How Did Heraldry Begin?
Heraldry began in Western Europe in the 12th Century as a system to enable the knights and nobles of medieval Christendom to be recognized in battle by symbols, called charges, on their shields. In time the symbols became hereditary and not only showed the owner’s ancestry but also identified his kin and followers.
Originally the main purpose of heraldry was to identify a noble when concealed in armour and to provide an emblem round which his followers could rally. But they were soon found useful on more peaceful occasions.
In medieval times when only clerks could read or write a personal device helped a nobleman to be recognized as a party to a document. His coat of arms flew from the tower of his castle to proclaim its ownership and was carved on his tomb to mark his final resting place. The earliest known coat of arms is that of Geoffrey of Anjou, son-in-law of Henry I of England, who received from the king a shield bearing upon it the device of six golden lions.
The medieval heralds also devised arms for various knights and lords from history and literature. Notable examples include the toads attributed to Pharamond, the cross and martlets of Edward the Confessor, and the various arms attributed to the Nine Worthies and the Knights of the Round Table. These too are now regarded as a fanciful invention, rather than evidence of the antiquity of heraldry.