In the early medieval period the proclamation and organisation of tournaments was the chief function of heralds. They marshalled and introduced the contestants and kept a tally of the score. From this derive both their modern roles of organising ceremonial and of being expert in armory.
The knights taking part in tournaments were recognised by the arms they bore on their shields and the crests they wore on their helmets. Heralds soon acquired an expert knowledge of these and became responsible for recording arms, and then later for controlling their use.
As coats of arms were hereditary heralds soon came to add expertise in genealogy to their skills. The use of arms on the jousting field and in battle became steadily less important but at the same time the civilian, social and antiquarian uses of heraldry grew.
Although many of the ceremonial duties of heralds have disappeared they still carry out and organize under the Earl Marshal, certain extremely ancient and splendid ceremonies.In June each year at Windsor Castle is held the procession and service of the Sovereign and Knights Companion of the Order of the Garter. The State Opening of Parliament, usually in November, is another magnificent ceremony. The Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, is one of the two Great Officers of State and the office is hereditary in his family. He has particular powers of supervision over the heralds and the College of Arms.
The arrangement of State funerals and the monarch's Coronation in Westminster Abbey fall under the jurisdiction of the Earl Marshal, and the heralds have a role in their organization.
At all these ceremonies the heralds wear their highly distinctive medieval uniform, the tabard. This is a coat embroidered on its front, back and sleeves with the Royal Arms.
In medieval times, there were heralds in the service both of the monarch and of certain great noblemen. Heralds were part of the royal household in the thirteenth century and perhaps as early as the twelfth century. From 1420 the Royal heralds had a common seal and acted in some ways like a corporation. In 1484 they were granted a charter of incorporation by Richard III, and given a house in Coldharbour in Upper Thames Street, London to keep their records in. When Henry VII defeated Richard and took the crown in 1485 he wrested Coldharbour from the heralds and gave it to his mother. They received the charter under which they now operate from Queen Mary and her husband Philip of Spain in 1555, together with the site of the present College of Arms on which then stood Derby Place. This building was the College of Arms until it burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The present College building dates from the 1670s.