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A king of arms is a high ranking heraldic officer. Depending on the nation for which he works, a king of arms may be allowed to grant armorial bearings, and he also performs a variety of other tasks. The most famous king of arms is probably the British Garter King of Arms, the highest ranking heraldic officer in Britain, although other nations have their own colleges of arms and ranking systems.
Armorial bearings are designs which are associated with specific people or companies. The most famous example of an armorial bearing is probably a coat of arms, which includes heraldic devices which are intended to provide information about the bearer and his, her, or its heritage. The granting of armorial bearings is typically overseen by a college of arms, an organization staffed by people who are extremely familiar with history, genealogy, and the complex rules which govern armorial bearings.
A college of arms is typically overseen by a king of arms, and several other high ranking officials may also be known as “king of arms.” In the British system, the Garter King of Arms is the head of the College of Arms, followed by the Clareneux King of Arms and the Norroy & Ulster King of Arms. In addition to being the arbiter of requests for armorial bearings, the king of arms is also usually entitled to special vestments, sometimes including a coronet, and he may be allowed to use a formal title with his name.
Heraldry is an incredibly complex and somewhat arcane field of study. Heraldic officers preserve the heritage of their nations by determining who is entitled to armorial bearings and what these bearings may contain. For example, only people of a certain rank are allowed to have heraldic supporters, figures which are placed on either side of the bearer's shield. Each device on a coat of arms has a specific, coded meaning, and issues of color and design are extremely important.
Contrary to popular belief, a coat of arms is a personal mark, not a family emblem. Many members of the same family may use similar armorial bearings, but in some cases not everyone is entitled to a coat of arms, or different people may be permitted to have different insignia on their armorial bearings. The king of arms, along with the staff at a college of arms, determines the contents of armorial bearings through extensive research and interviews with candidates who request coats of arms.