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Coat of arms history

Although shields and banners with personal designs are known from antiquity, coats of arms as we know them today were first seen in northern France and the Low Countries in the 12th century. Europe was more fragmented than it is now, and conflicts over crowns and territory were common.

Rulers needed men to fight in their wars. Men, and personal military service, were provided by knights, mounted warriors with training in arms, in return for land. Knights in full armour were difficult to tell apart in battle; so personal coats of arms were devised, with standard colours and designs, so allies and opponents could be easily identified on the battlefield.

Coats of arms were soon adopted by all royal and noble families. In battle the use of arms was extended to the crest on the knight's helmet and the costume of his horse. Some of the castles of great lords were even painted in their heraldic colours.

Over time the art of 'heraldry' was born, with fixed rules on who could bear coats of arms and how they should be designed. Today, all English coats of arms have to be approved by the College of Heralds.

Why do local councils have coats of arms?

In the middle ages England's large towns were wealthy, powerful and increasingly independent, with their own trade guilds and ruling councils. In a kingdom dominated by knights and landed families, one way of asserting themselves was to adopt their own coats of arms. London was granted its arms in the 14th century and other towns soon followed.

Early borough coats of arms, however, still borrowed their images from the arms of local lords. Others contained generic features relating to power and trade, like castles, portcullises or ships. Some incorporated the symbols of their own patron saints.

At the same time coats of arms were also being granted to schools and universities, corporations, and the church.

Today many modern organisations and institutions have their own coats of arms. Though they have more freedom in the pictures and symbols they can use, they all have to adhere to the basic heraldic rules of design.

What kind of designs did the early coats of arms have?

Early English coats of arms bore very simple designs, including geometrical shapes and stripes, and a small number of standardized birds and animals.

These creatures had to symbolise strength or ferocity on the battlefield. For this reason the most common medieval heraldic creatures were dragons, lions, eagles, horses, boars and bears.

'Canting' arms contained symbols which were puns on a family's name. Other symbols might commemorate a significant event in the life of a lord or his ancestors.

What are the components of a coat of arms?

Strictly speaking, the coat of arms was the design painted on a knight's shield. Over time, though, the arms were extended and embellished.

The crest

In 12th and 13th century battles, helmets often included simple coloured crests, painted with the same colours as the knight's shield, designed to make him look more imposing.

From the end of this period, more ornate crests came to be used in jousting tournaments or ceremonial occasions. These crests were fashioned from wood, canvas and boiled leather, often with feathers for ornament. Too fragile for use on the battlefield, they became increasingly complex, incorporating a range of  cumbersome designs and symbols.

They also became an inherent part of a coat of arms; and as heraldic art became more complex in the 18th and 19th centuries they took on the role of extra design space when there was no room for symbols left on the shield.

The extravagant fabric or 'mantling' surrounding the crest had its origins in the piece of cloth attached to a knight's helmet to protect his neck from the sun.

The supporters

Supporters are figures, usually animals, placed on each side of the shield to 'support' it. The earliest appear as late as the 15th century.

Supporters are not granted with all coats of arms. Peers, and knights of certain specific orders, can include supporters in their arms. Boroughs and borough councils can also use supporters; district councils cannot.

The motto

The motto probably originated as the knight's rallying cry to his troops in battle. But from these origins mottoes have developed into a huge range of different forms.

In the middle ages mottoes tended to be in Latin or French, though in theory any language could be used. In England mottoes can be changed as often as required.

While the meaning of some mottoes is clear, others contain obscure references to a symbol in the coat of arms, even an event in the historic past. Some are even anagrams of a particular name. It is therefore not always clear why a motto has been chosen.

How are the coats of arms of modern councils designed?

The arms of a council like the London Borough of Hillingdon have to be inclusive. The symbols on shield, crest and supporters should relate to as much of the local area as possible.

Local councils often include historical, geographical and economic elements in their coats of arms.

The historic elements may refer to noble families or important events in the area. Geographic elements may include features such as rivers, hills or woods. Economic elements may include symbols for specific trades or industries.

Other images may use 'canting', or playful puns on place names.

The arms of Uxbridge Urban District and Borough Councils

The arms of Uxbridge Urban District and Borough Councils Uxbridge Urban District Council was granted its arms on 18 May 1948. After achieving Borough status, a new set of arms was granted on 10 November 1955, complete with supporters.

Historic elements

The red triangle or 'pile' on the shield, with its gold eagle, is taken from the arms of the Paget family, Earls of Uxbridge from 1714.

The tiger supporting the shield on the left is from the arms of the Marques of Anglesey, another later title of the Pagets.

The eagle, and the winged horse supporting the shield on the right, stress Uxbridge's links with the Royal Air Force, whose base was founded in 1919.

The lion on the crest is holding the notched sword of the Middle Saxons, which is the symbol of the historic county of Middlesex.

Geographic elements

The roundels on the shield symbolise flowing water and Uxbridge's position on the rivers Colne and Pinn.

The green 'astral' crowns on the shield's supporters reflect the town's closeness to London's green belt land.

Economic elements

The chrysanthemums on the helmet relate to the market gardens which have contributed historically to Uxbridge's economy. The design is unique in civic heraldry.

The supporting tiger's wheat sheaf badge looks back to the town's old brewing and corn milling industries.

The arms of Hayes and Harlington Urban District Council

The arms of Hayes and Harlington Urban District Council Hayes and Harlington Urban District Council was granted its arms in 1951.

Historic elements

The central feature on the shield is a white 'pall', part of the traditional costume of an archbishop. This commemorates the ancient connection of Hayes with the Archbishops of Canterbury, who were given land in the area by King Offa of the Saxons as early as 790.

The deer on the crest rising from a circlet of thorns derives from the original meaning of the name Hayes or 'Hesa', a brushwood enclosure used by medieval huntsmen.

The notched sword on the crest is a symbol of the Middle Saxons, and therefore Middlesex. The crown denotes that in Saxon times parts of the area were royal property.

Geographic elements

The wings at the top of the shield refer to the proximity of Heathrow airport.

The predominance of green in the arms celebrates the area's rural background and its closeness to London's green belt.

Economic elements

The two cog wheels on the shield represent the importance of industry to the area - electrical industries in particular, as shown by the lightning bolts.

The arms of Ruislip-Northwood Urban District Council

The arms of Ruislip-Northwood Urban District Council Ruislip-Northwood Urban District Council was granted its arms on 22 June 1937.

The Latin motto 'Non progredi est regredi' can be translated as 'Not to go forward is to go backward'.

Historic elements

The bishop's hat or 'mitre' at the top of the shield represents the Norman Abbey of Bec which held the manor of Ruislip from 1087 to 1404.

The fleur de lys are a common heraldic symbol for the lilies of St Mary, to whom the Abbey was dedicated. King's College, Cambridge, which held the manor from 1451 to 1925, was also partly dedicated to St Mary.

The boar on the crest shows that Ruislip manor originated at a time when the area was a forest where wild beasts roamed.


There are two examples of 'canting', or puns on names.

On the bottom half of the shield is a pun on the name Northwood. The star represents the North Star, positioned over a grove of trees.

The two stalks of rye on the crest are a pun on the name Ruislip. They have been 'slipped' or cut standing with short stalks.

The arms of Yiewsley and West Drayton Urban District Council

The arms of Yiewsley and West Drayton Urban District Council Yiewsley and West Drayton Urban District Council was granted its arms in 1953.

Historic elements

The white eagle on the green background is adapted from the arms of the Paget family, lords of the manor of West Drayton from 1537 to 1786.

The wings on either side of the Tudor rose on the crest are 'charged' or decorated with the red cross of St George. The wings represent flight, and the whole device commemorates the arrival at Heathrow of the future Queen Elizabeth II before her coronation in 1953.

Geographic elements

The white eagle on the shield also marks the proximity of Heathrow airport.

The building at the top of the shield is the old West Drayton gatehouse.

Economic elements

The wheels on each side of the shield refer to the historic relevance to the area of the transport industry - the airport, railway and Grand Union Canal.

The arms of the London Borough of Hillingdon

The London Borough of Hillingdon was granted its arms on 22 March 1965.

To ensure the whole area felt included in the new, larger local authority, the coat of arms incorporated many symbols from the arms of the previous borough and urban district councils.

The four green civic crowns or wreaths on the shield proclaim the equal status of the four old borough and urban districts within the new Borough.

The motto 'Forward' was chosen from the old Hayes and Harlington coat of arms.

Historic elements

The eagle at the centre of the shield was taken from the old arms of Uxbridge Borough Council and Yiewsley and West Drayton Urban District Council. It was adapted by them from the arms of the Paget family, historic lords of the manor of West Drayton and later Earls of Uxbridge.

The tiger supporting the shield on the left is also taken from the Paget family arms.

The fleur de lys (or lily) on the left of the shield is from the arms of Ruislip-Northwood, and commemorates the fact that the manor of Ruislip was held for much of its history by the Abbey of Bec and then King's College, Cambridge, for both of whom the lily was a symbol of religious purity.

The circlet or enclosure of brushwood from which the lion is rising on the crest is from the arms of Hayes and Harlington, and may refer back to its ancient heritage as forested hunting land. The same can be said of the stag with a circlet of brushwood supporting the shield on the right.

The lion itself represents Great Britain. Its wings, with the St George cross, are from the arms of Yiewsley and West Drayton and symbolise the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II at Heathrow airport in 1953.

The blue 'astral' crown on the tiger supporting the shield is in the colours of the Royal Air Force, and celebrates its long history within the Borough.

The Tudor rose on the same tiger is from the arms of Yiewsley and West Drayton and is a historic English royal badge.

Geographic elements

The eagle on the shield denotes the area's connections with the RAF and Heathrow airport.

The North Star, as shown on the crest, was traditionally used in navigation, so here again represents the Borough's airports. In the original arms of Ruislip-Northwood the colours were reversed.

Economic elements

The cog wheel on the right of the shield is from the arms of Hayes and Harlington and reflects the area's industrial heritage.


The two ears of rye 'slipped' (with their stalks cut short) on the stag supporting the shield on the right, are a pun on the name Ruislip, and were taken from the arms of Ruislip-Northwood.

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Article utilities:  Bookmark and Share Print Print this page Last updated: 02 Jun 2017 at 11:52