by Sue Roe
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
There seem to be a lot of American family historians "adopting" coats of arms these days. Unfortunately, most of them are not entitled to use the coats of arms they have adopted. Worse than that is the proliferation of completely bogus coats of arms being sold to unsuspecting and well-meaning people who believe that those coats of arms are real.
Who is entitled to use a coat of arms? Only the person to whom it was originally issued and his direct descendants in the male line. That is all. Coats of arms were issued to individuals, not families. The individual was then entitled to use the coat of arms on his stationary, his coach, or the cover of his family album. When the owner of a particular coat of arms died, the arms was passed to his eldest son. When that son died, it went to -his- eldest son - and so on. If the owner did not have any sons, it usually went to his brother and then continued from there down the male line. Only one person at a time was entitled to use it - and it was almost never a woman. (Sorry, gals!) There were very rare exceptions where a daughter inherited the coat of arms, but then it went to her eldest son and back to the male line. That's the way it works.
Unfortunately, many people of English ancestry look though books such as Burke's General Armory or, if they are of European descent, they look through Rietstaps Armorial General and "adopt" a coat of arms that happens to have been issued at some time in the past to someone of their same surname, even though they are not entitled to use it. I think these people really don't know any better so I don't get too offended by this. It's those who do know better, and prey on those who don't, that get me upset.
There are several companies, Halbert's being the most notorious, that offer coats of arms for sale. They offer to research your family name and provide you with a coat of arms. Look out! All these companies do is look in a book such as Burke's General Armory and find you a coat of arms. If they can't find one in a book, they create one! Then they pass it off to the public as being genuine. Please don't encourage these people by purchasing their wares.
Here is a statement issued some years ago by the American Board for Certification of Genealogists:
"If your male line immigrant ancestor from England was entitled to use a coat of arms, then you have a right under English law to use this same coat of arms. If he had no such right, then neither do you (unless you buy a grant of arms for yourself from the College of Arms). Thus, to establish the right under English (or German, French, Swiss, etc.) law to a coat of arms, it is necessary to prove your uninterrupted male line descent from someone who is legally entitled to use this coat armor. No "heraldry institute" or "heraldic artist" can look up a surname and provide the correct arms for you without first proving your descent. If they say they can do so, then they are guilty of fraud."
How important is it for us to adorn our family genealogy book with a coat of arms? Not important at all! There are so many other ways to honor our ancestors. Let's all be sure we are not using someone else's coat of arms. And, above all, let's not support companies that are dealing in fraud.