There are many ideas and theories about the origin of coats of arms. One of the most widely accepted of these is the spread of armour, which made knights difficult to recognise each other in the medieval battlefields. This is how the colours, the patterns and later the coats of arms evolved. The shield, helmet and the ornament are a stylised illustration of a knight in an armour.
The science of heraldry has examined not only the appearance of the coat of arms, but also the way it is worn and the legitimacy of its use. While in the beginning, coats of arms were used at will, over time, as heraldry developed, cases of unauthorised use were sanctioned. Nowadays, this interpretation of the law is increasingly being forgotten, so I will try to summarise the most important rules of heraldry below.
In international noble societies, only those coats of arms are accepted that are legally worn by the person. There are several possible cases, but at least one of the following requirements must be met.
1. ROYAL DONATION
All monarchs have fons honorum by their sovereignty, so they are entitled to grant coats of arms. However, current practice shows that it is very rarely seen, just in the United Kingdom, Belgium and even more rarely in the Kingdom of Spain (but many coats of arms are registered by state heraldic offices, for example by the Collage of Arms in the UK).
2. DONATION OF A CHIVALRIC ORDER
The number of authentic knightly orders that have such a privilege is very limited. It is important to emphasise that those orders which are not headed by a crowned monarch can only have such right on the basis of their historical statute. This means that a chivalric order cannot change its statute to include new aspects in this area without a leader, who is currently in a soverign status.
3. STATE DONATION
The accepted form of granting a coat of arms is to receive it from a state office or from a professional herald appointed by the state.
Currently, several countries have heraldic offices, but not all of them have the right to grant coats of arms. There are also some countries where the right is granted to the office, but only with the personal approval of the President of the Republic (Moldova). In many cases, the applicant must be a citizen of the country of origin, e.g. the most prestigious heraldic office, the Collage of Arms in the United Kingdom, only grants arms to Commonwealth citizens, as do the Swedish, Scottish and Canadian offices. Of course, there are exceptions to this, and I myself received a grant of arms from the Ministry of the Interior of another European state, which I have appreciated so much.
4. INHERITANCE ON THE DIRECT AND LEGITIMATE PATERNAL LINE
When a person receives a nobility by military or civilian merit, the nobility usually includes a coat of arms, which is granted not only to the individual who has made the merit but also to his descendants (if the type of nobility is hereditary). Regardless of the fact that a family has not used its coat of arms for centuries, a descendant in the line of descent is still entitled to bear it.
5. SPECIAL CASES
When a person is a member of an authentic chivalric order, he or she can use the coat of arms of the order and add decorations appropriate to his or her rank. However, this use of the coat of arms is not a hereditary right, even in the case of hereditary chivalric knighthoods. It is also accepted that within a family, a wife may wear the family coat of arms of her husband.
Crown and helmet
In all cases, the ranking parts of the coat of arms must also be respected. The most obvious element is the rank crown, the rules vary from nation to nation. In Hungary, nobles may display eight pearl crowns, barons twelve and counts sixteen.
While the nobility and gentry, with minor differences, use almost the same rank coronets in Europe, the rank coronet of knights varies widely. This is due to the grading of knighthood: some cases it is below common nobility and in others between common nobility and barons. For this reason, the hereditary knights usually wear a wreath at the top of the helmet, but in some countries they may wear a coronet with four or eight gems.
The helmet itself is a rank-marking instrument, especially in Western heraldry. burgher arms always show a closed helmet without a crown, while noble coats of arms show both closed and open helmets. Two or more helmets may be used only in justified cases.
Persons with a noble coat of arms who hold offices in orders of chivalry can usually also decorate their coat of arms with insignia.
According to the hierarchy of the orders, the Knight wears the insignia of the Order on a ribbon below the shield, the Commander on the lower third of the shield and the Grand Cross from the top of the shield. The arms of the members of the Council are encircled by the collar of the Order. The decorations are not hereditary, belong only to the person who has obtained the office or rank.
The heraldic representation is unique to each order of chivalry, but it is generally true that the family coat of arms is placed in front of the order's coat of arms. There are also individual cases where the order's blazon appears within the family coat of arms (e.g. the Order of the Holy Sepulchre). An example of such individual cases is the Hungarian-founded Dragon Society, whose members used their coat of arms surrounded by a stylised dragon motif.
There are also designs that are similar in appearance and design to historical coats of arms, but which do not meet the above requirements in terms of their legal status, because they were not granted by a monarch, a chivalric order or a state office.
These include cases where a person uses a coat of arms of their own will. This may be a newly designed coat of arms, but also includes authentic arms from the maternal-grandmotherly line, as this right is only inherited through a direct and legitimate paternal line.
A common case is the so-called heraldic registers, or coats of arms "registered" by heraldic societies. As associations do not have the right to grant heraldic titles, these registrations cannot be considered legitimate. Whether or not the coat of arms was professionally designed or created by a recognised heraldist does not confer the right to use it.
Finally, it is worth mentioning the recent practice of a dethroned monarchy donating coats of arms. These cases are less frequent and are linked to the former ruling dynasties of Asia and Africa. Many experts take the view that these are 'private' donations and as such are not significant. However, if historical tradition and legality are taken as a basis, not only their significance, but also their legality is questionable. It is no coincidence that we do not find such examples in the monarchies of Europe.
Szilárd F. Kökényessy