What is the College of Arms and what do they do?
The College of Arms is the corporation of heralds for England, Wales and Northern Ireland (in Scotland, the Lord Lyon fulfills a similar role). There are thirteen ‘heralds in ordinary’/officers of arms in total – Garter King of Arms (the senior officer), the two provincial Kings of Arms (Clarenceux, and Norroy and Ulster), six heralds, and four pursuivants. They oversee the issue of coats of arms, and provide guidance on heraldic matters ie: orders of precedence, protocols around the use of arms/standards/banners/flags, correct usage of titles etc. The officers also play a ceremonial role in events such as the annual Garter Service and the State Opening of Parliament, they play a role in the organisation of coronations and royal funerals.
The officers of arms are all part of the Royal Household and receive a nominal (sub £50!) yearly salary from the Crown. Garter King of Arms is also paid for advising the government and Royal Household on heraldic matters, but the bulk of their income comes from private heraldic and genealogical work.
Where did heralds and the College of Arms come from?
In the medieval period, heralds were employed in the households of individual noblemen and the Royal household. They were used to carry messages, for example between armies – in the run-up to the battle of Flodden in 1513, heralds carried messages from James IV of Scotland to Thomas Howard and vice versa. At Flodden, there were concerns that the Scottish herald should be kept away from the main camp in case he reported back to his King on the English army, suggesting that heralds were expected to carry out some basic spying.
Another primary function of the heralds was promoting and organising tournaments – as a result they developed an in-depth knowledge of the coats of arms and crests borne by the knights participating in the tournaments. This expertise made it logical for them to become responsible for heraldic matters, a function that they retained as their other roles became redundant.
In 1484, Richard III granted the royal heralds a charter of incorporation and a property (though the house was taken away from them following the Battle of Bosworth) beginning the process of creating the College of Arms. Under Henry VIII heraldic visitations were introduced, whereby the heralds could investigate illegal uses of arms. Also during his reign, the dissolution of the monasteries, meant that the College of Arms increasingly held the genealogical records that had been kept by monasteries. A new charter was granted to the College of Arms in 1555 by Mary I. By the late-16th century, the heralds were under the supervision of the Earl Marshal and, in Elizabeth I’s reign, the then Earl Marshal, Thomas Howard 4th duke of Norfolk, was responsible for refining the structure and function of the College through a series of new ordinances.