Coats of arms were invented in France and England in the 12th Century. Although the origins of the practice are obscure, it seems to have been primarily a means to identify knights during tournaments. As time progressed other heraldic adornments like crests and supporters were added to the armorial bearings. Arms are used by both individuals and corporate bodies and as every coat of arms is different they are a unique and attractive means of identification. In the United Kingdom heraldic practice is the prerogative of the Crown and control by law, and only those officially granted arms can legally use them.
The British Interplanetary Society was granted a coat of arms by the English College of Arms on 19th June 1986.
The coat of arms itself is the pattern shown on the shield. The pattern can also be used on a flag (called a banner) or any surface; including the surcoat worn over a knight’s armour – hence “coat of arms”. It is the most important part of the armorial bearings but contrary to popular belief it does not have to mean anything or represent something, however most modern arms do, because the person requesting the grant asks for it.
The British Interplanetary Society coat of arms was designed to be symbolic, it is a stylised version of the spaceship logo that was adopted in 1954 (and still often used) but with two rockets. The stars were originally intended to represent earth space, near space, and deep space.
Crests were an addition to a knight’s tournament garb in the 14th Century. They were a solid model placed on top of the helmet with a wreath hiding the join and holding in place a cloth mantle (copied from agal and keffiyeh in traditional Arab dress). It became a conceit to show the mantle badly, but decoratively, cut up to show how fiercely the owner had fought.
The horse in the Society’s crest represents transport and communication with the wings alluding to the celestial environment. The laurel wreath represents achievement and honour, and the astral crown (a crown of stars) represents pre-eminence among the stars.
Supporters (animals or people holding the shield) were an even later addition to heraldry than crests. They were never a part of what a knight actually wore and are solely a decorative addition to seals and paintings showing the arms. In England they are only granted to peers of the realm and corporate bodies of national standing which includes the BIS.
The Society’s supporters are lions, the British national symbol. Their wings (like those of the horse crest) allude to the celestial environment as do the clouds they stand on.
In English heraldry mottos, although shown in the official illustration, are not an official part of the arms (they are in Scotland). The British Interplanetary Society adopted the motto “From Imagination to Reality” this was taken from the sub-title of the book “High Road to the Moon” that it had recently published.
The final component of the arms is not normally shown with the other elements and that is the badge. Badges were used in medieval times by the lords who had private armies and these were worn on coats of a particular colour (the livery colours) by their soldiers to make a uniform to identify each other. The badge was displayed on a flag of the “colours” it was this flag, called a standard. It was this flag that was displayed before the soldiers before a battle in the trooping of the colours ceremony.
The Society’s badge is a silver comet, a traveller that goes from the inner solar system out into interstellar space. It was perhaps also chosen as Halley’s Comet was in the sky while the arms were being designed. This is the heraldic device that members should wear to show they are part of the Society.
Coats of arms are not legally defined by art work but the official description in the grant, known as the blazon. The language of the blazon is English mixed with medieval Norman French. Any representation that meets the description, on any surface, is that coat of arms, which means the style of the art work can be altered to match the setting or fashion. The blazon for the British Interplanetary Society’s arms is:
ARMS: Azure a fess dancetty of two points conjoined to as many pallets between three mullets one in chief two in base.
CRESTS: Upon a helm with a wreath argent and azure a demi horse argent winged gorged with a laurel wreath and supporting between its hooves an astral crown all gold.
SUPPORTERS: On either side a winged lion regardant gold the compartment comprising clouds proper.
BADGE: The astronomical symbol for a comet in bend sinister argent.