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Heraldry and Coat of Arms

You may want to stop and think before rushing to buy that colorful plaque touting a coat of arms, supposedly assigned to your family name -- it may not be that simple.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 417 (approx.)
Labels: Heraldry 
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Most of us have seen a coat of arms in a history book or on the cover of a family tree book or plastered on countless knickknacks in a store. Occasionally we find a coat of arms with our surname on it and we rush ahead of ourselves, dreaming that we are the descendants of some famous royal family. Hold your enthusiasm! Just because your surname appears on a shield of swords and helmets or whatever adorns the coat of arms, that it doesn't mean it is your family line, or even a proper reflection of where your family heralds from. For example, there are over a hundred different styles for the coats of arms of the Smith name. With over 2.5 million Smiths in America, the chore of finding my particular family coat of arms seems a daunting task.

Heraldry is defined as the art of blazoning, assigning and marshaling a coat of arms. Some scholars believe the idea of having a coat of arms came out of the Holy Wars when banners bearing the cross, chivalrous actions, and the age of Feudalism began. The first shields show up between 1135 and 1155 AD. The practice of placing a coat of arms on one's shield grew in popularity with tournaments in which they were displayed around the mid-eighteenth century.

For those who wish to explore further whether your family has a coat of arms, you can look up any country's recorded arms in a book called "armories." A common armory book was compiled by Rietstap in the late 1800s; but armory books are known be incomplete and contain errors. At present there are no comprehensive web sites with armory information. In addition, genealogical research will be needed to verify any descending line.

A typical misconception is that these crests are awarded to a surname, when in actual fact it was customary to grant a coat of arms to an individual. Sometimes close relatives who were granted arms would have similar designs, but each was different. In fact when the person who was awarded a coat of arms died, his arms were often retired. Nonetheless, coat of arms were handed down from father to son.

But, be that as it may, one can always create a coat of arms for his or her family to adopt . An introduction of the parts of a coat of arms can be found at There you will also see illustrations and definitions of the many symbols which adorn coats of arms.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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