For many people, the word heraldry evokes images of knights, castles and colorful banners fluttering on a soft breeze. Maybe you’ve seen elaborate family crests in books or heard stories about a coat of arms. Maybe your supposed emblem is hanging on your wall right now.
Heraldry is one of the most interesting—yet misunderstood—areas of family history. Pretty much anyone can buy something with a family coat of arms on it, but only certain people can actually call those arms their own. And they’ll know who they are only through genealogical research. We’ll explain what a coat of arms is and how to discover whether you truly can claim one.
The Right to Bear Arms
Think of heraldry as the way a person way back when would label himself, his belongings, and his people. In the heraldic world, a picture literally speaks a thousand words. An armigerous person—meaning someone who is entitled to bear a coat of arms—would be identified by his flag; and his goods, his badge and his people, by their livery colors. Livery colors were the principal colors of a person’s coat of arms. Accounts from the reign of Henry VIII in the 1500s detail the livery colors, badges and heraldry his servants were to wear. With so many servants milling about, their colors would easily identify for which royal household member they worked.
The exact origins of this system are a mystery. Some scholars believe it evolved during the Crusades (1095 to 1291) to identify which soldiers were on which side. Others think it was created due to a surge in popularity of the grand tournaments during the middle ages, showcasing the talents of knights. We do know the first documented coat of arms dates to mid-1100s Europe. Heraldry spread quickly from Central Europe throughout the continent and became a way of marking people and families. Many European, Middle Eastern and Asian countries had heraldic systems, though we’ll focus here on the United Kingdom and Western Europe.
Contrary to popular notion, coats of arms don’t go with surnames. Think about how confusing it would be if everyone in the same family had the exact same arms. Instead, a person would be granted the right to bear a particular coat of arms, a right that passed down to his male descendants. In England and Scotland, an eldest daughter could inherit arms in the absence of male heirs; and wives and daughters could bear modified versions of the arms. A heraldic authority, such as Britain’s College of Arms, regulates the granting of arms.
Coats of arms aren’t just pretty pictures. Their symbols can indicate profession, order of birth, rank, ancestry and more. Though the terms coat of arms and family crest are often used interchangeably, the former is just the shield and the latter is attached to the top of the shield (turn the page to see a breakdown of the parts in a heraldic achievement). When displaying the full arms isn’t practical, just the crest might be used.
But what about all those coat of arms tchotchkes? Buyer beware if the seller of a heraldic trinket tells you it’s your family’s. How does he know? Did he trace your lineage? Because coats of arms are granted to individuals, not families, this claim is probably false. Even if the arms were granted to someone named Fred Smith, and you’re a Smith, those aren’t your arms unless you can prove you’re a male-line descendant of Fred. Dozens of arms might be registered to people of the same surname, and your task is to discover which one—if any—is correct for your ancestral line.
Even if you didn’t inherit your ancestor’s coat of arms, heraldry still can come in handy for your genealogy. For it to help you, though, it’s important to understand the basics of how heraldry works. An excellent book to start with is An Heraldic Alphabet by J.P. Brooke-Little, Clarenceux King of Arms (Robson Books). This dictionary of heraldic terms can help you decipher documents and understand the meaning of heraldic imagery.
Americans whose US family trees go back to colonial days are likeliest to have armigerous ancestry. That goes double if your ancestors were large landowners in the South. William Penn was armigerous, for example, as were most large plantation owners in Virginia. Maryland’s state flag is the heraldic banner of George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore. If you haven’t been doing genealogy long or have no particular indication your tree holds an armigerous ancestor, your best bet is to continue researching back in time as you would otherwise, keeping an eye out for clues that point to heraldic roots. This might be a mention in an old family history or even a genealogical record. Remember, the United States began as the colonies of several European countries. The power and influence associated with heraldry meant that early Americans were proud to display their arms. Wills, deeds, bounties and other documents may have a section listing the blazon of a person’s arms (see below), or even a depiction of their arms. You can research blazons and coats of arms to discover additional information about the family and the person who held them.
If you’ve already found clues to a heraldic person in your family tree or discovered the coat of arms an ancestor claimed, you can start there. For arms without a name, look up the coat of arms or its blazon in a book called an ordinary of arms (essentially, a dictionary of blazons). Crozier’s General Armory is on the free Internet Archive, and check large research and university libraries. Older books, such as the 1901 Some Feudal Coats of Arms from Heraldic Rolls, 1298-1418 by Joseph Foster, will stretch further back in time.
Next, look up the name in a “peerage,” or a genealogical reference to aristocracy and nobility. Burke’s Peerage is a publisher founded in 1826 with the guide A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the United Kingdom. The publication was updated sporadically until 1847, then annually, and more titles were added for countries around the world. Find Burke’s Peerage in large libraries and search for names on the publisher’s subscription website. Editions from 1865, 1881 and 1884 are on Ancestry.com, as are other peerage books (search the card catalog for peerage). Also try Debrett’s Baronetage, Knightage, & Companionage 1882 edited by Robert H. Mair.
A “roll of arms” is a wonderful resource with images of arms. These rolls were sometimes a listing of all the knights, and later armigerous persons, in a given area. Other times they were lists of the participants in a tournament. Amazing heraldic rolls commemorate funerals or large state functions, with heraldry as a way to show who was in attendance. One of the most famous rolls is the Codex Manesse, created in the first half of the 1300s for the Manesse family. It’s a book of poetry and the images are of the poets, most of whom are shown with coats of arms. Luckily for us, this book is free online and you can see its 137 magnificent images for yourself here. Search online for a family name and “roll of arms” and look for the book A Roll of Arms Registered by the Committee on Heraldry of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS).
You’ll also find ornate heraldic pedigrees, mainly for royalty. Relatives would commission these to show their importance and prestige. One word of caution: Don’t assume these heraldic pedigrees (or any other pedigree, for that matter), is 100 percent accurate. A king would be motivated to prove his descent from certain historical figures to assure the populace he ruled by divine right.
The British College of Arms offers fee-based research services to those wishing to learn about their heraldic connections. Learn more here.
Blazon of Glory
If a relative did have a coat of arms, refer to the aforementioned An Heraldic Alphabet to learn the significance of all those symbols (charges) and colors. These hint at when the arms were created, where the bearer was from, and how he fits into the family tree. Cadency marks, for example, are a common type of charge that shows where the bearer appears on the family tree. The marks differentiate siblings (usually male, but not always), by adding a specific charge to the father’s heraldry. The arms of William, Duke of Cambridge are those of the English Royal family with an added white label (bar across the top with rectangle “fingers” hanging from it); the label’s second “finger” having a red seashell. Prince Harry has a white label with a red seashell on each finger. The seashells are an homage to their mother, Diana, whose coat of arms has the escallop seashell.
Refer to the blazon, which describes the heraldic achievement in a formulaic way (see the example on page 51). If your arms are quartered (or marshalled), you’ll want to identify each of the families whose arms are represented on that shield. The following blazon is from Debrett’s Baronetage, Knightage, & Companionage 1882: “Arms—Gules, three swords erect in pale argent, hilts or. Crest—A hand couped at the wrist proper holding a sword, as in the arms.” The layman’s translation is actually pretty simple: The shield has a red background. It has three swords on it with the points to the top of the shield. The swords are white with gold hilts. On top of the shield is an arm with a hand tilted back, grasping a sword as if to swing it.
Even if your family isn’t armigerous, you can design your own coat of arms and even join the American Heraldry Society. Just know that the United States has no legal heraldic system, so there’s nothing official about assuming arms. See here for information.