240px-Coat_of_Arms_of_the_College_of_Arms.svgIf you come from a family with an official coat of arms (as opposed to one you got as a souvenir from the Renaissance Faire), chances are, you have the College of Arms to thank for it. The College, which is made up of heralds appointed by the British Sovereign, is responsible for matters of heraldry, granting coats of arms, recording pedigrees and carrying out genealogical research. And it was officially created on this day in 1484.

The signing of the Royal Charter incorporating the royal heralds was one of the earliest, and perhaps most lasting, tasks in the reign of Richard III. He was a big fan of heraldry and not only signed the Charter officially creating the College, he also gave them sumptuous headquarters on Upper Thames Street. Unfortunately for the College, Richard was defeated by Henry Tudor just a year later, and Henry had no idea what to do with his dead rival’s pet heralds. He deprived them of their headquarters (which resulted in the loss of many of their books and records) but kept them around the royal court, forcing them to attend him at all times. That all change when his pomp-and-ceremony-loving son came to the throne. Henry VIII not only kept them busy with their traditional heraldry-related tasks; he also sent them off to foreign courts on missions and tasked them with regulating the tournaments and ceremonies held during his meeting with Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

The College rolled along through the Tudor era (and finally got a new headquarters under Mary I), but faced a crisis during the Civil War, when some members sided with the Royalists and others with the Parliamentarians. They showed enough of a united front to beg Parliament to protect all their records. Many of them joined Charles II in the Netherlands during his exile, and in 1660 the heralds were commanded by the Convention Parliament to proclaim Charles King.

The College lost its headquarters in the Great Fire of London, and a new one was purpose built of plain bricks, three storeys high. They’re still headquartered there today.

Nowadays, aside from their genealogical duties, the Heralds serve as symbols of the pomp of the monarchy and are duly present for certain ceremonial occasions, such as the State Opening of Parliament and the Garter Service at Windsor Castle. The College’s chief, the Earl Marshal, is responsible for organising and planning all State ceremonies. Heralds are on hand whenever a sovereign dies to read the proclamation of the Accession Council, declaring the new monarch king or queen, at various locations around London. College members also form part of the royal procession during state funerals and the coronation ceremony, at which they’re the only individuals, aside from the king and queen, permitted to wear crowns.

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