The date and manner of the origin of coats of arms, often called family crests, has been a matter of much speculation. There is no evidence of coats of arms being present at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, nor were family crests apparent by the beginning of the twelfth century.
However, in the 13th century, coats of arms were used throughout Europe and the whole 'science' of heraldry - its rules and terms - had been established. During this time the Crusades undoubtedly helped spread the use of coats of arms.
Various suggestions have been put forward regarding the origin of coats of arms, for example: shields, banners, tabards and possibly the use of seals. Probably, once a design had been adapted, it would have been put to many personal items at the same time. To qualify as a coat of arms, a design must be capable of being depicted on a shield, but the name 'coat of arms' is derived from the linen tabard which was worn over the armour and upon which the design was shown.
It was in battle that the need for armorial bearings arose. In times of warfare it was the nobility, the land-owners, who were called upon for leadership, and each landowner would control his small group of illiterate men in battle. With the helmet of a suit of armour closed in battle it would have been difficult to identify the man inside, hence the distinctive coat of arms or family crest pictured on a shield and embroidered tabard became essential, the latter giving rise to the name ‘coat of arms’.
Armorial devices were the prerogative of the upper class. In early times even land could not pass from one person to another without the license of the king, and the sovereign was also involved in the granting of coats of arms. However, pretty soon other families in what might be called the middle classes started displaying their own coats of arms, although 'heralds' and other officers of the government tried in vain to keep the use of coats of arms confined to a privileged few. Today many homes display shields with the family coat of arms, the shields are smaller than those that used to hang in the baronial halls – but so are modern houses!