Coat Of Arms & Family Research

by Kathleen Brandt | Jul 1, 2011

If the coat of arms hanging prominently on your wall is authentic, it may offer some of the most interesting sleuthing opportunities of your family research. Using heraldic standards, family historians are often able to confirm ethnic origin, class status, and ancestral kinships. It is possible that by "decoding" a heraldic design, you will be able to support your genealogy research and connect the heirloom to an 11th century European ancestor. Or, you may discover that an immigrant ancestor acquired and registered arms with a heraldic authority. Of course it is also possible that researching the origin of a coat of arms may have disappointing results. Since many of our ancestors were not entitled to arms, your research may reveal that you possess a souvenir that yields no historical or genealogical data.

The Right To Armorial Bearings

Today the use of "coat of arms" and "crest" is interchangeable, but for the purpose of genealogy the family researcher must know the difference. Strictly speaking "family coat of arms" or "family crests" do not exist and contrary to mall kiosk rhetoric, the only way to adopt an existing coat of arms is to prove you are a direct descendant of a rightful bearer. So, before embracing that treasured coat of arms, you must do your homework and solidify your kinship with the armiger (arm bearer) through a fully documented pedigree.

Even President Thomas Jefferson questioned the validity of the coat of arms in his possession.

" I have what I have been told were the family arms, but on what authority I know not. It is possible there may be none. If so I would with your assistance become a purchaser, having Sterne's word for it that a coat of arms may be purchased as cheap as any other coat."- Th. Jefferson, 1771

Originally coats of arms were granted to knights, but as Jefferson would have learned, by 1750 the business of marketing and furnishing "family arms" flourished.

Although regulated by heraldic authorities, there was an explosion of those entitled to bear arms by the 14th century. In Scotland, it was the law as early as 1400 that all landowners possess and "matriculate" (register) a coat of arms. From 1500 to 1750, on both sides of the ocean, registered arms became a symbol of status, designating rank, landownership, wealth, and fame.

Many descendants of the "landed gentry" migrated to colonial America and carried inherited rights to bear their coat of arms to the colonies. Colonial American heraldic devices were displayed on wax seals or heirloom silver. These pre-Revolutionary War era heraldic seals may also be found in wills or other public records of colonial immigrants connecting family researchers directly to their European ancestry. Colonial researchers may also find armorial insignia in legal documents addressing an Armiger or Gentleman ancestor. Be sure to reference Burke's Landed Gentry collection for colonial research.

Clues may also be found on tombstones. In New England it is common to find gravesites distinctly marked with heraldic designs. Although, a tombstone engraving might suggest armigerous roots, its origin must be validated. To imply a social class standing in the "New World" it was not unusual for immigrant ancestors to adopt arms even though they were not the rightful bearers.

Although not all of our ancestors had a coat of arms, through genealogy research you may find that an immigrant tradesman, squire, or yeoman was a descendent of a 13th century knight. Then again, if your coat of arms was adopted based on a surname without the genealogical proof needed to connect direct ancestors, or if the heraldic design was purchased as a decorative wall hanging or souvenir, be sure to regard it as such.

Heraldic Practices

Coat of arms were granted and registered to individuals by heraldic authorities as early as 1150. Registration of these armorial bearings was required to distinguish knights dressed in identical metal armor during tournaments and battles. The fundamental element of distinction during battle was the shield embellished with painted symbols or emblems representing the full armorial achievement. This same design was emblazoned on the "surcoate" (Fr) that covered the armor. (Some heraldic experts say that the armorial designs displayed on surcoates gave rise to the ubiquitous translation "coat of arms.")

Although the shield is the only essential element of a coat of arms, with time and money other elements of distinction were added for both battle and status. For example, the crest perched atop the helm was used to identify knights in crowded combat where a shield could not be seen. Although many of the older arms did not include crests, as they became more popular researchers will find an increase of registered crests included in heraldic records. These registrations hold valuable genealogical information.

The College of Arms in London has gathered and preserved information on arm-bearers as early as 1483 from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In Scotland coat of arms were granted and matriculated by the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms. The Republic of Ireland also granted and registered coat of arms. Its heraldic authority is The Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland. Each of these countries are still active in regulating, granting and registering arms.

As heraldry transitioned from battlefield identification to ceremonial, other countries, (i.e United States, Canada, Australia, and Sweden), also embraced the practice of allowing individuals to acquire and register arms. It is possible that your ancestor's petition met heraldic standards and is registered with a public or private registry. This practice became is still thriving in most countries.

A good deal of family history is recorded in heraldic records. In addition to genealogical finds, registered coats of arms may contain the petitioner's design rationale, defining the symbols, color, etc. of the shield or documentation supporting the full achievement. For more information on acquiring or registering a coat of arms reference the listing of worldwide heraldic organizations on The American College of Heraldry website.

Heraldic Designs Uncover The Past

A coat of arms granted to a knight in the 12th century or an arm designed and registered by an immigrant ancestor in the 18th century (or more recent) all abide by the same heraldic design standards. So, even though per surname there may be thousands of registered coats of arms, by understanding heraldic design the family researcher may use a coat of arms to define a family unit or pinpoint an ancestor's origin.

Generally speaking arms have one rightful bearer. The eldest son traditionally inherited the arms of his father and all other sons were required to slightly alter the arm by adding distinctive marks to make it their own (a practice called cadency). The mark used to identify a unique family branch could have been as subtle as a change in border color. Genealogists may research variations of a single armorial design to identify siblings within each generation. If cadency was practiced, it can also be used to confirm a family unit it respective coat of arms.

Marital unions can also be identified by "reading" a coat of arms. Unmarried daughters may have inherited arms from a father. This was most often seen when there were no sons. Instead of the masculine military shield, a woman's coat of arms was displayed in a diamond shape field (lozenge). In marriage, she may have merged her arms' design with her armigerous husband's in a practice called "marshalling."

Registered crests may also assist in defining kinships. For example, if two men have registered identical coat of arms but have different crests, you may prove the relationship to be father and son. Often researchers find ancestors registered a coat of arms with a Baron's crest, suggesting an allegiance to a particular Baron. This clue buried in the heraldic records may lead the researcher to a specific barony resulting in discovering an ancestors' whereabouts.

Validity and Relevance

The marketing of "family crests" based on surnames has tarnished the use of coat of arms in family research. However, historically, legitimate coats of arms were not designed as ornamental wall hangings, but as visual commentary of individuals' achievements. The coat of arms, a practical identification of knights, landowners, and those of status, is inherently full of genealogical data.

To transform your armorial bearings from a beautiful wall hanging to an historical and genealogical guide to the heraldic past, you will want to 1) determine the rightful owner of the coat of arms using published materials and heraldic records; 2) prove, through proper genealogy, that you are a direct descendant of the original bearer; and 3) research heraldic authority records, registrations and petitions to discover information on your arm-bearing ancestor.

From The Bookshelf

Heraldry for the American Genealogist, Jean Stephenson, NGS, 1959

Heraldry and Genealogy, L.G. Pine

Additional Information

Although there is a plethora of reference materials written on the relevance of coat of arms to your family research, following are websites of compiled listings:

Heraldry, Cyndi's List

Heraldry Guide, Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center

Colonial family historians may wish to reference:

A Roll of Arms, Registered by the Committee on Heraldry of the New England Historical Genealogical Society (NEGHS)


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