Do I have the right to display the arms of X?

Over the weekend I received a tweet on this blog’s Twitter account asking me whether university graduates have the right to display their school’s arms. This made me realize that this information is not readily available in the typical heraldic sources and therefore would make an excellent blog topic!

So, what are the rules governing the display of arms of insitutions you’ve been or are a member of?

Ex Libris of Elisabeth Tropp von Rheude
Ex Libris of Elizabeth Tropp von Rheude

The simple answer is that you can place the arms of your alma mater, your birthplace, your military unit, etc. in an armorial display such as a bookplate (or “ex libris”), your wall or your signature line in online discussion forums and anywhere else you want to show your affiliation.

However, the very bright and clear line is drawn when it comes to incorporating those arms into your own arms. In other words, just because you served in the USMC (United States Marine Corpe) it doesn’t mean that you could incorporate the EGA (Eagle, Globe & Anchor) onto your shield. Heraldry is very symbolic and the incorporation of the identifying symbol of another (person or organization) into one’s own arms denotes ownership. In other words, if you were to incorporate the EGA on your shield, you would be telling the world that you “own” the USMC.

COA Duke of Wellington
Coat of Arms of the Duke of Wellington with the Union Jack as an augmentation

The only time when a symbol of an institution/organization is added to personal arms is when the actual owner gives the explicit permission to do so. This is what is called an “augmentation”. The permission given is very explicit and can be just for the lifetime of the grantee or may include his legal heirs. However, the way the augmentation is presented makes it very clear that it is not an integral part of the shield but, an “add-on”. Augmentations are overlayed onto the original arms, many times even hiding whole or parts of the charges underneath.

A note should be made here that I am not referring to marshalling of arms but, the inclusion of the arms of another as an integral part of your own. For more on marshalling, you can head over to an article I wrote on the topic a while ago.

The rule of thumb always to remember is that heraldry is a form of identification and no different than a surname, online avatar or even a Tax ID. Using someone else’s arms is no different than committing identity theft.

Now, before anybody emails me with examples of royal arms allow me to say something: royals don’t have to follow any rules and can make their own. In the words of the inimitable Mel Brooks: “It’s good to be the King“.

Note: All images are from Wikipedia

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