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Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Oct 1, 2009

What's in a Name? Part 3: Heraldry and Coats of Arms

by Aubrey Fredrickson

You've probably heard the word heraldry before, but have you ever wondered what it really means? You may have seen products advertising a coat of arms for your surname, also sometimes called a family crest. How can a person know if a Coat of Arms for their surname is legitimate? One of the many vague notions we have about heraldry is that a coat of arms may be inherited. And just about anything that can be inherited has instant appeal to us as genealogists because it can tell us something about our family and maybe even help us trace our ancestors. In this final article of the "What's In a Name?" series, I'll attempt to straighten out some of our beliefs about heraldry, particularly as it applies to genealogy.If you missed the first two articles, check out Part 1: Your First Name and Part 2: Your Surname.


Basics First
First things first. What exactly is heraldry? People in cultures all over the world have historically used symbols to represent themselves. However, when we use the word heraldry, we are really referring to a specific custom that developed in Europe around the 12th century. It all started with the need to identify knights in battle. One knight in full armor looks much like another, how could anyone tell who's who at a distance? To solve this problem, knights began to wear a symbol or a personalized design on their shields, surcoats, and banners. It was the practice of embroidering the symbol on the surcoat that brought about the term coat of arms.

At first, knights were free to use whatever symbol they wished, but over time customs and laws began to limit and regulate the bearing of a coat of arms. In England, King Edward IV established the Heralds' College in 1483. The College's job was to supervise the granting of coats of arms. Rather than each knight choosing his own, coats of arms were granted by the king and passed down through a family by inheritance.

Thus a coat of arms is the emblem or symbol which was associated with a specific person. When a coat of arms was registered to the person, it was written down in words, rather than by a graphical representation. This is known as blazoning, where a coat of arms is described by such features as the color and shape of the shield and the type of objects placed on it. The word heraldry is used to encompass the whole custom of designing, granting, and blazoning the coat of arms.

Dissecting a Coat of Arms
Before we go any farther, let's talk for a moment about the elements that go into a coat of arms. Seven basic elements are described in the blazoning of a coat of arms:

  • Escutcheon (or the shield): The central design of a coat of arms is the escutcheon, on and around which are placed the other design elements. Typically, the escutcheon is a basic shield shape. A woman's esctcheon, however, would be lozenge (diamond) shaped.
  • Charges (or arms): The figures or designs that are shown on the escutcheon itself.
  • Helm (or helmet): Signifies the bearer's rank and is placed above the escutcheon.
  • Mantle: The mantle flows around the coat of arms. It may look like leaves or vines, but actually represents the real mantle (like a cloak) worn by knights over their armor to protect them from rain or overheating in the sun. The mantle in a coat of arms is shown as a flowing and torn cloth because that is how it would have looked during battle.
  • Torse (or wreath): A rope of twisted fabric that rests on the helm and apparently holds the mantle in place.
  • Crest: A symbol placed above the torse (or wreath).
  • Motto: The motto generally appears on a ribbon above or below the shield.
  • Supporters: Human or animal figures placed on either side of escutcheon that appear to support it.
Who has the Right to Display a Coat of Arms?
You may have seen a coat of arms for your surname. Does that mean that it is your coat of arms? Probably not in any technical sense. Coats of arms were granted and registered to a single individual, not a family. They passed from father to son and only one person at a time had the legal right to bear a particular coat of arms. Only the eldest son would inherit the right to bear his father's exact coat of arms (daughters and younger sons could bear a slightly altered version, but I'll explain that a little later). So, only a direct male line descendant would have the legal right to bear his father's coat of arms.

Does that mean that it would be illegal for you to use one of these coats of arms for your surname? No, it would not be illegal and in many ways it would be a positive affirmation of your family heritage. Having a plaque or mug with a coat of arms for your surname on it honors a forefather who carried your family bravely into battle. For a genealogist it is a demonstrative way to remember and display their family name. If you are interested in purchasing a decorative coat of arms for your surname, we suggest House of Names or The Tree Maker.

How Were Coats of Arms Inherited?
Only one person was allowed to bear a specific coat of arms at a time. All of the bearer's sons could inherit the coat of arms, but they were altered slightly by adding a cadency mark to differentiate them from the father's coat of arms. The cadency marks were designs similar to charges (the figures or designs that are shown on the shield), but were smaller and generally placed in the middle of the shield. There were specific marks to indicate birth order. To see examples of these cadency marks, click here.

The eldest son's coat of arms would include a cadency mark during his father's lifetime. After his father's death, he inherited the right to bear the original coat of arms and the cadency mark would be dropped. Younger sons' coats of arms would always include the cadency mark. This slight altering of the coat of arms as it is passed down makes it possible, in some cases, to trace family lines through the coat of arms.

Daughters could also inherit their father's coat of arms, but they were placed on a lozenge (diamond shaped) escutcheon, rather than a shield. She could not, however, pass the arms on to her children unless she had no brothers. If the family had no sons, then the eldest daughter would be the heraldic heiress and could pass the arms onto her children.

After she was married, a woman could also bear her husband's arms and could use a shield shaped escutcheon. Often, her father's coat of arms would be combined with her husband's by arranging both coats of arms on a single shield. This practice is known as marshalling. This is another way that family relationship can be traced through heraldry to some extent, as the coat of arms was a visible reminder of family alliances.

Heraldry in America
I was somewhat surprised to come across a page for an Institute of Heraldry on the US Army website. Since I associated heraldry with the idea of an aristocracy, it hadn't occurred to me that there would be a use for it in the US. Interestingly, there is -- although modern American heraldry is a bit different than the sort we've been talking about.

The Institute of Heraldry follows the basic rules of heraldic design to create the emblems that symbolize America. The Great Seal of the United States, as well as the Presidential Seal, are examples of traditional heraldic art. Each branch of the military has its own seal, as do many different units within those branches. The Institute of Heraldry is also responsible for designing the "decorations, medals, insignia, badges, flags, and other items awarded to or authorized for official wear or display by government personnel and agencies"

For more information about American heraldry, see The Design of American Heraldry: An Interview with Charles V. Mungo.

Heraldry Today
If you want to find out whether any of your ancestors possessed a coat of arms, you may want to research heraldry in the country where they lived. For example, if your ancestor was English, try starting with the College of Arms website, which contains a lot of helpful information about heraldry. There is also a page that explains what to do if you are trying to prove the right to bear arms by descent and genealogical research. Since coats of arms are inherited through families, the records kept by the College are of great genealogical value. If you have reason to think your ancestors may have been granted a coat of arms by a British monarch, I would suggest checking this site out as a viable research source.

For information about heraldry in other countries, try doing a Google search on the terms "heraldry" and the name of the country.

Family Activity
Looking for a way to include your family members in your research? Heraldry offers a fun opportunity to get everyone interested and involved. There are several places online where you can create your own coat of arms. While these coats of arms won't be registered with any college of heraldry, (or be very historically accurate), they will be a representation of your family. This is a great opportunity to sit down and talk about what you, as a family, value. You can choose a family motto and pick out which objects best symbolize your family's unique characteristics.

You could even design a coat of arms for a deceased ancestor. For example, this would be a great way to help your family learn about their great-great-grandfather. Share some stories and photographs from his life. Then, as a family, decide what you think would have been most important to great-great-grandpa; use this create his coat of arms.

Here are some websites that will allow you to create your own coat of arms:

Other Resources
Heraldry is a fascinating subject and I've just barely scratched the surface in this article. If you're interested in learning more about heraldry, check out these books:

Other articles in the What's in a Name? series:

Article written by Aubrey Fredrickson

Copyright ©: 2011 Fficiency Software, Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.

Newsletters

Select Newsletter by Issue or Topic:

Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Oct 1, 2009

What's in a Name? Part 3: Heraldry and Coats of Arms

by Aubrey Fredrickson

You've probably heard the word heraldry before, but have you ever wondered what it really means? You may have seen products advertising a coat of arms for your surname, also sometimes called a family crest. How can a person know if a Coat of Arms for their surname is legitimate? One of the many vague notions we have about heraldry is that a coat of arms may be inherited. And just about anything that can be inherited has instant appeal to us as genealogists because it can tell us something about our family and maybe even help us trace our ancestors. In this final article of the "What's In a Name?" series, I'll attempt to straighten out some of our beliefs about heraldry, particularly as it applies to genealogy.If you missed the first two articles, check out Part 1: Your First Name and Part 2: Your Surname.


Basics First
First things first. What exactly is heraldry? People in cultures all over the world have historically used symbols to represent themselves. However, when we use the word heraldry, we are really referring to a specific custom that developed in Europe around the 12th century. It all started with the need to identify knights in battle. One knight in full armor looks much like another, how could anyone tell who's who at a distance? To solve this problem, knights began to wear a symbol or a personalized design on their shields, surcoats, and banners. It was the practice of embroidering the symbol on the surcoat that brought about the term coat of arms.

At first, knights were free to use whatever symbol they wished, but over time customs and laws began to limit and regulate the bearing of a coat of arms. In England, King Edward IV established the Heralds' College in 1483. The College's job was to supervise the granting of coats of arms. Rather than each knight choosing his own, coats of arms were granted by the king and passed down through a family by inheritance.

Thus a coat of arms is the emblem or symbol which was associated with a specific person. When a coat of arms was registered to the person, it was written down in words, rather than by a graphical representation. This is known as blazoning, where a coat of arms is described by such features as the color and shape of the shield and the type of objects placed on it. The word heraldry is used to encompass the whole custom of designing, granting, and blazoning the coat of arms.

Dissecting a Coat of Arms
Before we go any farther, let's talk for a moment about the elements that go into a coat of arms. Seven basic elements are described in the blazoning of a coat of arms:

  • Escutcheon (or the shield): The central design of a coat of arms is the escutcheon, on and around which are placed the other design elements. Typically, the escutcheon is a basic shield shape. A woman's esctcheon, however, would be lozenge (diamond) shaped.
  • Charges (or arms): The figures or designs that are shown on the escutcheon itself.
  • Helm (or helmet): Signifies the bearer's rank and is placed above the escutcheon.
  • Mantle: The mantle flows around the coat of arms. It may look like leaves or vines, but actually represents the real mantle (like a cloak) worn by knights over their armor to protect them from rain or overheating in the sun. The mantle in a coat of arms is shown as a flowing and torn cloth because that is how it would have looked during battle.
  • Torse (or wreath): A rope of twisted fabric that rests on the helm and apparently holds the mantle in place.
  • Crest: A symbol placed above the torse (or wreath).
  • Motto: The motto generally appears on a ribbon above or below the shield.
  • Supporters: Human or animal figures placed on either side of escutcheon that appear to support it.
Who has the Right to Display a Coat of Arms?
You may have seen a coat of arms for your surname. Does that mean that it is your coat of arms? Probably not in any technical sense. Coats of arms were granted and registered to a single individual, not a family. They passed from father to son and only one person at a time had the legal right to bear a particular coat of arms. Only the eldest son would inherit the right to bear his father's exact coat of arms (daughters and younger sons could bear a slightly altered version, but I'll explain that a little later). So, only a direct male line descendant would have the legal right to bear his father's coat of arms.

Does that mean that it would be illegal for you to use one of these coats of arms for your surname? No, it would not be illegal and in many ways it would be a positive affirmation of your family heritage. Having a plaque or mug with a coat of arms for your surname on it honors a forefather who carried your family bravely into battle. For a genealogist it is a demonstrative way to remember and display their family name. If you are interested in purchasing a decorative coat of arms for your surname, we suggest House of Names or The Tree Maker.

How Were Coats of Arms Inherited?
Only one person was allowed to bear a specific coat of arms at a time. All of the bearer's sons could inherit the coat of arms, but they were altered slightly by adding a cadency mark to differentiate them from the father's coat of arms. The cadency marks were designs similar to charges (the figures or designs that are shown on the shield), but were smaller and generally placed in the middle of the shield. There were specific marks to indicate birth order. To see examples of these cadency marks, click here.

The eldest son's coat of arms would include a cadency mark during his father's lifetime. After his father's death, he inherited the right to bear the original coat of arms and the cadency mark would be dropped. Younger sons' coats of arms would always include the cadency mark. This slight altering of the coat of arms as it is passed down makes it possible, in some cases, to trace family lines through the coat of arms.

Daughters could also inherit their father's coat of arms, but they were placed on a lozenge (diamond shaped) escutcheon, rather than a shield. She could not, however, pass the arms on to her children unless she had no brothers. If the family had no sons, then the eldest daughter would be the heraldic heiress and could pass the arms onto her children.

After she was married, a woman could also bear her husband's arms and could use a shield shaped escutcheon. Often, her father's coat of arms would be combined with her husband's by arranging both coats of arms on a single shield. This practice is known as marshalling. This is another way that family relationship can be traced through heraldry to some extent, as the coat of arms was a visible reminder of family alliances.

Heraldry in America
I was somewhat surprised to come across a page for an Institute of Heraldry on the US Army website. Since I associated heraldry with the idea of an aristocracy, it hadn't occurred to me that there would be a use for it in the US. Interestingly, there is -- although modern American heraldry is a bit different than the sort we've been talking about.

The Institute of Heraldry follows the basic rules of heraldic design to create the emblems that symbolize America. The Great Seal of the United States, as well as the Presidential Seal, are examples of traditional heraldic art. Each branch of the military has its own seal, as do many different units within those branches. The Institute of Heraldry is also responsible for designing the "decorations, medals, insignia, badges, flags, and other items awarded to or authorized for official wear or display by government personnel and agencies"

For more information about American heraldry, see The Design of American Heraldry: An Interview with Charles V. Mungo.

Heraldry Today
If you want to find out whether any of your ancestors possessed a coat of arms, you may want to research heraldry in the country where they lived. For example, if your ancestor was English, try starting with the College of Arms website, which contains a lot of helpful information about heraldry. There is also a page that explains what to do if you are trying to prove the right to bear arms by descent and genealogical research. Since coats of arms are inherited through families, the records kept by the College are of great genealogical value. If you have reason to think your ancestors may have been granted a coat of arms by a British monarch, I would suggest checking this site out as a viable research source.

For information about heraldry in other countries, try doing a Google search on the terms "heraldry" and the name of the country.

Family Activity
Looking for a way to include your family members in your research? Heraldry offers a fun opportunity to get everyone interested and involved. There are several places online where you can create your own coat of arms. While these coats of arms won't be registered with any college of heraldry, (or be very historically accurate), they will be a representation of your family. This is a great opportunity to sit down and talk about what you, as a family, value. You can choose a family motto and pick out which objects best symbolize your family's unique characteristics.

You could even design a coat of arms for a deceased ancestor. For example, this would be a great way to help your family learn about their great-great-grandfather. Share some stories and photographs from his life. Then, as a family, decide what you think would have been most important to great-great-grandpa; use this create his coat of arms.

Here are some websites that will allow you to create your own coat of arms:

Other Resources
Heraldry is a fascinating subject and I've just barely scratched the surface in this article. If you're interested in learning more about heraldry, check out these books:

Other articles in the What's in a Name? series:

Article written by Aubrey Fredrickson

Copyright ©: 2011 Fficiency Software, Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.

Newsletters

Select Newsletter by Issue or Topic:

Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Oct 1, 2009

What's in a Name? Part 3: Heraldry and Coats of Arms

by Aubrey Fredrickson

You've probably heard the word heraldry before, but have you ever wondered what it really means? You may have seen products advertising a coat of arms for your surname, also sometimes called a family crest. How can a person know if a Coat of Arms for their surname is legitimate? One of the many vague notions we have about heraldry is that a coat of arms may be inherited. And just about anything that can be inherited has instant appeal to us as genealogists because it can tell us something about our family and maybe even help us trace our ancestors. In this final article of the "What's In a Name?" series, I'll attempt to straighten out some of our beliefs about heraldry, particularly as it applies to genealogy.If you missed the first two articles, check out Part 1: Your First Name and Part 2: Your Surname.


Basics First
First things first. What exactly is heraldry? People in cultures all over the world have historically used symbols to represent themselves. However, when we use the word heraldry, we are really referring to a specific custom that developed in Europe around the 12th century. It all started with the need to identify knights in battle. One knight in full armor looks much like another, how could anyone tell who's who at a distance? To solve this problem, knights began to wear a symbol or a personalized design on their shields, surcoats, and banners. It was the practice of embroidering the symbol on the surcoat that brought about the term coat of arms.

At first, knights were free to use whatever symbol they wished, but over time customs and laws began to limit and regulate the bearing of a coat of arms. In England, King Edward IV established the Heralds' College in 1483. The College's job was to supervise the granting of coats of arms. Rather than each knight choosing his own, coats of arms were granted by the king and passed down through a family by inheritance.

Thus a coat of arms is the emblem or symbol which was associated with a specific person. When a coat of arms was registered to the person, it was written down in words, rather than by a graphical representation. This is known as blazoning, where a coat of arms is described by such features as the color and shape of the shield and the type of objects placed on it. The word heraldry is used to encompass the whole custom of designing, granting, and blazoning the coat of arms.

Dissecting a Coat of Arms
Before we go any farther, let's talk for a moment about the elements that go into a coat of arms. Seven basic elements are described in the blazoning of a coat of arms:

  • Escutcheon (or the shield): The central design of a coat of arms is the escutcheon, on and around which are placed the other design elements. Typically, the escutcheon is a basic shield shape. A woman's esctcheon, however, would be lozenge (diamond) shaped.
  • Charges (or arms): The figures or designs that are shown on the escutcheon itself.
  • Helm (or helmet): Signifies the bearer's rank and is placed above the escutcheon.
  • Mantle: The mantle flows around the coat of arms. It may look like leaves or vines, but actually represents the real mantle (like a cloak) worn by knights over their armor to protect them from rain or overheating in the sun. The mantle in a coat of arms is shown as a flowing and torn cloth because that is how it would have looked during battle.
  • Torse (or wreath): A rope of twisted fabric that rests on the helm and apparently holds the mantle in place.
  • Crest: A symbol placed above the torse (or wreath).
  • Motto: The motto generally appears on a ribbon above or below the shield.
  • Supporters: Human or animal figures placed on either side of escutcheon that appear to support it.
Who has the Right to Display a Coat of Arms?
You may have seen a coat of arms for your surname. Does that mean that it is your coat of arms? Probably not in any technical sense. Coats of arms were granted and registered to a single individual, not a family. They passed from father to son and only one person at a time had the legal right to bear a particular coat of arms. Only the eldest son would inherit the right to bear his father's exact coat of arms (daughters and younger sons could bear a slightly altered version, but I'll explain that a little later). So, only a direct male line descendant would have the legal right to bear his father's coat of arms.

Does that mean that it would be illegal for you to use one of these coats of arms for your surname? No, it would not be illegal and in many ways it would be a positive affirmation of your family heritage. Having a plaque or mug with a coat of arms for your surname on it honors a forefather who carried your family bravely into battle. For a genealogist it is a demonstrative way to remember and display their family name. If you are interested in purchasing a decorative coat of arms for your surname, we suggest House of Names or The Tree Maker.

How Were Coats of Arms Inherited?
Only one person was allowed to bear a specific coat of arms at a time. All of the bearer's sons could inherit the coat of arms, but they were altered slightly by adding a cadency mark to differentiate them from the father's coat of arms. The cadency marks were designs similar to charges (the figures or designs that are shown on the shield), but were smaller and generally placed in the middle of the shield. There were specific marks to indicate birth order. To see examples of these cadency marks, click here.

The eldest son's coat of arms would include a cadency mark during his father's lifetime. After his father's death, he inherited the right to bear the original coat of arms and the cadency mark would be dropped. Younger sons' coats of arms would always include the cadency mark. This slight altering of the coat of arms as it is passed down makes it possible, in some cases, to trace family lines through the coat of arms.

Daughters could also inherit their father's coat of arms, but they were placed on a lozenge (diamond shaped) escutcheon, rather than a shield. She could not, however, pass the arms on to her children unless she had no brothers. If the family had no sons, then the eldest daughter would be the heraldic heiress and could pass the arms onto her children.

After she was married, a woman could also bear her husband's arms and could use a shield shaped escutcheon. Often, her father's coat of arms would be combined with her husband's by arranging both coats of arms on a single shield. This practice is known as marshalling. This is another way that family relationship can be traced through heraldry to some extent, as the coat of arms was a visible reminder of family alliances.

Heraldry in America
I was somewhat surprised to come across a page for an Institute of Heraldry on the US Army website. Since I associated heraldry with the idea of an aristocracy, it hadn't occurred to me that there would be a use for it in the US. Interestingly, there is -- although modern American heraldry is a bit different than the sort we've been talking about.

The Institute of Heraldry follows the basic rules of heraldic design to create the emblems that symbolize America. The Great Seal of the United States, as well as the Presidential Seal, are examples of traditional heraldic art. Each branch of the military has its own seal, as do many different units within those branches. The Institute of Heraldry is also responsible for designing the "decorations, medals, insignia, badges, flags, and other items awarded to or authorized for official wear or display by government personnel and agencies"

For more information about American heraldry, see The Design of American Heraldry: An Interview with Charles V. Mungo.

Heraldry Today
If you want to find out whether any of your ancestors possessed a coat of arms, you may want to research heraldry in the country where they lived. For example, if your ancestor was English, try starting with the College of Arms website, which contains a lot of helpful information about heraldry. There is also a page that explains what to do if you are trying to prove the right to bear arms by descent and genealogical research. Since coats of arms are inherited through families, the records kept by the College are of great genealogical value. If you have reason to think your ancestors may have been granted a coat of arms by a British monarch, I would suggest checking this site out as a viable research source.

For information about heraldry in other countries, try doing a Google search on the terms "heraldry" and the name of the country.

Family Activity
Looking for a way to include your family members in your research? Heraldry offers a fun opportunity to get everyone interested and involved. There are several places online where you can create your own coat of arms. While these coats of arms won't be registered with any college of heraldry, (or be very historically accurate), they will be a representation of your family. This is a great opportunity to sit down and talk about what you, as a family, value. You can choose a family motto and pick out which objects best symbolize your family's unique characteristics.

You could even design a coat of arms for a deceased ancestor. For example, this would be a great way to help your family learn about their great-great-grandfather. Share some stories and photographs from his life. Then, as a family, decide what you think would have been most important to great-great-grandpa; use this create his coat of arms.

Here are some websites that will allow you to create your own coat of arms:

Other Resources
Heraldry is a fascinating subject and I've just barely scratched the surface in this article. If you're interested in learning more about heraldry, check out these books:

Other articles in the What's in a Name? series:

Article written by Aubrey Fredrickson

Copyright ©: 2011 Fficiency Software, Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.

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