Carol Sanderson, Editor
Charles Hansen, Technical Advisor
Newsletter Archives | E-mail
Just recently there was some discussion on this web site's message board concerning coats-of-arms. It was suggested that it might be a good topic for the newsletter so we will try.
What are coats-of-Arms? In medieval times these were designs emblazoned on shields and later woven or embroidered on a surcoat that was worn over suits of armour. The purpose was a means of identification of the knight in armor. By terms of the use, the coat-of-arms was unique to the wearer. He was able to pass it down to his children but it had to be altered so that it was now unique to the person who was acquiring it.
That fact is so today just as it was then. So it goes or should go without saying that if we have a surname that is like one that has a coat-of-arms, we are not entitled to use it. If one thinks that they may have a right to use such a device, they should trace their male-line ancestors back as far as possible. Then they should make inquiries as to whether their ancestor had been given the right to Arms.
My answer on the board came from a short lecture I heard on a visit to a castle in Scotland. On one of the archways leading to an inside area of this castle is a coat- of-arms as it applied to the union of two families through marriage. It was in fact a merging of things from two different coats-of-arms to represent the new family. The guide went on to say that when the sons grew old enough they would also have their coat-of-arms but since these are unique to an individual they would most likely have some things from the family arms but would add things that would make them unique to them.
A society in London, England, The Society of Genealogists has a very good web site. On it you will find the history of the College of Arms and things pertaining to it. By following some of the links you will also find some color plates of arms of Prince William and Prince Harry with something telling something about how these particular ones were designed. One of the things I found there was a leaflet called 1 "The Right to Arms."
One of the first points made by this leaflet is:
"Surprisingly few people who use a coat of arms and crest today have any actual right to do so. Armorial bearings do not appertain to all persons of a given surname but belong to and identify members of one particular family."
It goes on to indicate, that these are a form of property and may rightfully be used by descendants of the male-line of the person who was first granted them.
The leaflet also states:
"The erroneous and widespread practice of adopting the arms of a family of the same surname (extracted in most cases from one of the printed armorials listing the arms of families alphabetically) is much to be deplored. It detracts from the basic purpose of coats of arms and crests, which is to provide hereditary symbols by which particular families may be identified."
If you think that you might be entitled to arms, do your homework,,,trace the family line on the male side back as far as possible. Then you must examine the official records of the heraldic authority concerned. That means in England and Wales the College of Arms in London, in the Republic of Ireland, an official Genealogical Office in Dublin with the Chief Herald of Ireland heading it. Scotland has a different system in which persons using arms are required to register their right to arms at the Court of Lord Lyon King of Arms.
The subject is broad and has a lot to it and I have just touched on this. If you want to know more or even see some of the beautiful arms, I suggest that you explore the web site of this society. Also, if you want, find some of the literature they suggest and browse it or read it more carefully.
1 Permission to quote from Information Leaflet # 15 "The right to Arms"published on line by the Society of Genealogists; 14 Charterhouse Buildings, Goswell Road, London EC1M 7BA, England; Registered Charity No. 233701. Registered Company No. 115703, granted. The earliest mention of heraldry is in the Bible:
The earliest mention of heraldry is in the Bible:
The Egyptians used devices by which civil and military authority was recognized and the Roman standards carried religious and military symbols such as the Roman Eagle. Rome later adopted that emblem for the Roman Legion.
Medieval heralds created many coats of arms for an individual long after his death, while others granted arms as far back as Adam and Eve. Adam's is plain red, and Eve's plain silver. Cain and Abel's were quartered from their parents but Cain's was different as God had "set a mark" upon him.
Early [Coats-of-] Arms were more of a national or regional nature. One of the first individual arms is attributed to Edward the Confessor, (1042-1068), a cross between four doves. Later we find he was assigned a cross and five doves..
It is possible that Henry I (1100-1135) was the first English king to use a lion as a personal device as the first lion was seen during his reign in England, and Henry was known as the "Lion of Justice". The lion has been used since then as England's royal symbol.
Before he became king, John used two lions on his arms and three lions were used by Kings, John, Henry III, Edward I, and Edward II. These three lions became known as "England".
The Norman invasion of Britain was recorded by Empress Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror on the Bayeau Tapestry. Matilda and her ladies produced this tapestry, which contains seventy-two pictures. It has a great number of people and animals. Finished about 1077, it shows events leading up to Williams' conquest as well as the battle itself. All the fighting men are shown in their armor, with their weapons of swords and spears. William is shown several times, but the devices on his shields are different in all of them.
Why did his coat of arms change? Surely William was the most important individual and the tapestry was made by wife, It seems as if a heraldic device should have been correctly portrayed. Heraldry was in its infancy and the simple devices should have been easier to work out than the many men and animals. They would have been far easier to do than many of the other items in the tapestry.
So what is your chance of having a coat of arms? Many families that had the right to bear arms have died without having any direct descendants. Other families only had one particular member that had the right to bear arms, and his or her siblings did not have the right. If you do not know that you have the right to bear arms, then you probably do not have the right. However, it is possible you are related to someone that had the right to bear arms, so this is where the fun begins.