Before the College
Heraldry existed before there was a College of Arms. Heralds are first mentioned in the historical accounts about the time of the First Crusade (ca. 1100).
By the late 12th century their importance had grown, coinciding with the development of armour for knights. At that time, distinctive markings easily distinguishable from a distance were essential for recognising combatants whose faces were fully covered by helmets.
These markings were placed on surcoats worn over the armour (the derivation of the term coat of arms) and soon were passed down from father to son, with families becoming identified by the markings.
It was the responsibility of the heralds, who also served as military staff officers, diplomats and messengers (they were often the only members of a household who could read), and masters of ceremony at pageants and tournaments (where they were allowed to keep any broken armour), to keep track of which family used which emblems and ensure that no two families used the same arms. Because the coats of arms were hereditary, the herald's expertise has long covered lines of descent.
Establishment of the College of Arms
In 1484, King Richard III institutionalised the already centuries-old tradition of heraldry by incorporating the College of Arms in London. It is the oldest existing and one of the few remaining heraldic authorities in the world.
It is not a "college" as the word is generally used today: it has no professors or students and does not offer courses. Instead, it is body collectively made up of a number of Officers of Arms, popularly known as heralds, specifically being three Kings of Arms, six Heralds, and four Pursuivants. Additionally, a number of Officers of Arms Extraordinary are appointed. Heralds have a long history dating back to the early Middle Ages.
As a department of the British Royal Household, the College is responsible for organising official, or "state", pageants such as coronations, funerals, openings of Parliament and the annual Garter service at Windsor Castle. In addition, the College possesses the largest repository of English, Welsh and Northern Irish family pedigrees. These have been accumulated over centuries.
Acting through the three Kings of Arms under the authority of the Earl Marshal, His Grace the Duke of Norfolk, the College has long exercised the Crown's prerogative of granting armorial bearings to worthy English and Commonwealth subjects who seek them. American descendants of British subjects, and individuals of any nationality who have been honoured by the British Sovereign, may also petition for honorary grants of arms.
Today, as they were then, the members of the College are part of the Royal Household and are headed by the Earl Marshal of England, the Duke of Norfolk. The heralds are responsible for ceremonial, armorial and genealogical matters, including organising coronations, openings of Parliament, state funerals, and the granting of new arms in all countries where the King is head of state, with the exceptions of Scotland and Canada, each of which has its own heraldic authority. They are also entitled to conduct a private heraldic and genealogical practice.
As a result of the heralds' work over the centuries, the College of Arms has accumulated - and continues to add to - an extensive and unique archive of official records and documents relating to family histories and arms.
As a corollary, the College has its own conservation and bookbinding department, which is now widely used by other repositories of valuable manuscripts and books. And because grants of arms are in perpetuity, and therefore must be issued in durable form, the College has on staff scriveners and artists, as well as secretaries and researchers, to produce illuminated letters patent on vellum (sheepskin). These documents are works of art in themselves.
The College of Arms has occupied the same site on Queen Victoria Street in Central London since 1555. The original building - but not its contents, which were saved - was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt in the 1670s.