The misconception that having a Coat of Arms makes you somehow “special” has existed for centuries and, unfortunately, I haven’t seen it get any better.
To add fuel to the fire, the inability to escape from the media circus that has become the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Ms. Kate Middleton on April 29th has given a lot of exposure to the recent grant of arms to the bride’s father.
Arms of Ms. Catherine Middleton blazoned:
Per pale Azure and Gules a Chevron Or cotised Argent between three Acorns slipped and leaved Or
In an article publised in the Daily Mail on April 20th, 2011 there is a side panel with the attention grabbing headline “How do you get a Coat of Arms” and here is a snippet of the text therein (reprinted and attributed to the Daily Mail):
However, that doesn’t mean that just anybody can pay the fee and get a coat of arms. The cumulative knowledge of the Earl Marshal gathered over hundreds of years has given them the skill of tactfully suggesting that people don’t proceed with their application.The late Peter Gwynn-Jones, a former Garter King of Arms, once said: ‘In practice, eligibility depends upon holding a civil or military commission, a sound university degree or professional qualification, or having achieved some measure of distinction in a field beneficial to society as a whole.’
This is all fine and dandy for the United Kingdom but, and pay attention here: THE BRITS DID NOT INVENT HERALDRY AND THEIR RULES DO NOT APPLY TO THE ENTIRE WORLD! Not only that, even in the British Isles heraldry existed before the College of Arms came to be and no grants or registrations were necessary. For example, there are some ancient families in England (listed in the Domesday Book) with arms that are just as old who wouldn’t be able to present a grant of arms if their lives depended on it (e.g. the Scropes of Danby).1
The United Kingdom (and I’m including Scotland here) have come up with some very elaborate rules and have a very enviable heraldic tradition that works very well for them. English heraldic experts have contributed much literature and a big part of my heraldic library is by them. But, just like German rules don’t apply in London, English rules don’t apply in Berlin. Most people tend to forget that and assume that what what happens in the UK is the only way.
Heraldry, from the very beginning has been a means of identification. Nothing more and nothing less. We’ve all heard the stories of identification in battle of knights in armor etc. but, heraldry was used beyond the battlefields from where it originated.
At a time where the vast majority of the population was illiterate, symbols were easy to identify and use. Heraldry (and badges) were used in lieu of a signature by anyone who needed it. This is why more than just the nobility adopted and used arms.
This is also why your average pig farmer in the 15th century didn’t have a coat of arms: he didn’t need it! But, he was more than eligible to adopt them if he so wanted to, let’s say, brand his pigs with his mark.
Another example of non-nobles having arms is the Armorial Général de France where about 70% of all the arms listed belong to merchants, artisans and others.
The same could be said about Germany, Switzerland and most of the non-English world.
Specifically in the United States, anyone can adopt, devise and use a Coat of Arms at any time and for any reason. Unfortunately, there isn’t any legal protection of arms in the country but, you do have the option of publishing it and registering it with private registries.
A Coat of Arms is nothing more than a heritable form of identification that does not give it’s owner any more “special” status than coming up with a signature to sign checks & documents with does.
So, to answer the question posed in the title of this entry: Heraldry is snobbish if you also think that having a signature is snobbish.
Oh! One more thing: in those places where grants of arms come from a sovereign, the grant does not ennoble the recipient. This is another major misconception but, I’ll save it for another article.