The Crown awards the right to use coat of arms to a person who performs a heroic deed, makes a notable achievement, or holds a prominent position. Such grants are recorded by representatives of the Crown called King’s heralds, who house their records at:
College of Arms
Queen Victoria Street
London EC4V 4BT
In the 16th and 17th centuries, heralds visited all parts of England to discover who was using coats of arms and the title of Gentleman, Esquire, or Knight. They asked for proof of the right to use such coats of arms or titles. These proofs often included documentation of male descent from the original grantee. Heraldic visitations are records of these visits (see England Nobility).
Heralds developed terms to describe the records they kept. To understand a coat of arms, you need to understand the terms used by the heralds. Many books define heraldic terms. Look in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
ENGLAND - HERALDRY
GREAT BRITAIN - HERALDRY
One such book is:
Lynch-Robinson, Sir Christopher, and Adrian Lynch-Robinson. Intelligible Heraldry. Baltimore, Maryland: Heraldic Book Company, 1967. (FHL 942 D24Ly.) This is a good basic explanation of heraldic symbols and heraldry.
There are two kinds of books that describe a coat of arms. "Armorials" are alphabetical lists of names with a description, or "blazon," of the arms. "Ordinaries" are similar books that describe coats of arms and arrange them according to design. Some minor armigers are not included in either type of book. The following books are of particular interest:
Burke, Sir John Bernard. The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, Comprising a Registry of Armorial Bearings from the Earliest to the Present Time. Second Edition. 1884 reprint. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1969. (FHL book 942 D24b 1969; film 962347 item 1.) This book lists names alphabetically and contains a blazon and a brief explanation, a glossary, and a few black and white sample coats of arms.
Humphery-Smith, Cecil R. General Armory Two. London, England: Tabard Press, Ltd., 1973. (FHL 942 D24hg.) This book contains additions and corrections to the Burke book listed previously.
Papworth, John W. Ordinary of British Armorials. Reprint. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1965. (FHL 942 D6p; film 1559395 item 3.) This ordinary is arranged by design and gives the names of those who use each design.
The Family History Library has many books on heraldry, including armorials and ordinaries. They are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
ENGLAND - HERALDRY