Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Coats of Arms -- what is real and what isn't

Warning, this is another of Tanner's tirades and those with contrary opinions probably should be ready to disagree. 

Many years before I got involved in family history and genealogy, our family had several bound surname books. I used to look up my own name from time to time and in the Tanner book, I couldn't help but notice the prominent Coat of Arms displayed in the front of the book. As I did my own research over the years, I came to realize that my Tanner ancestors' line went back to the 1600s in Rhode Island (my last post discusses this issue in length). No one in the family has yet found an English connection to the immigrant. So where did this "Coat of Arms" come from? It was "borrowed" from a family with the same surname. The particular Coat of Arms in the Tanner book was not very attractive and I couldn't imagine wanting that hanging around in my house or wearing it on a T-shirt.

So, are all the people with a certain surname entitled to display and claim ownership to a Coat of Arms? What is a Coat of Arms anyway? Why would I want one? My family goes back 400 years or more on the American continent, why would I care whether my 500 year old ancestors were entitled to one or not?

Unfortunately, Coats of Arms are sort-of like pedigrees back to Adam, they are often claimed but they are hardly ever based on any kind of historically accurate fact or information. The difference is that there is a remote possibility that you or your family may be entitled to a Coat of Arms, but there is no possibility of finding an accurate lineage back to Adam.

There are literally dozens, maybe hundreds, of websites more than willing to "research your Coat of Arms" or simply provide you with one for a fee. The come-on is sometimes "Free coat of arms research if we haven't got your personal coat of arms on record." Why would I want to pay them to do research, I already have a Coat of Arms! What you find out about Coats of Arms depends on whether you want on or not and whether the source of your information wants to sell you one. This whole inquiry started out because one of my friends ran up to me to tell me that her husband was the recipient of a Coat of Arms and didn't I think that was neat? I didn't say anything. Discretion is the better part of valor. 

Here is one definition from Wikipedia:Coat of Arms
A coat of arms is a unique heraldic design on a shield or escutcheon or on a surcoat or tabard used to cover and protect armour and to identify the wearer. Thus the term is often stated as "coat-armour", because it was anciently displayed on the front of a coat of cloth. The coat of arms on an escutcheon forms the central element of the full heraldic achievement which consists of shield, supporters, crest and motto. The design is a symbol unique to an individual person, and to his family, corporation, or state. Such displays are commonly called armorial bearings, armorial devices, heraldic devices, or simply armorials or arms.
 The study of Coats of Arms, or more generally, heraldry is useful to genealogists because of this further quote from Wikipedia:
In the heraldic traditions of England and Scotland an individual, rather than a family, had a coat of arms. In those traditions coats of arms are legal property transmitted from father to son; wives and daughters could also bear arms modified to indicate their relation to the current holder of the arms. Undifferenced arms are used only by one person at any given time. Other descendants of the original bearer could bear the ancestral arms only with some difference: usually a color change or the addition of a distinguishing charge. One such charge is the label, which in British usage (outside the Royal Family) is now always the mark of an heir apparent or (in Scotland) an heir presumptive.
Because of their importance in identification, particularly in seals on legal documents, the use of arms was strictly regulated; few countries continue in this today. This has been carried out by heralds and the study of coats of arms is therefore called "heraldry". Some other traditions (e.g., Polish heraldry) are less restrictive — allowing, for example, all members of a dynastic house or family to use the same arms, although one or more elements may be reserved to the head of the house.
 The key here is that the right to own or display the Coat of Arms was hereditary but not to the family generally, but only to a specific individual with some exceptions on an international basis. In Scotland, the Lord Lyon King of Arms has criminal jurisdiction to enforce the laws of arms. In England, Northern Ireland and Wales the use of arms is a matter of civil law and regulated from the College of Arms and the Court of Chivalry.

OK, enough Wikipedia and history. The simple answer is that no one is "entitled" to use a Coat of Arms simply by virtue of having the same of similar surname. The Coats of Arms do not belong to the surname, they belong to individuals who acquire the right to use the symbol by inheritance. Hence the relationship between genealogy and the sale of Coats of Arms.

There will be those who are quick to say, but isn't have a Coat of Arms basically harmless and by the way, doesn't it help some more people get interested in genealogy? The answer is of course yes. If you would like to read an interesting account of obtaining a legitimate Coat of Arms see Acquiring a Real Coat of Arms

I can hardly be labeled elitist because I think the practice of "adopting" a Coat of Arms to lack any credibility. It is the other way around. People generally want to believe that they come from a royal family and are entitled to a Coat of Arms for purely social reasons that have little or nothing to do with furthering genealogical research. Quoting from the sidebar with the above article,
The short answer is that if you can prove that you have one ancestor (male or female) who came from England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland, you probably are eligible to apply. A very high proportion of Americans qualify on this basis, including over 70 percent of African-Americans who have some English ancestry.
 Not very exclusive and not very meaningful. 


  1. For a LOT more info on this subject see the usenet newsgroup rec.heraldry

  2. Doesn't seem all that controversial to me. I agree with everything you say, and although I'm not particularly interested in heraldry, I know enough to cause me to wince every time I see one of those 'surname shops' or racks of 'heraldic' mugs, key-rings and so on. I try not to notice one of the magnets on my mother's fridge, either.

    I suppose it's OK if people just want a nice souvenir from the gift shop, but I do find it worrying if people who claim to be genealogists buy into this 'coat of arms goes with a surname'racket.

    But the desire to have a coat of arms without any understanding of heraldry is nothing new, of course. Some years ago a case I was researching led me to go through several boxes of the correspondence of Robert Garraway-Rice, one of the founders of the Society of Genealogists a century ago. There were several letters from a Mr Garraway in Ireland, about their possible common ancestry, and in one of them the Irish Mr Garraway mentioned (and described) the coat of arms his family had been using for about 200 years, and asked Mr G-R's opinion. Being an eminent heraldist, he investigated and discovered that the arms in question belonged to a Norfolk family unconnected to the the Garraways, and the College of Arms had no record of any such grant to a Garraway in Ireland. It turned out that these dodgy arms had been sold to the original bearer by someone who had absolutely no authority to award them. I didn't get to find out what poor Mr Garraway's reaction was; he never wrote back.

    It makes me wonder how many of the current off-the-peg coats of arms will be passed down to future unsuspecting generations.

  3. Clients often ask me what their Coat of Arms is, or which Scottish clan they belong to. My response is usually greeted with disappointment!

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