Heraldic type designs ~ decorative symbols used to signify the domain of a particular individual ~ were used in the ancient world by the Greeks and Romans. Military leaders equipped their armies with banners and shields on which heraldic type designs had been painted so that their troops would be able to identify their units from others. The earliest designs were mere symbols and devices by which the armies could be identified in the heat of battle, and carried none of the hereditary symbolism that heraldry would eventually come to encompass.
The first truly heraldic designs were created and became popular during the latter part of the 12th Century. Their use continued to grow through the 13th Century. And by the start of the 14th Century, they were a common thing among the nobility. The Roll of Carlaverock was a list of the knights and nobles of Edward I’s army that had laid siege to the castle of Carlaverock in Dumfriesshire in the year 1300 and included illustrations of the various heraldic designs then in use by those knights and nobles. By saying that the designs in use by the start of the 14th Century were the first ‘truly’ heraldic designs, I mean that by that time the privilege of the use of an heraldic achievement by a particular individual and his descendants had become somewhat formalized. Also, by the 14th Century, the terms used to describe heraldic design were on their way to being codified into a language.
Heraldry is not the sole property of the British Isles. Through the medieval and Renaissance periods, the art and science of heraldry developed at pretty much the same pace throughout Europe. Despite certain minor differences (such as the employment of written phrases (e.g. Ave Maria) directly on the escutcheon in Spanish achievements, the emphasis on mottoes in Scottish achievements, or the representation of the shield as hanging by a strap suspended from the helm in the Low Countries of the Netherlands), the basic rules of the art developed in practically the same manner throughout Europe and the Isles. A blazon created in England (assuming it is accurate) could easily be interpreted and reproduced by an heraldry artist in France, Germany, Holland or elsewhere and vice versa. For purposes of this website, in view of the fact that the site has been created for the Muirhead Clan Society, which is of Scottish origin, heraldry as practiced in the British Isles will be the focus.
The College of Arms of England was established during the early part of the 15th Century. It came into being through the creation of various royal positions over a period of time. Heralds were recognized as official spokesmen for certain of the noble families throughout the Isles as early as 1276 (ref: the Norroy King at Arms). In 1415 the office of Garter King at Arms was created by King Henry V. The Heralds were constituted as a corporation in 1484 by King Richard III. The charter was renewed in 1555 by Queen Mary and King Philip.
The College of Arms was, and still is, located at Derby House in London. In order to ensure that the records of the College would be maintained properly, a series of strict regulations were established by Thomas, 4th Duke of Norfolk, who was Queen Elizabeth I’s Earl Marshal, and a library was established in 1568. Despite some abuse, the library has been a functioning archive since that time.
As it stands at the present time, the College of Arms is composed of thirteen members: three Kings at Arms, six Heralds, and four Pursuivants. The Kings at Arms are subordinate to the Earl Marshal. Also participating in various ceremonial occasions, but not part of the corporation, are seven Extraordinaries. All of these individuals, corporation members or otherwise, are considered members of the Royal Household and are appointed by the Crown.
The Heralds perform a variety of ceremonial functions, in addition to the registration of arms. They serve as escorts for the Royal Family on state occasions and attend the opening of Parliament.
Heraldry may not be held in higher esteem and interest anywhere other than in Scotland. Heraldry is a great part of the national pride of Scotland. The Scots have possessed a deep seated interest in heraldry for a number of reasons, one of which is because it developed as a branch of the law. Another reason arises from the inherent link between the clan system in Scotland and the hereditary nature of heraldry: both of which are derived somewhat from the majority of the people’s lineage to the kings and queens of the early Picts and Scots.
The earliest reference to heraldic offices in Scotland dates to 1318, and refers to the Lord Lyon. Scottish heralds were mentioned in 1327 and 1333. Named for the ‘national escutcheon’, the office of Lord Lyon was instituted shortly before 1371 although the exact date is not known. In the Statute of 1592, the Lord Lyon was granted legislative powers to inspect the arms of all noblemen, barons and gentlemen "to put inhibition to all the common sort of people not worthy by the law of arms to bear any signs armorial." The Lord Lyon’s legal powers were more fully established in 1661 by an Act of the Parliament, but was repealed the following year.
The Public Register of all Arms and Bearings in Scotland was established by an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 1672. The Act included a provision by which the Lord Lyon was appointed to maintain the heraldic Register. Because of the importance of heraldic lineage to the clans, the Court of the Lord Lyon, sometimes referred to as the Lyon Court, was established to officiate over any disputes. Unlike England, in which the Kings at Arms are subordinate to another official (i.e. the Earl Marshal), the Lord Lyon is an officer of state himself; he is considered a Minister of the Crown. In addition, the Lord Lyon holds the position of a judge of the realm, and may exercise both civil and penal jurisdiction under Scottish common law.
Although there has never been a corporation of the Heralds and Pursuivants in Scotland as there is in England, the positions exist. There are three Heralds and three Pursuivants in addition to the Lord Lyon. (Prior to reforms instituted in 1867, there were twice the number.) A position of Lyon Clerk rounds out the heraldic body in Scotland.
Requests for arms to be granted are initially directed to the Lord Lyon King of Arms. As in a regular court of law, lawyers may plead a case before the Lord Lyon. If the request for a grant of arms is approved by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, it then is passed for approval to various other officials, until it is ultimately reviewed and approved by the monarch (i.e. currently, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth).
The Lord Lyon’s powers and duties include: 1.) The granting of arms to ‘virtuous and well-deserving persons’. 2.) The recording of genealogies. 3.) The assigning of differences to cadets of armigerous families. 4.) The determination of disputes between heraldic claimants. 5.) The recording of all arms used throughout the kingdom in the official Register. 6.) The publication of arms as necessary. 7.) The holding of court to determine unlawful use of arms, and the subsequent enforcement of penalties imposed upon unlawful users of arms.
The collection of heraldic registers and original documents maintained by the Lyon Court is not as great as that of the College of Heraldry in England. It has been claimed, though without substantiation, that Oliver Cromwell took possession of the majority of early documents and registers and conveyed them to London. Apparently, when they were being returned to Scotland, they were lost in transit.