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Archived Articles
Formerly published by

Your Family Coat of Arms - The Myths of Time
Posted 21 January 2010
By Tony Knight, Hampshire Genealogical Society [UK]

Coat of Arms of Her Excellency the Right Honourable MichaŽlle Jean Governor General of Canada
Coat of Arms of Her Excellency
the Right Honourable MichaŽlle Jean
Governor General of Canada
It is a common belief of many family historians, particularly across the Atlantic, that all families were issued with a coat of arms at some point in history and that all descendants automatically gain entitlement to use the same insignia. Many family trees display the "official" coat of arms.

If you believe that, it is time to correct the myth.

The first important point to make is that coats of arms are never issued to families but are issued to individuals by heralds. There are different heralds in each country in the UK and Europe. In England and Ireland, a coat of arms is granted by the King of Arms, but in Scotland the court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms grants that right.

England, Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland have the most rigid system of heraldry and whilst other countries in Europe record and permit coats of arms, their use is less restricted than by their English and Scottish counterparts, The official register of all granted coats of arms that exist in England and Wales is known as the College of Arms.

The USA has never accepted the concept of nobility and therefore bas no officially-recognized heralds. Although several organizations claim to be able to issue coats of arms, they cannot be considered as authentic as there is no official issuing body in the US. Most Americans who wish to obtain legitimate coats of arms have to apply first in the name of a foreign-born ancestor with the heralds in the country where that ancestor lived. The American descendant may then apply to use the ancestor's coat of arms as his own as his "inherited right to arms."

Throughout history, an individual could apply for a coat of arms and the heralds would decide whether or not to approve it. Coats of arms generally are issued to men although the exception is Her Majesty The Queen who always has a coat of arms, as do many high-ranking officials.

The original concept in the middle ages was that coats of arms were issued to knights and noblemen as an emblem to be displayed on shields and banners for use in battle. Why? Because it was difficult enough for soldiers to see through the eye slits in their armour without having to worry that they were attacking the enemy and not scoring an own goal: The brightly painted coats of arms helped identify the combatants back in the days before uniforms.

Coat of Arms of
Sir Paul McCartney, Kt, M.B.E.

Over time, many merchants obtained coats of arms as did clergymen, elected officials, and a few others. As stated earlier, the coat of arms was always issued to an individual, not to a family. Finding a coat of arms issued to someone with the same family name as yours, does not imply entitlement to use the same arms.

However, when a man is entitled to display arms, his sons may also apply for coats of arms but the granting is not automatic as each person must apply. Sons usually are granted coats of arms that are very similar to their father's with small changes, to add some detail that shows that this is the shield of their own branch of this particular family. If a man has multiple sons, each son applies for his own coat of arms with slight differences, even different from those of his brothers. The use of slightly modified coat of arms is called "differenced arms."

When the father dies, the eldest son may then apply to use exactly the same coat of arms that his father used, although again, obtaining permission was not automatic. If granted, he stops using his differenced arms. His younger brothers would continue to use their differenced arms.

There have always been a few instances in which women could inherit a coat of arms and to use them. However. a woman can not pass them along to her children unless she has no brothers. If this is the case. the woman owns the coats of arms, to pass along to her children, and she is considered to be the heraldic heiress to the coat of arms.

One of the big genealogy scams of recent times are offers to provide copies of your families coat of arms.

Regardless of your surname, a coat of arms can only be displayed if an application has been made to the heralds for permission to display the particular arms and that permission has been granted. Once that happens, you are the only person in the world authorized to display that coat of arms. Displaying arms without proper authorization is a form of impersonation; you are trying to identify yourself as someone else.

Legal or not, such impersonation is always in bad taste.

The following give more information:
By Tony Knight,, Hampshire Genealogical Society (HGS) [United Kingdom]
    [Originally published in The Hampshire Family Historian, December 2008 Volume 35 No.3 Pages 186-187. Used with the expressed permission of the Editor and Author Tony Knight. Images and associated captions used in this article were added by The Global Gazette]

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