Coats-of-Arms: Where did they come from and why?

The following is a guest blog from a contributor to the Coat of Arms Database. For more information, please read below.

A surprising number of us have at least one noble ancestor.

Actually, this shouldn’t be surprising. There was only so much land to go around, so over the centuries, some family lines quietly slipped down the social scale. More significantly, male aristocrats were the rock stars of their day. Up until Victorian times, great houses considered children born “on the wrong side of the sheet” to be an asset rather than a liability – it’s handy to have family members who aren’t in the line of succession and yet owe everything to the family.

When we think of noble ancestors, we think of “family crests”, by which we usually mean what are, technically speaking, “the coats-of-arms belonging to our ancestors”. We use the term “heraldry” both as a catch-all-for coats-of-arms – as in, “tell me about that lord’s heraldry” – and to refer to the “Science of Heraldry”, that is the ancient body of rules governing and describing such coats-of-arms.

Nobody really knows where coats-of-arms came from. They first appeared in recognisable form between the First Crusade (1095-99) and Second Crusade (1147-49). Naturally, there’s a theory that they developed in the Holy Land when knights learned to use surcoats to cover their mail armour against the sun, and then started adopting distinctive patterns – a bit like the way Scottish tartan came to indicate specific clans.

Certainly, it’s true that some of heraldry’s technical terms are Arabic in origin. For example, Azure (“blue”) comes from the word azraq, and Checky (“checked”) from shatranj. And the first recognised coat-of-arms in France belonged to the Count of Toulouse and incorporated a Cross of Constantine in reference to… well, really very complicated Crusader history. (Go read Harold Lamb’s Iron Men and Saints for a gripping retelling.)

However, this can’t be the whole story. Much of Spain belonged to the Islamic Moors who were as likely to be allied with their Christian neighbours as to be engaged in battling them. Also, you don’t need to be on crusade to feel the heat! Most European military campaigns would take place in summer, and armour can be unbearably hot almost anywhere.  (I’ve seen a helmet raise steam from damp grass on a summer’s day in an English field.)

So the cultural influence, and that baking hot sun, may well have been much closer to home.

Why coats-of-arms appeared when they did, is not entirely obvious.

It’s commonly said coats-of-arms were a response to the adoption of full-faced helmets: you needed to know who was behind the metal mask. However, full-faced helmets didn’t actually become standard until well into the 13th century, after coats-of-arms were in common use. Conversely, helmets have always made faces harder to recognise, especially in combat when the adrenalin is pumping. No surprise then that coloured flags and distinctive shield patterns probably long-predate heraldry. So, though coats-of-arms must have been vital recognition aids in medieval battles, they must have been more than just a practical response to an age old problem.

It’s also sometimes said that the crusaders learned to use heraldry from their Islamic foes. However, though the influence is obviously there (see above), there was nothing sudden about the contact with the Islamic world. The Moors were in Spain from the 8th century and the Arabs in Sicily from the 7th!

Probably the best explanation for the development and formalisation of heraldry is that it resulted from a combination of conditions in the 12th century.

Trade and hence the economy was picking up and aristocratic material culture became more complex and much richer, which is the academic way of saying, “Rich people had more spending power, and there was more stuff for them to buy”.  There was more opportunity, and more need, to show off wealth and status through wearing fine fabrics, and fine fabrics lent themselves to distinctive designs. This economic advancement, plus friendly contact with Islamic Spain, powered something which modern scholars call the 12th Century Renaissance, meaning there were literate thinkers around to create and write down systems governing Heraldry as it emerged.

Meanwhile, knights and nobility had merged into an exclusive (mostly) hereditary class. At the time of the First Crusade, knights were really just professional heavy cavalry with a rough and ready warrior ethos, and noble status might be hereditary, but land and title were often not. Half a century later, by the time of the Second Crusade, thanks to the civilising efforts of both court ladies and the church, knighthood had become glamorous vocation, available only to aristocrats, and most male nobles were also knights. Noble titles had also become firmly hereditary. Coats-of-arms seem to have evolved as a badge of aristocratic status, especially important in battles because they indicated that it was worth sparing the bearer’s life in the hope of extracting a ransom. In addition, they served like modern commercial branding, both for the powerful noble wanting to be visibly powerful, and for the young knight trying to make his mark

When such a knight was trying to make his mark, it was more often than not in the field of tourney rather than war. 12th century tournaments were chaotic armoured brawls with teams that could number in hundreds. Like in battles, a defeated knight would be held for ransom. Unlike in battles, there was a civilian audience, so visual recognition of individual knights as opposed to teams was critical to careers and reputation.

Sometimes this had its downside. Sir William the Marshal, veteran tournament ace, was a magnet for ambitious young blades, even when his teammate was the heir to the throne of England and worth a much more significant ransom. On one occasion, the Marshal was voted the day’s best knight. However, it took a while to find him and give him his prize because he was in a blacksmith’s workshop, head on an anvil, having his battered and caved-in helmet torn off his head in strips

So coats-of-arms may look bright and pretty. However, when one catches your eye, remember that they have their origins in the sweat and dust of battle and tournament, and that some of them started out much like the colourful paint schemes adopted by World War One fighter aces…

Jack Turton is an English contributor to the Coat of Arms Database His ancestors plied their longbows in the service of Henry the Fifth. 

[Editor’s Note] The work they do at COAD is quite incredible. Check out an example of their work here:]


For a long time, I have been kicking around the idea of writing something about the history of money. Money is something seldom understood yet politicized in America. Most everybody does not understand debt, inflation, Monetary Policy, etc. but it never stops them from having an opinion. Recently, some have been beating the drum for the Gold Standard – a fool hearty idea, to say the least (more on that later).

Before I expound on these ideas, here is a fun little infographic on money. Hat tip to Kate at Ghergich & Co. for sending me this!

A History of U.S. Money

An infographic from the team at the Quicken Loans Zing Blog.

The Sixth Amendment and the Right to an Attorney

Clarence Earl Gideon - petty thief and famous Supreme Court plantiff in Gideon v. Wainwright

Clarence Earl Gideon – petty thief and famous Supreme Court plantiff in Gideon v. Wainwright

After the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, the first ten amendments to the Constitution became law.  Over the years, it has been the task of the federal courts (most notably the Supreme Court) to determine how to interpret the rights and protections inherent in the Bill of Rights. The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees, “In criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right… to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” [1] What that guarantee means has evolved over the years as the Supreme Court has evaluated cases relating to this particular clause of the Sixth Amendment.

Linda Monk wrote, “The right to counsel is the most important in the Sixth Amendment, because without it the defendant is unable to assert any other rights he has.  It is almost impossible for a layperson to navigate the complicated legal system alone.”[2]  The right to counsel is a commonly known right guaranteed by the first ten amendments, as this right is often referenced on television courtroom and law dramas in the reading of the Miranda Rights to suspected criminals.  While the Sixth Amendment has been unchanged since 1791, our interpretation of the right to counsel has changed considerably.

Originally, the right to counsel was interpreted to mean that you had the right to pay an attorney to be present at trial, leaving those who could not afford an attorney unable to execute such privilege.[3] Programs to help the poor accused of crimes were implemented in cities across the country, but were largely voluntary and very limited – less than three percent of the nation’s counties even had public defender programs before 1963.[4]   Even if one were lucky enough to have free or pro bono counsel, often such counsel lacked quality or a commitment to defending the accused.  In 1930, the Cook County’s public defender’s office described its purpose as “to assist the court and to expedite guilty pleas.”[5]  While some indigent defendants would have the benefit of counsel in criminal cases, the quality and quantity of public defenders were certainly lacking in the early 20th Century.
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History of Drinking in America: Part Five

An Anti-Saloon League poster promoting the cause of prohibition.

An Anti-Saloon League poster promoting the cause of prohibition.

This is fifth and final post in a series recounting the history of drinking in America leading up to Prohibition.  While we hear a lot about the consumption of alcohol during Prohibition, seldom discussed is the importance of alcohol (and its consumption) at earlier dates in American history.  This research was very interesting and I hope you enjoy it! 

Read part one here.

Read part two here.

Read part three here.

Read part four here.

Attempts to pass a prohibition amendment in the United States Congress began in 1876.  In the 1880s, several states created laws restricting or outlawing liquor.  With the launch of the Progressive Movement at the turn of the century, alcohol and its influences became incorporated with their goal to purify society, enfranchise women, and reform the machine politics of years past.  Around the same time, a powerful political group known as the Anti-Saloon league was born.  Unlike the WCTU which was a broad reform group, the Anti-Saloon League had only one purpose: the prohibition of all intoxicating liquors in America.

The WCTU had successfully educated several generations on the dangers of alcohol, while also tying the rights of women and the right to vote to prohibition.  Progressives soon joined the cause of prohibition as well, under the ideology that going dry would solve both political corruption and urban poverty.  As Progressives, the WCTU, Prohibition Party, and Anti-Saloon League warned of the scourge of alcohol, their message struck a chord with nativists and xenophobes who feared the impact of changing urban demographics that had begun in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century.  Temperence and Prohibition advocates “were disproportionately rural white Protestants of northern European ethnic stock, and such reformers sometimes saw prohibition as a means of controlling or reforming Catholics, immigrants, African American and poor whites.”[1]  When the United States entered World War I in 1917, anti-German sentiment only furthered the cause of prohibitionists as many brewing companies were owned by German Americans.  By that time, twenty-three states had prohibition laws and many others had considered similar laws.  The American public was turning against alcohol.  In an interesting irony, radical WCTU member Carrie Nation (who had previously lost a husband due to drink) received hundreds of supporters while she toured Kansas staging ‘hatchetation,’ which vandalized bars and smashed liquor bottles.  Though she created thousands of dollars of damage to businesses, Nation was never tried of any major crimes. Continue reading

History of Drinking in America: Part Four


A political cartoon featuring radical prohibitionist Carrie Nation, known for smashing up saloons with her hatchet.

This is part four in a series recounting the history of drinking in America leading up to Prohibition.  While we hear a lot about the consumption of alcohol during Prohibition, seldom discussed is the importance of alcohol (and its consumption) at earlier dates in American history.  This research was very interesting and I hope you enjoy it! 

Read part one here.

Read part two here.

Read part three here.

The Civil War and Reconstruction provided a lengthy respite for the temperance movement.  In the 1870s, the temperance movement experienced a revival that lasted until the Twentieth Century prohibition era.  Beginning in 1869, Russell’s National Prohibition Party became a force at both the National and State level.  However, it was the formation of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in Cleveland, Ohio that mobilized women to the temperance movement like never before.

The WCTU was inspired by a prominent doctor’s lectures on the dangers of alcohol.  After the lecture, women in New York and Ohio staged pray-ins and silent protests at various saloons in an effort to drive liquor out of their communities.  As the movement spread, their actions drove liquor out of 250 communities.[1]  Later that year, the WCTU was officially formed and held a national convention with the slogan “For the God and Home and Native Land.”  The WCTU’s interests were two fold – to eradicate drinking and to promote women’s rights and equality.  Behind the idea of protecting the home and improving society, the WCTU quickly became the largest woman’s group in the world.  At the time, women had little rights in America, even in cases of rape and spousal abuse.[2]  For the WCTU, the rights of women, protection of the family, and the evils of liquor went hand in hand.  “Women and children had often been victimized by drunken men; and the saloons where men had gathered were …vicious, corrupt dens.”[3]  The WCTU linked tobacco and alcohol use to problems with prostitution, labor, and various public health issues as well.  Selling women as ‘home protectors,’ the WCTU’s membership grew from 149,527 in 1890 and over 248,343 in 1910.[4]
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History of Drinking in America: Part Three


Lyman Beecher – American Temperance Society Co-founder

This is part three in a series recounting the history of drinking in America leading up to Prohibition.  While we hear a lot about the consumption of alcohol during Prohibition, seldom discussed is the importance of alcohol (and its consumption) at earlier dates in American history.  This research was very interesting and I hope you enjoy it! 

Read part one here.

Read Part two here.

While social historians point to the Jacksonian age as an influence on drinking – the messages self reliance, masculinity and rugged individualism seemed tailor made for  the hard drinker and distiller – drinking in America was also buoyed by European immigration and the growth of cities in pre-Civil War America.  From 1830 to 1860 two million Irish immigrated to the United States, bringing with them a culture of drinking and public house frequenting.[1]  Escaping political persecution and famine, these Irish settled mostly in busy Northern urban centers.  They often faced discrimination (both racial and religious due to their Catholicism), abject poverty, and dangerous factory work.  In an effort to connect their communities and escape their difficult living conditions, Irish men bonded together through social gatherings and drinking Irish whiskey.  “Faced with an openly hostile environment, and both unable and unwilling to Americanize, the immigrants seized upon drinking as a major symbol of ethnic loyalty.  That is they drank hard to assert their Irishness.”[2]  Visiting the public house for a drinking session also served another purpose.  By congregating among themselves, the Irish used the pub as a way to keep off the streets and out of trouble.  This cause was supported by Irish American leaders, who could use these visits to organize politically and pass out free drinks to elicit support.  While the Irish pub served its political purposes well (in cities like Boston, Chicago, and New York the Irish would wield considerable clout) )rter) it also lead to higher rates of inebriation and the pervasive stereotype of the ‘drunken Irishman’,

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History of Drinking in America: Part Two


A “woodcut” used by the Harrison/Tyler campaign in 1840.

This is part two in a series recounting the history of drinking in America leading up to Prohibition.  While we hear a lot about the consumption of alcohol during Prohibition, seldom discussed is the importance of alcohol (and its consumption) at earlier dates in American history.  This research was very interesting and I hope you enjoy it!  Read part one here.

Concerns about the wide spread use of alcohol in young America started taking form in religious circles.  Methodists and Quakers warned parishioners of the dangers of hard liquor to social order.  The Quaker Anthony Benezet, who founded the first anti-slavery society on the American Continent, called alcohol “The Great Destroyer” and warned of the medical and social problems associated with excessive drinking in a 1774 pamphlet .[1]  While many religious organizations saw nothing wrong with alcohol, stigma was attached to drinking too much. While moderate drinking was accepted, heavy drinking began to be regarded as a sin

The most influential figure in the early temperance movement was Dr. Benjamin Rush, who served as Surgeon General of the Continental Army and was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  In 1784, Dr. Rush published An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors upon the Human Body, and Their Influence upon the Happiness of Society.  In his pamphlet, Rush broke new ground, becoming one of the earliest people in the medical field to suggest that liquor broke down the body and helped produce both mental and physical illness.  Of equal concern, was Rush’s opinion that the continual drinking of liquor would result in the dissolution of government and the collective American spirit.  Rush called for government limitations on drink asking, “Should the customs of civilized life, preserve our nation for extinction, and, even from an increase of mortality, by these liquors; they cannot prevent our country being governed by men, chosen by intemperate and corrupted voters?”[2] Despite his condemnation of liquor, Rush did not admonish the drinking of all alcoholic beverages.  Whereas Rush believed hard liquors like rum, liquor, and gin were evil and Antifederal, he supported the consumption of cider and beer as “invaluable FEDERAL liquors’ which promoted cheerfulness and political stability.”[3]
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History of Drinking in America: Part One

old-beer-barrelThis is part one in a series recounting the history of drinking in America leading up to Prohibition.  While we hear a lot about the consumption of alcohol during Prohibition, seldom discussed is the importance of alcohol (and its consumption) at earlier dates in American history.  This research was very interesting and I hope you enjoy it!

The creation and consumption of alcohol has played an important and notable role in American life and politics.  In colonial America, the consumption and production of alcohol was a large part of daily life – dominating politics, economics, and social life.  The framers celebrated the completion of the Constitution with drink, and saloons served as political meeting places during the Jacksonian Era.  The production, sale, and consumption of alcohol in America was not without controversy.  While alcohol was celebrated by many, others believed it negatively impacted society.

The American passion and desire for drink is as old as the colonies themselves.  On the Mayflower, pilgrims drank barrel after barrel of beer, for a multitude of reasons.  Unlike water, beer could be barreled and kept at sea without spoiling.  In addition, prevailing ideas about alcohol in the Seventeenth Century lead many Europeans to drink for health reasons.  “A stiff drink warmed a person on cold nights and kept off chills and fevers; a few glasses made hard work easier to bear, aided digestion, and in general helped sustain constitution.  Abstinence invited trouble.”[1] 
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Lowering the Voting age and the 26th Amendment

ImageForty-two years ago, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.  This amendment ensures that both states and the federal government will not be allowed to raise the minimum voting age (thus guaranteeing 18 year old people the right to vote).  While some people may think that the 26th Amendment was the first and final step in lowering the voting age, in actuality the story of lowering the voting age is a bit more complicated than that.

When the Constitution was ratified in 1787, qualifications and voting eligibility rules were absent and reserved to the states.  In the early years of the Republic, most states had stringent voting requirements which excluded the majority of the populace from voting.  The early electorate was small and limited to adult white male landowners.  Throughout American history, voting rights have been expanded by both state and federal action, including prominent amendments to the Constitution.  “Of the 17 constitutional amendments passed since the Bill of Rights, five have focused on the expansion of the electorate.”[1]  The Jacksonian Revolution eliminated property requirements for white males, and subsequent amendments gave African-American males, women, and residents of the District of Colombia the right to vote.  In 1964, poll taxes were eliminated via the Twenty-fourth amendment, thereby ensuring impoverished Americans had an equal right to vote.

The Twenty-sixth Amendment (which is also the last amendment related to voting rights) was ratified four months after its 1971 proposal.  The Twenty-sixth Amendment ensured, “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State.”[2]   While such rapid ratification is unusual, recent historical events provide a clear explanation as to why such a sweeping change in both states rights and voting rights was approved with relative ease.
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Quick Post: Happy American Independence Day!

Boxing Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson, whose victory against a white opponent on July 4, 1910 would lead to race riots, resulting in 26 deaths.

Boxing Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson, whose victory on July 4, 1910 would lead to race riots, resulting in 26 deaths.

I would like to take the time out to thank all of you who have taken the time to read my articles and wish you all a fantastic holiday.  While most of you know that today was the day the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on 1776, I would like to share some interesting tidbits about July 4th.

1776 – Despite the fact that American Independence is celebrated on July 4th, John Adams thought that future generations would celebrate on July 2nd – the date the Continental Congress voted to sever its ties with Great Britain.  In a letter to his wife, Abigal, he wrote:   “The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.” Continue reading