Posts tagged ‘coat of arms’

Is it snobbish to have a Coat of Arms?

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.

1. Posted by Joseph McMillan in the forums of the American Heraldry Society
Image from the College of Arms of England, Wales and N. Ireland

Designing your own coat of arms – Ancestral arms or familial symbols

In part 2 of the series on designing your own coat of arms, we’ll examine how one can use any ancestral arms or familial symbols. The assumption, of course, is that those ancestral arms cannot be used, even with some form of differencing.

So, let’s say that family tradition has it that you are a distant relative of some minor European noble that bore arms. The relation is so distant, that there isn’t a cadency mark to denote the relationship. Just to make things interesting, let’s also assume that there isn’t any supporting documentation to prove this relation.

Since there isn’t any proof of descent from this ancient armiger, it would be imprudent to just adopt those arms with a difference. A new coat of arms would be the recommended solution but can draw ideas from the pre-existing arms.

To make the discussion easier, let’s invent a coat of arms that will serve for illustration purposes.


(Note: any resemblance to existing coat of arms belonging to an individual, family or organization is purely coincidental)

The blazon for the invented coat of arms above is: Gules, an oak tree eradicated Or between in base two anchors Argent.

Now, let’s see what we’ve got to work with….

We have the tinctures: Gules (red), Or (gold/yellow) and Argent (silver/white)

We have an oak tree.

We have anchors.

Putting the tinctures aside, one can use the oak tree as the inspiration to use a tree, an acorn, or an oak leaf. The anchors may have us use a nautical or sea theme; perhaps a fish, a sea shell or a boat.

Remember that you don’t need to use all the elements of the base shield but rather use them as an inspiration.

For example, your train of thought could be: Oak trees produce acorns. Acorns are eaten by squirrels. Squirrel fur was used in the middle ages and is represented in heraldry as Vair. Therefore, in the newly devised arms you may want to use Vair.

Of course, the thought process just mentioned may seem far fetched and I’m sure a psychoanalyst may diagnose some kind of disturbing malaise but, it illustrates how one can come up with new ideas.

It should be noted that one should not merely re-interpret an ancient coat of arms. That old shield is to be used as a starting point and elements identifying yourself and your family should be the primary components.

Continuing with the Vair example above, we can create a new shield as depicted below:


The blazon is: Vairy Or and Gules a cog Argent. The cog representing the family’s engineering business (assuming such a business exists).

In a similar fashion, familial symbols (cattle brands, house marks, etc.) can be used. Especially if there is some sort of symbol that a direct ancestor (if not oneself) used. Depending on the symbol, it may used unmodified as a charge on the shield or use a charge that resembles it.

The general rule of thumb with any kind of familial symbol (heraldic or otherwise) is that if you can support a claim to it, you can probably use it as is. If you cannot but want to incorporate it somehow, use an allusion to it.

However, beware of “fantasy” genealogy. For example, just because your surname is “Drake” doesn’t mean you are necessarily related to Sir Francis Drake and can use the Wyvern Gules.

Previous: Introduction Next: Canting arms

Designing your own coat of arms – Introduction

In an earlier post, the topic of obtaining a new coat of arms was covered and most attention was given to the various organizations and individuals that can assist with this. In today’s post, we’ll introduce a new series of posts exploring the path of designing one’s own arms which is sometimes the most rewarding approach.

Be forewarned that this will not be a quick process and may take from weeks to years to get “the one”. A coat of arms represents yourself and your descendants for generations and any attempt to get one should not be taken lightly. You may think of this as getting a tattoo that is painful to be removed. A tattoo that it is highly likely your children and their children and so on will also get.

You may have some ideas or you may have none at all, that’s fine. The key is to have an open mind as you will change your mind many times along the way.

Before starting, you’ll need to answer some questions that may help get the creative juices flowing. Some questions I like asking are:

  • Do you know of any of your ancestors that were armigerous although you cannot claim those arms even with differencing?
  • Are there any familial or personal symbols used in the past? (e.g. cattle brand, housemark, etc.)
  • What does your surname mean?
  • What is your ancestry?
  • If you would like to include allusions to your ancestry, what would they be? (e.g. colors, symbols, style, etc)
  • What is your religion/philosophy?
  • If you would like to include allusions to your religion, what would they be? (e.g. colors, symbols, style, etc)
  • What is your genealogy? (either documented or family oral tradition)
  • Military or civil service?
  • Any significant personal/professional/spiritual achievements?
  • What is your profession?
  • Any family or personal nicknames?
  • What are your favorite colors?

The above are just a sample of questions to ask. As a result of those, many more can be asked while others may be skipped. There aren’t any hard and fast rules here, the questions are just to help generate ideas.

Another thing I would recommend is that the prospective armiger start looking at existing coats of arms either by visiting a museum, a library or, my favorite, an online armorial. Some of the online armorials I enjoy are of:

By examining existing coats of arms, the prospective armiger gets an idea of what’s out there, how arms were constructed, details used that may trigger a thought, etc. Not to mention that it’s a quick, though not at all foolproof, way to see if an idea is already “taken”.

In subsequent posts in the series, we’ll go over the questions proposed above and how those can assist in the design of a new coat of arms that will identify you and your family for generations to come!

Next: Ancestral arms or familial symbols

Attributed coats of arms

We’ve talked about arms of of countries and of individuals. We’ve talked about unique arms and duplicate arms. We’ve even covered how to obtain a new coat of arms. This time we’ll talk about arms that were never used by their supposed owners, usually because heraldry didn’t exist yet when they were alive.

These arms are called attributed arms. Almost all popular personages have been attributed arms, from Jesus to Alexander the Great to the legendary King Arthur, even Satan!

Sometimes, arms were given to kings and heroes of foreign and exotic lands that didn’t themselves have a heraldic tradition.

It appears that these phenomenon first began in literature of the 12th century, coinciding with the general introduction of heraldry in Europe. Over the centuries, these arms even found themselves into rolls of arms compiled in the continent.

Sometimes, new coats of arms were created but used attributed arms in quarterings to support their claim of descent from a legendary figure.

COA JesusCOA Archangel MichaelCOA Satan

Obtaining a new coat of arms

We’ve discussed the uniqueness of arms and what to do about dealing with duplication or usurpation of arms. Now, it’s time to address the question of how to get arms in the first place.

The assumption is that if you’re interested in this topic, you haven’t inherited arms through some ancestor (typically father). If you have, then perhaps you’ll be interested in a previous post on cadency.

If you’re still reading then you don’t currently have arms and would like to become armigerous. Let me start by saying that you don’t have to be a member of nobility to have arms. However, depending on where you live, you may have to jump through a few hoops to get them and it may cost you.

In countries where heraldry is tightly controlled, such as England, Scotland, Canada, Ireland and South Africa, one may apply to the local heraldic authority for a grant of arms. The beauty of this approach is that the obtained coat of arms is granted by a government authority, registered, guaranteed to be unique (in the jurisdiction) and finally come with Letters Patent. On the other hand, the downside is that these cost a substantial amount of time and may take up to 2 or 3 years from application to receipt of the Letters Patent. It should be noted that in some cases one can petition for arms at the heraldic authority of choice provided the appropriate criteria are met (usually descent from the country in question).

In the other countries, such as the United States, free assumption of arms is the norm. It can be as simple as putting together a shield and using it all the way to consulting with heraldic artists (amateur or professional) to come up with it. After creating the arms, it is highly recommended that they get registered with one or more of the many registries that exist.

Another service these registries offer is the creation of arms and part of the package is to register them as well as design them.

Heraldic authorities where one can petition for arms:

Online locations where one can request assistance for a new coat of arms: