Heraldry, which has been truly called "the shorthand of history," as a word at the present time carries a meaning rather different from that which it has conveyed at other periods - changing perhaps as the duties of a herald have been modified. As ordinarily used, it is intended to signify what is more definitely expressed by the word "armory," and it includes all matters relating to arms and crests or appertaining to an armorial achievement. But the regulation of armorial bearings is but a portion of the duties falling to the lot of the herald, for the science of heraldry really also concerns the marshalling of processions and conducting of the ceremonies of coronations, the installations, creation of peers, funerals and marriages, the declaration of war, and the proclamation of peace - and, during the Middle Ages, the bearing of letters and messages of courtesy and defiance between royal and knightly personages. Further, a herald was held responsible for the superintendence of trials by battle, tournaments, jousts, and such like encounters; and in the still earlier ages for the numbering of the dead after the conflict and the recording of the valiant deeds which had been performed were part of his work.
It is difficult - well-nigh impossible - to place a definite line between ornament pure and simple and heraldry; for the latter is simply the codification, as it were, of certain acknowledged forms of ornament and certain opportunities for the display of ornament and the combination and the usage of a combination of the two under certain known and acknowledged laws, originally self-apparent or legally imposed. The Japanese at the present day have their badges - well-known, simple, and hereditary - which have existed for centuries and which are now and have been always displayed in a manner very similar to the usage of such ornaments in the Tudor days. In Hindustan it is easy to assimilate the hereditary symbols with Western ideas and heraldic laws. Even among the North American Indians tribal "totems" have an acknowledged existence and an appreciable value.
All such marks are borne for the purposes of distinction in one or the other meaning of the word, more frequently in both of its meanings. That such symbols should from the far remote ages have been placed upon the shield which was carried in battle is easy enough to understand; for a man's weapons and his armour were his most cherished possessions; he loved them, he decorated and took care of them. He placed strengthening bars of wood or metal across them in various positions and he painted these of a different colour, or polished them into prominence. And from, this simple reason have been evolved the fesse, the pale, the chief, the bend, the chevron, and those, other familiar figures which are known as the ordinaries and siibordinarics. Over all, or conveniently placed and disposed in relation to his strengthening bars, he painted his favourite "devise" or "connoissance," and such is the origin of the coat-of-arms - the "ecusson" or escutcheon of later days. For such devices being very early used to decorate the shields, a practice known to the Greeks of old, and possibly pointing back even to totemism (q.v.), the term "arms" was soon applied to them, and the expression he "bears" such and such arms soon came into use. In the thirteenth century it became usual to embroider the "arms "upon the surcoat which was worn, over the coat-of-mail, and the former consequently became a "coat-of-arms," hence the latter term.
The date of the resolution of heraldry into a science has yet to be discovered. Emblems or figures - call them what you will save arms - undoubtedly appeared upon the shields of the Normans as figured in the famous tapestry of Bayeux, but it requires a stretch of diction and imagination to admit these as arms: and no mention which can be so construed is to be found of the heraldic decoration of shields in any of the minute and detailed accounts of the First Crusade. Their existence at the time of the second can hardly be taken as an indisputable-fact; but before the third, armorial bearings were in accepted and very general usage throughout Europe.
Very soon after their introduction arms became hereditary, and the reason is not far to seek. The son inherited his father's lands and responsibilities, he espoused his father's quarrels and was proud to use the weapons his father had fought with. Thus it was general for the son to carry a similar shield.
And one of the earliest - perhaps the earliest - of heraldic laws is one which points to a keener appreciation of art and colour on the part of our early progenitors than we may be inclined to give them credit for. Drawing-masters of to-day point out the necessity of contrast to show up the various colours, e.g. that a red band across a blue background is not so brilliant as across a white one, and that by placing white spaces between the blue and the red the brilliance of both is heightened. And this same idea will account for the said law in heraldry that neither colour may lie upon colour nor metal upon metal. For heraldry knows but two metals "or" and "argent" (gold or yellow and silver or white), whilst the coiours ordinarily in use are "gules," "azure" "vert," "sable," and "purpure" (viz. red, blue, green, black and purple). Furs, which are always mixtures of metal and colour, may be surmounted by either but not by another fur.
One of the greatest mistakes in the popular conception of heraldry, and one that has argued very fatally against that science, is to suppose that every charge upon a shield must have some legend connected with it, or that it is placed there to exhibit some positive meaning.
Undoubtedly some explanation is frequently forthcoming for the charges upon ancient and for a large number of the modern coats-of-arms; for a very large proportion of all coats-of-arms turn out upon investigation to be "canting" arms, as they are termed, which may be readily explained as containing some pun (frequently very far-fetched) or anagram relating to the names or estates of the first owner of the escutcheon. For instance, the water-bougets borne by Lord De Ros at the present day originated with the Trusbut family, whose heiress married a De Ros. The Trusbuts, Barons of Wartre in Holderness, bore arms in which the waterbougets were anciently blazoned (" to blazon" is to heraldically describe a coat-of-arms in words, and a "blazon" is such a description) "trois boutz d'eau," thereby punning both their own name and the name of their estates.
Still further, many Crusaders on their return from the Holy Land placed bezants, escallop-shells, crosses, palmer's staves, and Saracen's heads upon their shields; but it would be folly on that account to attempt to state that every person upon whose escutcheon a bezant or an escallop shell is placed had an ancestor in the Holy Wars. The Crusades originated undoubtedly an enormous proportion of the commonly accepted heraldic "charges"; but once originated they became common property so long as their arrangements upon the escutcheon when designing a new coat did not interfere with anyone else's arms.
Many fabulous animals exist in heraldry which have no place in natural history, e.g. the dragon, the wyvern, the cockatrice, the griffin, and the pegasus, but they can hardly be said to have originated in heraldry, though in one or two cases the ancient heraldic artists must certainly be held responsible for giving a definite form and semblance to unknown though accredited monsters; and the double-headed eagle undoubtedly and perhaps also the griffin, may trace an origin in the ancient manner of "impaling" two coati of arms by "dimidiation," i.e. by taking hal of each coat and placing them together. The present revival of the mediaeval style of draughts manship in treating heraldry has much helped tc preserve the antique forms of some of these chimerical conceptions.
Heraldry at the present day has been brought much into disrepute owing to the wholesale corruption of the art by advertising heraldic purveyors, and by the ignorant or wilful assumption oi armorial bearings by those utterly unentitled tc such distinction and by those who openly flout the authority of the officers of the Crown appointed to regulate such matters: for, "surely, even those who affect the greatest contempt for heraldry, will admit that, if arms are to be borne at all, it should be according to the Laws of Arms; and that if the display of them be but an empty vanity, it is a less creditable vanity to parade as our own those which belong of right to others." [Armorial Bearings.]