By Anne Sherman
With only three months to Christmas and thoughts turn to the special gift we can give to friends and family, the catalogues selling personalised gifts nearly always included something along the lines of history of surnames or heraldry merchandise. These catalogues would have you believe that everyone with the same surnames descends from the same wealthy family or have an entitlement to the family Coat of Arms. Sadly this is all a myth that many would like to believe in, but few have the right family connections.
As a case in point I have been approached by potential clients who have wanted me to prove the link between their family tree and a crest or wealthy family. Sadly I had to let them all down. It is therefore time to look at these myths and the reality.
To begin with let me explain that a Crest, contrary to popular belief, is not the same as the Coat of Arms, but it is simply one small part that sits on top of helmet or helm. The image below shows a Sea Lion as the Crest.
Coats of Arms have NEVER belonged to a family or name, they belong to individuals. In reality people with the same surname (including uncles, cousins, brothers, or others who are not necessarily related) can have a completely different Coat of Arms. Any company which suggests that one Coat of Arms belongs to everyone with that surname is, quite frankly, wilfully misleading you simply so you will buy it. In fact in Scotland it is illegal to display a Coat of Arms that is not yours.
A Coat of Arms must be unique as it was a form of identification, and is inherited by the original owner’s legitimate heirs (usually the eldest surviving son). Other sons can use a similar Coat of Arms as their father but with additions (Cadency) to ensure that it identifies the correct person. Only the heir of the original holder will have the unchanged Coat of Arms once the owner has died.
Not everyone was (or is even today) entitled to a Coat of Arms. The King/Queen of Britain was the only person who could grant a right to bear arms (and therefore have a Coat of Arms designed for them). This role has now been given to the College of Arms on behalf of the Monarch. The right to bear arms was seen as a recognition of rank or status, and the person it was conferred upon had the status of a Gentleman or higher and the wealth that such status would require. It is, of course, quite feasible that you are related to someone who was entitled to a Coat of Arms, but that does not mean that you are also entitled to it. Systematic and proper research with undoubted proof may connect you to an illustrious ancestral line. Sadly some researchers and even those professing to be Professional researchers may make biased assumptions in order to link a particular family line to one with the Right to a Coat of Arms, which is why you should engage someone who is trained, or works, within the area of Heraldic research.
Genealogy has long been an important part of the Heraldic process and there are several quite old books that have been written detailing the family history of the Peerage. An internet search for peerage books is an easy way to find these. This link may help you.
Even these books cannot be taken at face value as some of them have since been found to be unreliable. In 1901 genealogist J. H. Round stated in the preface of his book ‘Studies in Peerage and Family History’ that some older genealogy consisted of invented pedigrees or histories repeated without question. Sadly this is still a problem today.
So next time you see a personalised gift offering you your own Coat Of Arms, don’t be fooled! If you think your family may have had entitlement of a Coat of Arms in the past, contact a professional genealogy researcher with experience/qualifications in heraldry or the College of Arms in London who can do the research for you.
History of Heraldry
Studies in Peerage and Family History by J. H. Round (1901)
Complete Guide to Heraldry by Arthur Charles Fox-Davies (1909)