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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree August 2018 > Discover the history in heraldry A beg inner’s guide

Discover the history in heraldry A beg inner’s guide

Steeped in the glamour of the age of chivalry, coats of arms served a practical purpose for our ancestors on the battle field, identifying friend from foe. Today, as family historians, we can put them to good use too, to discover the clues about the past that are encapsulated in these historic emblems. Genealogist Chris Paton explains the origins and value of coats of arms in your research…


To commemorate the recent royal wedding, the College of Arms in London granted Meghan Markle a coat of arms in honour of her new status as a duchess. It was full of symbolism, with the colour blue representing the Pacific Ocean, rays to symbolise sunshine, and three quills to symbolise the power of communication. On either side of the shield depicting this are found a songbird to represent the duchess, and a lion to represent her husband’s lineage. It was a flamboyant ceremonial gesture in an era where such items have perhaps long passed any serious functional use.

While coats of arms are not a common tradition any more for most people, however, historically they can help to unlock many ancestral lineages, in some cases back to medieval times. But what exactly is a coat of arms, how is it constructed, and how can they help with our family history research?

Learn how to decode coats of arms

The original brand labels

Coats of arms, also known as ‘heraldic achievements’, were a branding device used initially from medieval times to help distinguish friends from foes in battle, before the practice became much more stylised and widespread in use within the aristocracy and civic society.

The initial coat of arms was a colourful jacket or tabard worn over chain mail armour, but soon evolved into a shield carrying pictorial features that would identify an individual. As the practice of heraldry spread beyond the battlefield, the image of such a shield, accompanied by ‘supporters’ on either side, a helmet and crest on top, with a slogan or motto, became the graphic design element of its day, a personalised logo marking out an individual very much with his or her own brand (and later, corporations).

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What did your ancestors do for a job? Were they an apprentice? Did they take the King’s Shilling? Or work down the mine? What were the opportunities available to them, and what were the very real hazards of the work they did all day? This issue we’re exploring those employment records that can help you find out more about your ancestors’ work in times gone by. Discovering the history of your ancestors’ employment will give you invaluable insights into the lives they led. What they earned, and how they earned it, will shed light on their income and lifestyle, the communities they lived in, and the roof over their heads. Investigate their work; understand their lives… We have all the info you need to help you do this.