Heraldry, as a science, is almost totally ignored by most of our educated classes in the United States. Many family history researchers dig into heraldry to some extent, but even they are not as versed in it as they should be. If a genealogist is asked to do some research for a client or friend, many times the question of "Do I have a coat of arms?" will arise. Family history researchers should learn some background of heraldry in order to tackle such questions.
The Coat-of-Arms business is very popular and there is a lot of interest among family history researchers in knowing various Coats of Arms. But there is not a lot of information propagated around dealing with the regulations of Coat of Arms. United States laws do not recognize heraldic emblems and so they are not regulated in the United States, and many have been allowed to do as they please with a traditional family coat-of-arms that they falsely claim.
Some authorities might declare that heraldry is an essential aid to the student of medieval history and medieval architecture. As a science, therefore, it should have a certain place in our systems of education. But beyond this necessity, there is a more urgent reason for a greater familiarity with the subject. Our social relations with Europe are important. It is well known abroad that we have no titles of nobility in the United States, and there is, consequently, no inducement for any American to claim such a distinction.
But, in all parts of Europe, there is still in existence a system of honorary insignia which is supposed to bestow upon the possessors a certain social position. These decorations are usually coat-of-arms, and the rules regulating their use are defined by well-known authorities. In fact, arms are the remaining traces of the old social division of gentle and ignoble birth. Every one who uses a coat-of-arms proclaims his involvement among the gentlemen of the land, and is supposed to be able to furnish satisfactory proof of his right to the position. This right may be obtained by grant from the sovereign through the duly constituted officials, a process that is expensive, or it may be acquired by inheritance. Inherited arms are usually most prized, and their value is estimated by their antiquity. Theoretically, however, they are all of equal value.
Family history researchers should be aware that the use of heraldic emblems as a system cannot be traced much earlier than A. D. 1200. Probably at that date and for around two centuries following, every knight adopted such a design, always in accordance with a certain design plan, to his choosing. But soon after A. D. 1400, in England, the right to grant arms was reserved to the Crown, and then a way was adopted to determine or record the names of all persons entitled to a coat-of-arms.
The College of Heralds was to become the repository of heraldry proof, and with physical
visits to the different counties of England, they were to figure out who were the gentlemen at that time. While doing this, all grants of arms were to be recorded, and any one falsely pretending to arms was to be severely punished. The plan was successfully carried out in Scotland, but in England it failed. Many visitations were made, and many coat-of-arms recorded, but the lack of power to enforce the punishment for false arms prevented recording a complete or fully accurate register. Many people just simply refused to comply.
Even today in England grants are made to families of education and wealth based many times on assumptions, but no arms is recognized by Heralds unless it is recorded in the Herald's college. Still, family history researchers may recognize any coat-of-arms in use before the sixteenth century, even if not recorded, but they should be aware of rules of heraldry.
Officially, the right to use a coat-of-arms by inheritance is dependent entirely upon a well documented pedigree which can be researched by a genealogist. A coat-of-arms, whether obtained by grant or officially recognized by the Heralds is actually property, with some value. It is inherited by the descendants of the first true and verified possessor only. When someone seeks to establish a claim on the grounds of inheritance, they must prove descent precisely as they would in claiming a piece of land.
In the United States there is a common mistake among some novice family history researchers that certain coats-of-arms belong to certain families. It is supposed that all of the same surname constitute one family, and are hence entitled to the arms. This is simply not true since we know matching surnames does not mean matching origin. It is very important for family history researchers just starting out to be aware of these heraldry issues.
Mark D. Jordan is a writer and researcher living in Pennsylvania. More heraldry and genealogy material can be read at Family History Blog [http://genealogyblog.familyhistoryresearch.net] and Medieval Life, Dress and Weapons [http://medievaltimeline.thecelticgiraffe.com].
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