Perhaps one of the most enduring aspects of Medieval England is heraldry. Though it started in the 12th century, coats of arms and other forms of heraldry go on to be used even today, be it by religious and educational institutions, by countries, and the royal family and has become a key part of our history.
The concept of heraldry started around 900 years ago. A heraldic device was mainly used so that knights could be spotted in battle, something that their full suit of armour often stopped from happening. For a knight, recognition by the King was vital, especially since the knight’s worth would be measured by his valour on the battlefield. Once a heraldic device was given to a knight or lord, it became family property and would be passed from father to son, thus protecting the family’s reputation for many generations to come.
Any individual knight not only had a shield with his heraldic badge on – the same pattern would be found on his banners, the coverings of his horse and on his surcoat that covered his body armour. The phrase ‘coat of arms’ came from this idea of having your heraldic device/pattern on your surcoat. Knights also took to wearing a crest on top of their helmets.
A heraldic device became part of a family and a father who had impressed in battle would pass on to his sons the same heraldic pattern. In this way a family’s reputation was maintained.
But a heraldic shield was not only the preserve of fighting noblemen. Other people such as churchmen, lawyers, lord mayors etc all wanted a heraldic device as a statement of who they had become in society. Towns of importance and medieval guilds also wanted a heraldic device for the same reason.
Heraldry in the European tradition came to Canada with the voyages of the French and English explorers in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Canada is also lucky to possess two great symbolic traditions, those of its native peoples and those brought by immigrants from all over the world.
Until heraldry was patriated to Canada, Canadians who wanted to acquire arms from a lawfully established authority under the Crown were bound to apply to one of Her Majesty's two heraldic offices in the United Kingdom: the College of Arms in London or the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh.
In 1947, the Letters Patent defining the authority of the Governor General expressly permitted the Governor General to exercise all the prerogatives, powers and authorities that His Majesty George VI held as King of Canada.
Clearly, it was time to create an indigenous Canadian mechanism for granting arms to Canadians and for promoting Canadian heraldic symbols. Therefore, on June 4, 1988, then Governor General Jeanne Sauvé enabled the creation of the Canadian Heraldic Authority. This was made possible by new Letters Patent, signed by Her Majesty on the advice of Her Canadian Privy Council, which authorized and empowered "the Governor General of Canada to exercise or provide for the exercise of all powers and authorities lawfully belonging to Us as Queen of Canada in respect of the granting of armorial bearings in Canada". With these brief historic notes, Canada became the first Commonwealth country to patriate the practice of this ancient authority.