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Heraldry is the way in which families and knights could be identified through the use of symbols and signs, either on banners, shields or seals. By creating crests and coats of arms warriors could be identified on the battlefield when encased in armour and people could be seen as part of a family. It is a colourful way of identification full of meaning which has evolved over hundreds of years and is still used today.
One of the first really detailed examples of Heraldry is huge historical artefact known as The Bayeux Tapestry, which shows William the Conquer defeating Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It is alive with information and shows designs of shields and flags providing a vivid and detailed picture eleventh century warfare. But the same knights were seen carrying different banners or sporting other shields and so perhaps these symbols were not their own.
It is believed that Heraldry as a recorder and symbol of someone’s status and history began after the Battle of Hastings, although it was plain to see its foundation in this early art, because it was difficult to assign symbols to particular knights and families. It is said though that many nations had begun to adopt symbolic heritage and that an ordered structure of recording this would soon emerge.
The first truly heraldic forms appeared in England during the reign of Henry I (1068-1135). During this period there were many feuding powers as they struggled to take control and this needed some form of identification and so illustrations of early heraldry emerged to represent these new powers. An early manuscript shows a shield with upraised swords with a bear surrounded by geometric and angular patterns and demonstrated a powerful stand against authority.
Not long after this the male members of the nobility of Europe were started putting symbols on their shields that were known as "charges” which represented their families. These symbols were also put on seals and banners. Images and paintings began to show knights with these symbols and so they became familiar. This was now becoming its own language, a way of identifying families and individuals that we now know as heraldry.
Rolls of Arms
With this sequence of events coming together to create the science of heraldry a new job emerged to protect its place in society. The Herald was a person who worked for a family or group and made a detailed record of their family symbols and therefore their history. Heraldry was now an important means to prove your blood line and to whom you were related. These documents were known as the “rolls of arms” and were often carefully drawn to show the arms and strengths of the power concerned.
These important documents were used for many events such as Tournaments where knights fought for glory and in land disputes where family lines held up their claims. This also meant that clear land boundaries were forged and countries and counties more defined. It is believed that heralds had contact with each other and shared knowledge, in a way negotiating the truth.
Armour and Tournaments
With more and more tournaments and the advances in armour design the knight was soon able to protect his face with well armoured helmets. This meant that his face was covered and so gave rise to the need to identifying symbols. This aspect also worked alongside, and was incorporated into, the Heraldry system.
With knights encased in armour, it was clear that symbols on the armour would be both useful to their enemies and their allies. The armour and the need to identify the wearer were therefore directly involved with how heraldry evolved.