College of Arms
College of Arms
The College of Arms grants new coats of arms, keeps records of arms, genealogies, flags, changes of names, and royal licenses. Though the heralds do have purely ceremonial duties, they also act as a source of knowledge and advice on the peerage, matters of precedence and honours, and the use of symbols on both personal and civic flags.


Heralds traditionally had the duty of running tournaments, which involved organising jousts, acting as a master of ceremony for the event, and keeping score. From this, they evolved to become experts in armorial symbols worn by contestants, and then to actually recording and controlling the use of those symbols. That last task involved becoming experts in genealogy, so they could determine who was related to who, and thus who was entitled to use a specific symbol.

Heralds became part of the royal household in the 13th century and by 1420 were granted their own seal. In 1484 Richard III granted the heralds a charter of incorporation and gave them a building on Upper Thames Street where they could hold their records. Henry VII seized that building when he took the throne from Richard, and it was not until the reign of Queen Mary that the heralds were given a new royal charter and a new headquarters. Their new building was called Derby Place but this burned down in the Great Fire of London.

The current brick building was erected in its place in the 1670s to a design by Francis Sandford and Morris Emmett, the royal bricklayer. The hall, known as the Earl Marshal's Court, is regularly open to the public.

Though the military functions of the College of Arms have diminished, the College frequently is called on to investigate the rights of individuals to use heraldic symbols.

One of the most interesting exhibits at the College of Arms is a collection of artefacts associated with the Battle of Flodden in 1513. There is a sword, dagger, and ring said to have been taken from the body of James IV of Scotland by Thomas Howard, Duke of Surrey. The Howard coat of arms recalls this event, with a symbol showing the royal coat of arms of Scotland with the Scottish lion cut off at the waist and hit by an arrow. Unfortunately for the Howards and the College, experts concur that the three artefacts date from the late 16th century, many years after the Battle of Flodden!

What is a family coat of arms?

Well, let's start by clearing up a common misconception. There is no such thing as a general coat of arms for a family name. Coats of arms are awarded to individuals and families. So, for example, if your family name is Alleyn, that does not mean that you have a coat of arms simply because you have the same name as someone with the Alleyn surname who does have a coat of arms. Or, to put it another way, if you or your ancestors were not awarded a coat of arms, you don't have one simply because of your surname!