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An introduction to heraldry
A basic understanding of heraldry is not an essential requirement for family historians but unfortunately many become involved when they discover a coat of arms or some other heraldic device in their research. More often than not they are totally ignorant of the rules governing the practice and have no idea of the symbolism involved.
Many family historians conduct all their ancestral researches without taking even a passing interest in heraldry. To the uninitiated, heraldry can be a complicated and bewildering subject and, although we see evidence of it practically every day of our lives in company arms or badges. Many assume heraldry to be associated only with the upper class and the peerage.
If you get the opportunity to travel in Europe and the UK you may come across personal coats of arms in parish churches and, unless you know the names of those who bore these arms, they will make very little impact. Often they belonged to a prominent local individual, possibly the lord of the manor or perhaps a landowner for whom your ancestors once worked. Sometimes you may come across coats of arms in rural areas, embellishing the eaves of farm workers’ homes, again indicating a connection with a local landowner or benefactor.
Heraldry was a widespread practice throughout Europe and the rules varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, country to country. This article is restricted to England, Ireland and Wales and to a lesser extent Scotland.
An introduction to heraldry
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There are two main points that need to be noted:
Occasionally some may become aware of a family heirloom or seal, which is supposed to have carried the arms of an ancestor, which may excite curiosity. Was it possibly the arms of a family for whom an ancestor may have worked? All too often some are inclined to discard the prospect of finding any armigerous ancestors, on the grounds that known ancestral families were too poor for anyone ever to have had arms. This may well be the case, but it has also always been much easier to slide down the social scale than to climb up it, so families with working class backgrounds in the nineteenth century may well descend from more prosperous ancestors in previous centuries. If you do discover a coat of arms granted to one of your ancestors, then the bonus is that there is likely to be an associated family pedigree available that will tell you even more about that person and their ancestry.
- Coats of arms, sometimes wrongly called crests are granted to individuals or organisations and not families
- A family traced back to a person entitled to arms in Great Britain, may find further ancestral records held by the College of Arms in London or the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh.
Far left: The arms of Henry II
Left: The arms of Richard I
In Britain, coats of arms are hereditary and relate to individuals and not to everyone of a particular surname. They may only be used by the direct heir of the person to whom they were originally granted. Younger children may have a modified and approved form with clear differences. The earliest known origins of British heraldic bearings lie in the twelfth century and it is believed that they were assumed to distinguish mounted knights in battle when their closed helmets made individual identification impossible without some outward symbol. The earliest grant of arms in England occurred in 1127 when Henry I bestowed arms on Count Geoffrey of Anjou.
The most obvious place for these arms was the shield and the knight’s surcoat. This was a surcoat of linen, split up the sides, which knights wore over their chain mail body armour, and which, when so adorned on the back and front, gave rise to the term coat of arms. Arms on banners or flags also served as rallying points on battlefields. Some scholars believe that arms have their origins in personal seals as, with large numbers of the population illiterate, including the knights themselves, this was a useful method of visual identification when it became necessary to sign anything. Often a knight’s counterseal was based entirely on their arms. Most of the early arms used by these medieval knights were very simple in design so, in very general terms, the simpler the design of the arms, the more likely they are to be a sign of ancient lineage. Compare the arms above right to those above. These are the arms of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick and date 1449 and demonstrate the growing complexity over time.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the responsibility for grants of arms is delegated, by the monarch, to the Officers of Arms at the College of Arms in London. In Scotland the system is managed by the Lord Lyon. The arrangements vary in counties that recognise heraldic achievements. In this section we will concentrate on the English model.
The term College of Arms relates not only to the actual building which houses the records of achievements and collections of pedigrees, but also to the officers of arms who administer and manage the process. The College of Arms was founded by letters patent of King Richard III in March 1484 as a body corporate and part of the royal household.
There is, however, evidence that heralds were active in England in the twelfth century and the first appointment of a Garter Principal King of Arms occurred in 1415. It is obvious that early officers of arms were carrying out various duties long before the letters patent were granted. The College of Arms has had a number of London addresses over the centuries, including the one burnt down by the Great Fire of 1666 when its records were saved.
Jurisdiction over the officers of arms is exercised by The Earl Marshal, who is directly responsible to the monarch for all heraldic matters. The head of the college is Garter Principal King of Arms. His immediate subordinate is Clarenceux King of Arms whose jurisdiction is restricted to England, south of the River Trent. The third King of Arms, Norro, has jurisdiction over England north of the Trent and, from 1943, when the office of Ulster King of Arms was combined with Norroy, over the counties of Northern Ireland. Since the fifteenth century, the Kings of Arms have had authority to grant armorial bearings, subject to the approval of The Earl Marshal.
Pictured: The arms of
Clarenceux King of Arms.
Beneath the three Kings of Arms come the six Heralds of Arms in Ordinary. They are Chester, Lancaster, Richmond, Somerset, Windsor and York.
Pictured: The badge of Chester, a herald whose office dates from 1393 when he was the herald of Edward, the Black Prince.
Finally come the four Pursuivants, being Bluemantle, Portcullis, Rouge Croix and Rouge Dragon.
Pictured: The badge of
These thirteen officers of arms in ordinary make up the College of Arms. Their authority covers the whole of the British Commonwealth, with the exception of Scotland which has its own system.
The original records of what is now the Irish Republic are in the custody of the Chief Herald of Ireland.
In addition there are, from time to time, Heralds Extraordinary, being at present, Beaumont, New Zealand, Norfolk, Surrey and Wales, and Howard Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary. These honorary officers of arms are not members of the body corporate of the College of Arms, and have largely secretarial duties. They are often retired heralds or persons having a close connection with heraldry.
The very extensive records and collections of arms, achievements and pedigrees in the custody of the College of Arms are not open to the general public. However, officers are available to give heraldic advice and will carry out research in the College records but for fairly substantial fees.
Wales has no separate College of Arms, although the subject of Welsh heraldry was largely controlled by the bards until the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. These early Welsh arms often ignored the accepted conventions of heraldry and frequently claimed retrospective attribution to arms of far-distant persons or patriarchs living centuries before. Of course from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and earlier, many Welsh arms were confirmed or granted by the College of Arms.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, officers of arms visited counties in England, Wales and Ireland to establish the rights of armigerous families to their arms. These sporadic tours were known as Heralds Visitations. There is some evidence of earlier visitations in the fifteenth century, but it was not until 1530, when King Henry VIII issued a royal warrant to Clarenceux King of Arms, that these visitations began on a regular basis. The officers were given the authority to enter all dwellings and churches to survey and record whatever arms could be found and to put down or otherwise deface arms which were being misused. They were also to denounce, by proclamation, men who falsely claimed titles of honour or dignity like knight, gentleman or esquire, and who could not substantiate their rights to such titles.
Most counties in England had at least three separate Heralds Visitations during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A few had four or more. See adjacent map.
Visitations to the ancient Welsh counties were less regular, whilst in Ireland the first visitation did not take place until 1568 and Irish visitations represent only a fraction of the coverage of those in England. Today, the original records of these and the Irish visitations are in the custody of the Chief Herald of Ireland with copies at the College of Arms. The office of Chief Herald of Ireland for the Republic of Ireland was not created until 1943 and, before this date, all Ireland heraldic matters were the responsibility of Ulster King of Arms at the College of Arms, London. London does not hold post–1943 Irish material.
On returning to the College of Arms, the officers of arms bound, or copied, their rough pedigree notes and sketches into the official records, and these remain there, many since updated, as the only definitive record. The official records of pedigrees and arms from the visitations held by the College of Arms remain unpublished. This material can prove highly significant to family historians who come across an ancestor with the right to a coat of arms.
This article was motivated by the release on 27 September 2013 of the conjugal Arms of Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge following approval by the HM The Queen last February. Details can be seen at the web site of the College of Arms.
To be continued…
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