Descriptions of coats of arms for nearly a million names!

Heraldry Origins - The Origins and Meaning of Heraldry and Coats of Arms

Joseph C. Wolf

Curator Emeritus, Local and Family History Collections, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.

Historically, heraldry began as a mark of identification in social intercourse and found its full flowering as a useful art in the Middle Ages, when it came to be used to distinguish the warriors on the battlefield.

Originally, a knight was free to choose his own device, but by the 15th century, the multiplication of arms resulted in the complete systemization of the practice, and heraldry became an exact science. All armorial bearings came to be granted by the King, and all arms, both the recently granted and those established by right of ancient usage, were registered with the College of Arms, if English, or with similar agencies in continental countries.

Even the terms used in heraldry became exact and a coat of arms was not described, but was blazoned. Terms for partition lines were developed such as engrailed, nebuly, inverted, dancety, embattled, etc. Charges (figures in the field) were of three kinds: the Ordinaries (chief, pale, bend, fess, chevron, cross, saltire, bar, baton, etc.), the Subordinaries (roundels, fusils, orle, annulets, cinquefoil, etc.) and the Common (hand, fish, lions, bears, birds, mullets, etc.). The colors used were: two metals: gold (or) and silver (argent): and five colors: red (gules), green (vert), blue (azure), black (sable) and purple (purpurs).

The need for this means of identification declined with the passing of chivalry, but the custom was anchored in antiquity and had a definite appeal of its own.

There have been a great 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 willing to supply anything for a price. A coat of arms does not necessarily belong to a person just because some one of the same surname bore it. He must prove descent from the owner.

Marks and designs were used to mark a warrior’s armor and his surcoat, which was the garment that he wore over his coat of mail. From this use comes the expression coat of arms. These marks were not at first hereditary. They gradually became so, however, and were recognized as evidence of the wearer’s noble or gentle birth. The right to bear a certain coat of arms came to be hereditary as early as 1390. In 1488 the Herald’s College was incorporated by Richard III of England and it was their duty to trace ancestry, to approve coats of arms, to confirm titles of honor, and to examine claims to armorial rights. Some inherit their father’s arms not equally but by law of cadency: that is, each son has added to his inherited arms a particular sign indicating his order of birth.

Women’s Rights to Coat Armor

Women’s rights to coat armor are strictly limited, unless she is a sovereign. She is granted the right to use a coat of arms bearing the arms of her father or husband, but not on a shield. She uses a lozenge, a diamond shaped frame.

Since a woman was not a warrior she could not use the shield, helmet, crest, mantling or war-cry motto. Until her marriage, she used her father’s arms in a lozenge, and oftentimes surmounted it with a true lover’s knot of light blue ribbon. This later, however, has no official sanction.

After marriage, she used her husband’s arms on a lozenge, and continued the practice if she became a widow. Sometimes the husband impaled his arms with those of the wife’s father. At first, impaling was the placing of the two shields side by side, but later it became the practice to place the husband’s arms on the dexter (left as you face the shield), and the arms of the wife’s father on the sinister.

If a woman was a heraldic heiress (having no brothers to inherit the coat of arms) her husband placed a small shield with the arms of his wife’s father in the center of his own so it would show he was carrying the arms for the benefit of his children, the grandchildren of his wife’s father. This was called the "escutcheon of pretense". The children carried both of the arms, which were quartered.

Heraldry in America

The situation in America was and is somewhat different. While this country was under English domination, before the Revolutionary War. There was some general regulation of the right to bear arms - or at least the rules and the customs have prevailed. Apparently, however, no effort was made by the colonial government to compel citizens to abide by there laws, and as a result, the later colonists did pretty much as they pleased about displaying anything that struck their fancy.

At the close of the 17th century, this illegal use of arms was helped along by an obliging carriage painter of Boston named Gore, who created arms and eventually made a roll of arms which is completely without authority. About a century later, another gentleman, a Mr. Cole, performed similar labors throughout New England.

Actually, the patriots of America who won the Revolution were "traitors" to England, and this fact, in reality, cancels their rights and their descendant’s rights to the coat of arms granted to their ancestors.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the unwarranted assumption of arms reached huge proportions. Most persons took them without a shadow of a claim. Because of American interest in Heraldry, the New England and Historic and Genealogical Society, of Boston, has organized a committee on heraldry. It is the function of this committee to investigate and establish the right of certain American families to bear arms, and it has published a roll of authentic coats of arms. However, such registration has no legal effect, nor any meaning other than that, in the opinion of the committee, such arms are rightfully used by certain families. The committee accepts all coats where descent is proved from a grant of arms where it can be proved that the first comer to this country used them; but if it be shown that such user was without rights, the arms are removed from the list.

The use of heraldry and coats of arms in the United States is a matter of personal taste. There is no American law by which you can obtain a coat of arms, as our government has not ever recognized coat armor. In using coats of arms, we should abide by the laws governing its use in the country in which the arms were granted. The right to bear arms in this country is limited to those comparatively few families who can show a direct descent from an arms bearing ancestor.

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