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Heraldry for Genealogists
Heraldry, or armory as it is more properly called, became established during the second half of the 12th century in Europe. The devices displayed on shields and later as crests, on surcoats, bardings (armor and trappings for horses) and banners (square or oblong flags emblazoned with the arms and sometimes fringed with the livery or armorial colors—personal flags used throughout the Middle Ages by the nobility down to the knights banneret), served to distinguished armored combatants in war and in tournaments. At first arms were the sign of the greater nobility, but by the mid-13th century they were also extensively used by lesser nobility, the knights, and those who later came to be called gentlemen. See: Glossary of Terms Gentil was an Old French word meaning noble, and originally a man of gentle birth was one born—legitimately— into the nobility. Eventually the term gentleman came to designate a position between knight and yeoman. In 1429 an English act of parliament used les gentiles to describe men holding freehold property of 40 shillings a year or more. From the 16th century on, gentleman usually refers to those who were not required to labor physically and who employed servants. By the middle of the 14th century English courts upheld the principle that no man could use arms already adopted by another and eventually the Crown forbade the bearing of arms without authority.
Details and pedigrees of important English families often appear in local histories. Some British periodicals, such as Gentleman's Magazine (1731-1907), provide excellent biographical details. American academic libraries are usually the best source for such publications, and some can be found at the Family History Library. Details about the pedigrees of armigerous ancestors of the 16th and 17th centuries can usually be found in the manuscripts known as the heraldic visitations, many of which have been published by the Harleian Society. Numerous university and genealogical libraries have these publications. They are the records of official surveys made on a county basis in England by the heralds whose duty it was to see that arms were legally and correctly being used. The printed versions often contain additions to the originals, and sometimes continue the pedigrees into the 19th century. However, the last heraldic visitations were in 1680s, and from then until the present, there are many families who have used or have assumed arms to which, strictly, they are not entitled.
To be entitled to arms by inheritance in England, a family of today must be able to prove a direct legitimate male line descent from an ancestor who is on the official record of the College of Arms as being entitled to the same arms. The descents of many armigerous families can be found in the Heralds' Visitations volumes published by the Harleian Society, and in Burke's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage and Burke's Landed Gentry. Information from these sources is secondary evidence and requires checking.
The wrongful assumption of
arms in Scotland is punishable by fine and imprisonment. The regulation of Scottish heraldry differs considerably from the system in England, and all persons
using arms are required to register or "matriculate" their right to arms in the Court of Lord Lyon King of Arms. No "Visitations" were made
in Scotland, and the records of grants and matriculations of arms commence only in 1672. The shields of arms (but not the crests) are all listed for the period
1672-1973 in Sir James Balfour Paul, An Ordinary of Arms contained in the Public Register of all Arms and Bearings in
Scotland (2 vols. 1903 and 1977).
An Ulster King of Arms was
first appointed in 1552, and records of grants in Ireland exist from that date. Heraldic jurisdiction over Northern Ireland was transferred to the College of
Arms in 1943, the office of Ulster King of Arms being joined to that of Norroy King of Arms. In the Republic of Ireland, an official Genealogical Office was
established in Dublin, with the Chief Herald of Ireland at its head, and his authority is the primary one in Eire. Photocopies of the old records of Ulster King
of Arms are deposited in the College of Arms, the originals being retained by the Chief Herald.
Do not assume that a present-day family is descended from a person of the same surname to whom the arms were originally granted or confirmed, without generation-by-generation evidence. There were many people who insisted upon having a coat of arms, whether they had a right to them or not, and there were also a number of pretenders calling themselves heraldic artists, who were more than willing to supply anything for a price. A coat of arms does not necessarily belong to a person just because someone of the same surname bore it. He must prove descent from the owner. See The Right to Arms (Leaflet No. 15 by Society of Genealogists.
There simply is no such thing as a family
(as in surname) Coat of Arms. They were granted to individuals, not families. See the following
articles by Joseph C. Wolf
are often associated with heraldic devices and may provide a useful clue in the identification of arms. However, there is no monopoly on the use of a particular
motto, and the same motto may therefore be used by many different families. Numerous mottoes are listed and identified (and foreign ones translated) in C N
Elvin, A Handbook of Mottoes (1860, revised edition 1971).
One major misunderstanding about Coats of Arms is how descendants can claim it. While the Coat of Arms is inherited, it is also changed to reflect the new sons who have inherited it. Each son has a different cadency added to the coat of arms. The oldest son drops his cadency when his father dies (reverting the coat of arms back to the original format). That is why you will often see that a coat of arms is given from oldest son to oldest son. All others must have a modified version. See: A Primer of Blazonry.
is the practice of devising, blazoning, and granting armorial insignia and of tracing and recording genealogies. An essential principle of heraldry is heredity.
In England, arms are obtainable solely by grant to an applicant and his male heirs from the College of Arms, acting for the Earl Marshal of England (the Duke of
Norfolk). At the time of the grant, the applicant registers the pedigree of those of his family who are personally known to him. To register earlier
generations, the College of Arms will require that the evidence be checked and will do so for an additional fee. Descendants of the grantee later may register
details about themselves to add to the pedigree.
Suggested Reading: A Complete Guide to Heraldry by A. C. Fox-Davies, revised by J. C. Brook-Little (1969)
bearings were originally marks of identification for knights in armor in war and in tournaments. The earliest known are those of Geoffrey of Anjou, father of
Henry II* (1154-1189) and are described in a chronicle of 1127.
Henry II (Curtmantle, Fitzempress) d.
1189 aged 56 of a fever and buried at Fontevraud. This unusually able, energetic and choleric man (the first Plantagenet) had a large spherical head,
close-cropped reddish hair, gray bloodshot eyes, a cracked voice and legs bruised livid from hard riding. To purge his guilty complicity in the a-Becket murder
he let himself be scourged by 80 Canterbury monks. When his lately rebellious son visited to view his corpse, blood gushed from its nose until Richard left the
room. So they say. CARR'S DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH KINGS, CONSORTS, PRETENDERS, USURPERS, UNNATURAL CLAIMANTS & ROYAL ATHELINGS (Kettering: J. L. Carr
the reign of Richard I* (1189-1199) onward, armorial bearings became numerous and appeared on the seals of private families, remaining unchanged in the
same families, and passing from father to son.
I (Coeur de Lion) d. 1199 aged 42 from a direct hit by a frying pan fired by a French crossbowman whilst enforcing a claim to a valuable archeological find. He
had auburn hair, furiously blue eyes and apelike arms. His body was buried at his father's feet at Fontevraud, his heart at Rouen and his bowels at Poitiers.
CARR'S DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH KINGS, CONSORTS, PRETENDERS, USURPERS, UNNATURAL CLAIMANTS & ROYAL ATHELINGS (
Kettering: J. L. Carr Publisher, undated).
Europe in the Middle Ages, genealogy was concerned with the hereditary aristocracy and the laws of inheritance, especially relating to land, and the emphasis
was on royal and noble pedigrees. The heraldic Visitations, which began in England in 1529-1530, recorded pedigrees as well as coats of arms. After Henry VIII*
(1509-1547) caused the English church to break with Rome, English parishes were required, starting in 1538, to keep registers of baptisms, marriages, and
burials, which marked the beginning of record keeping for all English people regardless of class.
*[The children of Henry VIII were] Henry, Prince of Wales (died aged two months 1512). Mary (I) (by Catherine of Aragon). Elizabeth (I) (by Anne Boleyn). Edward VI (by Jane Seymour). Natural son Henry Fitzroy (by mistress Elizabeth Blount) died 1536 aged about 20. Henry was a forceful king who broke with the Roman Catholic Church by the Act of Supremacy (1534) and also built a modern Royal Navy. . . Lambert, David and Randal Gray, COLLINS GEM GUIDE TO KINGS AND QUEENS OF BRITAIN (Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991)
III, d. 1272 aged 66 of a languishing distemper and partly buried in a gold cup at Westminster. He was of moderately compact build, had a furrowed brow, one
drooping eyelid and normally conversed in French. He claimed that fining rebels was more profitable than hanging them, established a primitive consumer
protection service, built a small house for converted Jews, and enlarged the prosperity of barristers by abolishing Trial by Fire & Water. CARR'S DICTIONARY
OF ENGLISH KINGS, CONSORTS, PRETENDERS, USURPERS, UNNATURAL CLAIMANTS & ROYAL ATHELINGS (Kettering: J. L. Carr Publisher, undated)
CREST; SUPPORTERS. The personal identifying device in the Middle Ages, the equivalent of our signature, was the engraved SEAL. On this a knight or lord was
usually depicted fully armed and on horseback. Once armorial bearings came into widespread use they were soon visible on the seal's shield and/or lance flag.
Because they were more readily identifiable than the mounted figure they soon came to form the whole of a seal's device, at least on one side. The earliest
known English seal showing arms is of 1136-8. Later in the century part of a knight's bearings also came to be displayed on his helmet, and this gave rise to
the CREST, of which the earliest known example is of 1198. In the 13th century, the application of armorial bearings spread to horse trappings and surcoats,
from which came the name "coat of arms." The SUPPORTERS that later became the privilege of peers were at first merely decorative additions on the
larger seals used by magnates.
SHIELDS OF ARMS might contain genealogical clues. For example, when an armigerous person marries the daughter of an armiger, he may display a shield with his own arms on the dexter half, "impaling" his wife's arms on the sinister half. DEXTER refers to the right side and SINISTER refers to the left side of a shield when it is held from behind (as it would be held in battle). If the wife is an heraldic heiress (that is, if she has no surviving brothers or brothers' heirs), her husband may place her arms on a small shield in the center of his own; this device is called INESCUTCHEON.
This is becoming more complicated than you had
anticipated, isn't it?
computers and color printers:
A look at material
and colors used in heraldry See also A Primer of
Since armorial blazons had a number of uses, it was not always possible to depict them in their true colors . . . such as when engravings of arms formed a die for impressing into wax seals. In heraldry, the word tincture is used, rather than color, and each tincture was provided with a line art or textural version, so that all remained legally accepted, whether colored or not. The illustrations above, place the black/white pattern, representing respective tinctures, below the corresponding colors.Additionally, the heralds recognized tinctures such as furs (ermine, for instance), and several others which were used only outside of Scotland. Tincture names are often seen, but seldom recognized by Americans:
GOLD (appears yellow) = or
SILVER (appears white or light gray) = argent
BLUE = azure
RED = gules
BLACK = sable;
GREEN = vert (or sinople)
PURPLE = purpure
The names listed are in order of their
ranking. Gold/or is the most regal of tinctures; Purple/purpure, the last
color added to the herald's palette, is lowest in rank. In writing, the names of tinctures are usually italicized.
Reading & References
The Augustan. A Journal of History, Heraldry, Genealogy and Chivalry is a publication of The Augustan Society, Inc.
Fairbairn, James (revised by Laurence Butters, Seal Engraver to the Queen for Scotland). Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland. London, England: New Orchard Editions (imprint of Cassell PLC), 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992.
Friar, Stephen (edited by). A Dictionary of Heraldry. New York: Harmony Books, 1987.
Innes-Smith, Robert. An Outline of Heraldry in England and Scotland. Derby: Pilgrim Press. Ltd., 1990.
Stephenson, Jean, S.J.D., F.A.S.G., F.N.G.S. Heraldry for the American Genealogist. Washington, D.C.: Reprinted, with additions, from the National Historical Magazine of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Issued by National Genealogical Society, Special Publication No. 25, 1959
Summers, Peter, F.S.A., FHS How to Read a Coat of Arms. New York: Harmony Books, 1986.
Woodcock, Thomas and John Martin Robinson. The Oxford Guide to Heraldry. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1989.