McMahon wrote:

“There is great interest in items of heraldry, coats of arms, etc., connected with the Irwins, Irvines, Irvings, etc., regardless of how the name is spelled. There are numerous photographs of coats of arms in my possession belonging to the Clan. The simplest and plainest of them are the oldest, and belong to the oldest families.

As far as is known, Irving of Bonshaw never quartered anybody else’s arms with his. William Irving, the great-great-grandfather of Col. John Baufin Irving, the present holder of Bonshaw (1916), in 1698 married the eldest daughter of Lord Rollo, but did not quarter the royal arms with his, though other families who intermarried with the Irving Clan did quarter the Irving arms with theirs. In theBlack Douglas memorial window in Glasgow Cathedral the Irwin, Irvine, Irving and other ways of spelling the name, coat of arms—three holly leaves on a silver ground—is in the center. In the illustrated Pedigree of Erskine of Dun Forfarshire,  the Irving coat and crest are given...

Burke and Nisbet give Irving (Bonshaw), a family of great antiquity, which has possessed Bonshaw from the remotest period.

Argent, three holly leaves. Crest, a mailed hand grasping a bunch of seven holly leaves. Motto, Hand ullis labentia ventis. Translation of motto: Not wavering before any storm. Heraldic M. S. (James VI's reign).

In Gentlemen's Arms (during Charles I’s reign), Lindsay,                                                               Balfour, Porteous, etc., all give Irvine of Drum: Argent, three holly leaves.  Here there are three small bundles of holly each, consisting of as many leaves, slipped vent, banded gules (so registered 1672-1678), with crest, a bundle of nine holly leaves. Motto: ‘Sub sole sub umbra virtus,’ and two savages, wreathed about the head and middle with holly, holding a baton in each hand, all proper, as supporters. Translation of motto: Thriving under sun and shade…' '...The Irvings of Drum are a very ancient branch of the Bonshaw family. Sir Robert de Brus, heritable Lord of Annandale and keeper of Lochmaben Castle, flying from the pursuit of Edward Longshanks, came one stormy night to the Bonshaw tower, where he was hospitably entertained. He took a younger son of the family, Sir William of Woodhouse, to be his secretary and companion. As a reward for his services, the King, when seated on the throne, conferred upon him the lands of the forest of Drum, and the pricking bay tree, or holly, for his armorial bearings, with the motto, Sub sole sub umbra virens,’ which, when translated, reads, Thriving under sun and shade.’ It is said the motto was one the King himself had assumed during the period he contended for the crown..."

Though heraldry is nearly nine hundred years old, it is still very much in use. Many cities and towns in Europe and around the world still make use of arms. Personal heraldry, both legally protected and lawfully assumed, has continued to be used around the world. Heraldic societies thrive to promote understanding of and education about the subject.

Many people have the same question about heraldry: "My name is Smith, what is my coat of arms?”

The short answer is: there is no one coat of arms for Smith, and having the same name as some Smith family whose arms you have seen in a book or a mall heraldry store does not mean that you can use them. If you want to make sure that those arms are those of your ancestors you need to find a genealogical link between you and that family.

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The next most-popular question:

Is there a Web site of FTP site where I can look for my arms?

The answer is no. No one has compiled all, or even the main armories into a scholarly database; and if anyone had, it is understandable that they would be reluctant to provide the fruits of so much effort for free. If you want to look for arms born by families with the same name as yours you should go to a library and consult armories.

Another one is:

What is the meaning of a specific coat of arms?

The general answer is either “Nothing,” or “It’s hard to tell.” There are a number of exceptions.  Some symbolism was attached to various charges at different times, but it is nearly impossible to say if the person who originally composed the arms had such symbolism in mind. A complete explanation of heraldry, and what the various symbolic figures and designs mean, can be found on the Internet at:


For those who would like to learn a little more—or a lot—about heraldry, the Internet is the place to go. It’s easy… just type “heraldry” into your search engine and see what comes up. It will take you days to absorb it all.