While the majority of experts consider that heraldry owes its birth to the very real need for knight to recognise knight in battle, and later at the tournament, there are those who believe that it owed as much to the primeval desire of man to decorate himself in rich and colourful attire to attract attention and outshine his fellows.
It is certain that the sumptuous heraldry of the medieval tournament was not dictated solely by practical considerations and undoubtedly there is some truth in both assertions.
As a form of art that confined itself to the greatest and most powerful, it attracted the finest workmanship and the most dedicated craftsmanship. Illuminators of medieval manuscripts decorated their work with unusual care and the gold leaf laid on vellum is today as bright as when it was done on the carefully prepared skins 800 years ago. On the velvet and silk clothes worn by great men and embroidered with silk and gold thread, little now remains; but they were dyed with a care that made the trade guild of the Dyers' Company one of the most powerful in London. However, the pageantry of the 60-foot Westminster Tournament Scroll of 1511 gives some idea of the wealth of colour and design in the garments worn on such occasions.
The heraldic shield which took its name and design from the actual shields carried in scuffle also took its colours and shapes as well. The simple 12th century shield derived from those carried by the Normans at Hastings with straight sides, flat top and pointed base gave way to later designs, both shorter and broader and with new curves. When the shield itself ceased to have a practical use in the 16th century, its later heraldic design owed its lines to architectural dictates and to those of furniture; the stiff straight lines of the 17th century were followed in turn by the baroque and then the rococo until, in the course of time, the Victorian craze for new-Gothic design brought the shape back to the shield of medieval times again.
It is a common misapprehension that the laws of heraldry dictate the shape of the shield. In fact, all the elements of heraldry - shield, crest, helm and mantling - altered with taste, and although their general arrangement looks as if they were hung up ready for use, it is possible to employ most of the elements separately in design.
Thus a small object may be decorated with just the crest on a wreath or torque (which kept the crest in place on the helmet) or a great carving of arms, perhaps above a fireplace, may be supported on either side by supporters of beasts or birds.
In contrast, the actual laws of heraldic decoration have remained unaltered in substance and language since the 12th century. The tinctures are divided into three groups: metals, colours and furs. The first has just gold and silver (depicted most often as yellow and white); the colours are red, blue, purple, green and black; and the furs are various sorts of ermine. It was practical considerations that ruled no tincture should be painted on another of the same sort. Thus gold might be on blue or edged with ermine, but not gold on silver or red on blue. On a sunny day it would have impossible to tell a silver design on gold, on a rainy day a blue design on black. These contrasts have given English heraldry its peculiarly bright - nothing natural or restful but bright and showy. Long after heraldry ceased to be an active factor in warfare, the uniforms or regiments continued to display bright colours until the long sights of modern rifles made man merge his colours with those of the forests, sands, snow and mud.
The shapes and designs or heraldry have left their mark on architecture and furniture, silver and coaches, flags and ceremonial dress, company logos and school badges. The shield may be seen as the back of a chair and is more likely to contain initials today. The company logo will not conform to the rules laid down by the Normans - but the essential elements of recognition, clear design and colour have survived to mingle with those objects which still bear the heraldic crests, helms and shields handed down through families from older times.