The Cambridge University Heraldic & Genealogical Society

What is heraldry and why might it interest me?

Heraldry is the study of things like this:

Cambridge Manchester Nottingham

These are coats of arms and can be described precisely – but no more precisely than necessary – in a language called blazon. People have coats of arms and organisations have coats of arms. Different members of a family have coats of arms which are based on that of the head of the family but “differenced” in some way by the addition of extra symbols. Different branches use variants of the main coat of arms in which, perhaps, the colours have been re-arranged.

Heraldry has many different aspects:

  1. Historical – Obviously… heraldry has been around for about 700 years.
  2. Genealogical – Coats of arms are passed down from one head of a family to the next; relatives use variants. Heraldry can therefore give clues about hitherto unsuspected relationships between individuals.
  3. Antiquarian – Heraldry is found in churches, on memorials, portraits, silver, china, … It can often give a clue to the age of such items and the circumstances of manufacture. (An interesting novel with this as an integral part of the plot is The Nebuly Coat by J. Meade Faulkner.)
  4. Art and Design – As noted above, a coat of arms is specified by its description only. Therefore, different artists can interpret the same coat of arms in very different ways. This is particularly obvious when making comparisons over long periods of time. In this respect, heraldry should be compared and contrasted with the modern practice of using “logos”. Anyone who has ever had anything to do with logos knows that every single aspect of these (size, aspect ratio, colour, occasions for use …) is defined rigidly and can never be altered. Heraldry is a living art; logos constitute a sterile one.
  5. Scientific – Heraldry has its own language with a well defined syntax. Scientists often find this fascinating – so much so that pieces of software have been written to interpret a written blazon or to translate the blazon between different languages.

In practice, these aspects are so closely interconnected that many people see that as another attraction in its own right.

The Society has a good library of heraldic texts so if you would like to find out more about heraldry but don’t want to buy a book it is far cheaper to join the Society and take advantage of its library.

P.S. What are the above coats of arms? Clue – they are all of British universities.