Posts tagged ‘college 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

Haiti earthquake of January 2010

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you should have heard about the devastating 7.0 Mw earthquake that hit Haiti on the night of January 12, 2010.

In response to this, the College of Arms has made the very admirable move to send money collected from the sale of the book “The Armorial of Haiti” to those in need in that island country. Clive Cheesman, Rouge Dragon of the College of Arms made the following posting on January 13 in rec.heraldry:

In response to the calamitous earthquake that struck Haiti yesterday evening, the College of Arms has decided that all proceeds arising from future sales of The Armorial of Haiti: Symbols of Nobility in the Reign of Henry Christophe (ISBN 978-09506980-2-1) will be donated to the relief effort.

The book is an edition, with commentary, of an extraordinary heraldic manuscript created in Haiti in the second decade of the nineteenth century and now held in the College of Arms. It was published by the College in 2007 and is available on-line for 45 pounds sterling (plus despatch costs) at and through Production costs for the book have been met, and all sums received by the College over and above normal packing and postage costs will be held for the benefit of a recognised charity working towards the international relief effort, the charity to be selected on the basis of official advice.

I would urge those who have not yet acquired a copy of this book to consider doing so, and to mention it to others who may be interested either in New World heraldry, in Caribbean history or specifically in the politics and culture of Haiti. Doing so will raise money directly for the relief of the nation that produced this unusual and fascinating artefact.

If you have already purchased a copy of the book, or as an alternative to doing so now, please consider donating directly to the effort to the relief campaign through a charity of your choice.

Clive Cheesman
Rouge Dragon
College of Arms
Queen Victoria Street

Heraldry Course at the University of Dundee

Just this past Sunday, on October 11th, I received the most recent newsletter (#12) from the College of Arms. Among the many interesting topics covered, the most interesting to me was the announcement that there will be a course on heraldry given at the University of Dundee in Scotland.

Here is the text of the announcement:

Heraldry Course at University of Dundee: Clive Cheesman and Peter O’Donoghue, Rouge Dragon and Bluemantle respectively, are the joint authors and tutors of a course covering the history, terminology and practice of heraldry. This course provides a detailed and thorough study of the subject for both beginners, and those with experience of heraldry alike. The heraldry module is a 13-week distance learning module delivered online in a fully supported learning environment. It can be taken on its own, simply as a leisure interest. It can also be taken for continuing professional development, as part of a Postgraduate Certificate in Family and Local History, or as part of the University of Dundee’s Masters degree in Archives and Records Management. More information can be found on the Centre for Archives and Information Studies website or by e-mailing

For those who are not in Scotland, the best part is that it can be taken online. The fact that it’s being given by two of the Pursuivants of the College of Arms, makes it extra special.

Of course, one might ask why are folks from the English College of Arms teaching a course in Scotland, in Lord Lyon’s turf. I don’t know….

If you’d like to subscribe to future newsletters, you can do so by visiting this link:

Do arms need to be granted to be “real” heraldry?

The short answer is a resounding No!

Let’s examine why.

Heraldry has existed since the mid 12th century and spread throughout Europe. Records of heraldic devices have been found from the 1100’s everywhere from Germany to England to Spain. In all these jurisdictions and more, though there were rules of heraldry there wasn’t a central authority controlling the granting or registration of arms. Whoever wanted arms was free to assume them.

Perhaps the oldest heraldic authority is that of Scotland, the Court of the Lord Lyon, founded in 1318 by King Robert the Bruce, a full 170 years before the College of Arms was founded in England. By this time, heraldry was alive and well in most of Europe, even in England. So much so was the tradition of free assumption in England that from 1530 to 1688 the Kings of Arms of the College of Arms undertook a series of tours of the country to record all assumed arms. These tours are collectively known as the Heraldic Visitations.

By this time, heraldry in the British Isles had become stratified and tightly controlled. But, what of the other countries with just as long a heraldic tradition?

In Germany, ever since the time of Charlemagne, anyone was free to assume arms and display them and use them as needed. Carl von Volborth has gone so far as to make the assertion that it was the burgher arms of Germans that help shape Swedish heraldry. Germany never had a heraldic authority and that didn’t change throughout the history to this day. However, regional registration did and continue to exist.

In France, a similar history as that of Germany. Once again, no “granting” of arms but registrations did exist.

In Switzerland, a country with an exceptionally long and broad heraldic history, there never was a heraldic authority and the concept of having arms granted is as foreign as a Viking in central Africa.

Notice a pattern?

One can examine almost any country in Europe and find the same pattern.

Even within the Catholic Church, the same pattern exists. The position in the Church is so strong on the free assumption of arms that the giant of Catholic heraldry, Archbishop Bruno Heim was adamantly against the creation of a “Vatican Heraldic Authority”.

Well, as it is plainly seen, if free assumption of arms is “fake”, then Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland and the Catholic Church never had and still don’t have “real” heraldry.

It is my personal opinion that those who are against the free assumption of arms tend to discount the traditions of Europe and base their opinions solely on the heraldic history of the British Isles. I tend to think that the example of Britannia is the exception rather than the rule.

New Garter King of Arms in 2010

COA Garter King of ArmsArms of the Garter Principle King of Arms
Argent St George’s Cross upon a chief Gules a coronet or open crown within the Garter of the order between a Lion of England and a Fleur de lis Or

I just found out that a new Garter Principle King of Arms will be introduced next year in 2010 to replace the current one, Peter Llewellyn Gwynn-Jones.

COA Gwynn-Jones

Arms of Peter Gwynn-Jones:
Argent goutté Gules a fret engrailed and molined at the mascle point Azure

Peter Gwynn-Jones has had a long and distinguished service at the College of Arms, first joining in 1970 as an assistant to the then Garter, Sir Anthony Richard Wagner. Gwynn-Jones became Garter King of Arms in 1995.

COA_Norroy_Ulster_King_of_ArmsArms of the Norroy & Ulster King of Arms
Quarterly Argent and Or a Cross Gules on a Chief per pale Azure and Gules a Lion passant guardant Or crowned with an open Crown between a Fleur-de-lis and a Harp Or

The person that will be replacing Gwynn-Jones is the current Norroy & Ulster King of Arms, Thomas Woodcock.

COA Woodcock

Arms of Thomas Woodcock:
Or on a bend cotised Gules three cross crosslets fitchy of the field

Woodcock joined the College of Arms in 1975 as an assistant to Sir Athony, like Gwynn-Jones. By 1978, he rose to Rouge Croix Pursuivant, and in 1982 he became Somerset Herald. It was only in 1997 that Woodcock rose to current position of Norroy & Ulster King of Arms.

It is still not known when the transition will occur

(Note: Some images from Wikipedia)