The College of Arms was founded in 1484 and has since then created and maintained official registers of coats of arms and pedigrees. The heralds who make up the College are members of the Royal Household and act under Crown Authority. Central activities include: the granting of new coats of arms; the registration of family trees; genealogical and heraldic research; advising central and local government, corporate bodies, and private individuals on all aspects of heraldry. The College is also the authority for matters relating to the flying of flags, and holds the only official registers of flags for the UK and much of the Commonwealth.

The Heralds advise on matters relating to the peerage and baronetage, precedence and ceremonial. They have a role in UK state ceremonial and assist the Earl Marshal in the organization of state ceremonies including Coronations and State Funerals. At the core of the College of Arms is a vast manuscript archive of heraldic and genealogical material which has been gathered and preserved over the centuries.

Coats of arms have been and still are granted by Letters Patent from the senior heralds, the Kings of Arms. A right to arms can only be established by the registration in the official records of the College of Arms of a pedigree showing direct male line descent from an ancestor already appearing therein as entitled to arms, or by making application through the College of Arms for a grant of arms. Grants are made to corporations as well as to individuals.

The College of Arms is unsupported from government funds and its activities are partly financed by the official fees that are payable upon grants of arms. The individual Officers of Arms are paid nominal salaries, less than £50 per annum, by the Crown, but conduct their professional practices on a self-employed basis. The College is also however supported by occasional grants from donors for specific projects, particularly relating to the Conservation and Archive Departments, and the preservation of the historic building. Their generosity is greatly appreciated. The White Lion Society and the College of Arms Foundation are societies of Friends of the College, whose membership is open to all. The College is also supported in particular by the College of Arms Trust.

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