skip to content

Heraldic Coats of Arms & Seals

Nature of Source

Genealogical information contained on coats of arms (shields or escutcheons) and heraldic seals of the armigerous (those entitled to bear arms). Coats of arms evolved from the battlefield as a means of identification and were later displayed at jousting tournaments. As the military use declined, coats of arms became the new  status symbol for the wealthy and well-connected. In modern times they are mostly confined to ceremonial use.

By the time of Henry III of England, the use of coats of arms had gained in popularity and had also become inheritable, so the need to regulate the system became a necessity. The Lyon Court in Scotland was established in 1318 and The College of Heralds in England in 1484 to create rules concerning the displaying and inheritance of arms and the registration of arms. Professionals known as Heralds officially known as Herald of Arms carried out this function by travelling the country validating those that claimed the right to bear arms. The records from these investigations or Heraldic Visitations produced a body of pedigrees compiled from a variety of sources.

The complete display of armorial bearings such as the shield, helmets, crests, mottos and supporters is known as an Heraldic Achievement. Please note the crest forms a part of the Achievement and should not be, as is often the case, described as the coat of arms or shield. Companies, organisations and corporations also have the right to display arms. In Scottish arms, the motto is at the top and in English arms the motto is under the shield.

The various sections of a shield can be found here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shield_points.svg. The shield or coat of arms is made up of a field of colours (known as tinctures), metals or furs. The shield can then be geometrically divided with an ordinarie such as a cross and finally charges such as animals and shapes can be placed on the shield. The description of the components of a coat of arms has its own heraldic language and is known as blazoning. To do so, first describe the field i.e. the colour, then the ordinarie i.e. the geometrical division and lastly the charges. Drawing a coat of arms from a description or blazon is known a tricking.

Seals were used by members of an armigerous family to seal documents such as charters. The seal would contain the coat of arms and the owners name and are useful for medieval identification of a person.

Arms are inherited through the male line with the heir or heirs to the arms having to prove direct decent from the armiger. In England, the right to a coat of arms passes equally to all male descendents of the grantee. The presence of a multitude of descendants using the same arms would result in complete confusion. Therefore a system developed to differentiate brothers and descendants by means of marks of cadency or brisures. The arms are therefore altered (differenced) by marks of cadency to show each son's position of precedence. The eldest son charges his arms with a temporary mark of cadency known as a label of three points These marks of cadency can be added without reference to the heraldic authority the, College of Arms.

Sometimes arms are altered, through a process called marshalling, in the following circumstances. If a heraldic heiress (an armigerous woman without brothers) whose father has died marries an armigerous man, the arms of the wife's family are represented as an escutcheon of pretence (a small shield) placed in the centre of the husband's arms. The shield of a son of this couple represents his mother's family shield in the form of quartering (the son's shield is divided into four quarters). Further quartering takes place if further heraldic heiress are introduced into the family which can make for a cluttered and confusing shield. If the wife was not a heraldic heiress but from an armigerous family, the marital coat should bear her arms impaled with those of her husband (split down the middle).

Beware that marshalling is often inaccurate as are works such as Burke's The General Armory and remember that coats of arms belong to a family and not a surname.

See also
Heraldic Coats of Arms & Seals (Scotland)
Heraldic Visitations
Inquisitions Post Mortem
Pedigrees and Family Histories

Where Found

College of Arms
The Office of the Chief Herald of Irelands Office (The Office grants official heraldic achievements to individuals and corporate bodies. Sources include Visitations, Funeral Entries, Pedigrees and Sir William Betham's collection of abstracts of prerogative wills. The office was formerly known as the Genealogical Office but now operates as a branch of the National Library under the direction of the Chief Herald of Ireland)
The Heraldry Society (The Society exists to increase and extend interest in and knowledge of heraldry, armory, chivalry, genealogy and allied subjects. The resources include an Image Library and the use of the society's library which is currently divided between Chetham's Library in Manchester and the Society of Antiquaries in London. The society also awards certificates in Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Heraldry)
Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies (IHGS)
Harleian Society (The society is best known for its transcriptions of heraldic visitations but is also involved with transcriptions of parish registers, marriage licenses, pedigrees and chancery proceedings)
Society of Genealogists (Upper library)

Period Covered

1125 - Onwards

Genealogical Value

The coat of arms belongs to an individual and the legal heirs and not a family name. It is unique to that person. They can be handed down from the person granted the arms through the generations to the legitimate male line. It is therefore possible to trace a person and his family through the generations. Marriages are sometimes displayed through the process of marshalling (see above) and can provide further family connections.

Further References

General Heraldry Books


Adolph, Anthony. Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen & Sword Books, 2013
Boutell, Charles & Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles. The Handbook to English Heraldry: Reeves & Turner, 1914 Buy Now on Amazon

Boutell, Charles & Brooke-Little, J.P. Boutell's Heraldry: Warne Publishers, 1978

Buy Now on Amazon

Brooke-Little, J. P. An Heraldic Alphabet: Robson Books, 1997 (Available online at the Internet Archive)

Buy Now on Amazon

Elvin, Charles Norton. A Dictionary of Heraldry: Heraldry Today, 1969 (1889) (Online edition available from the Internet Archive)

Buy Now on Amazon

Fearn, Jacqueline. Discovering Heraldry: Shire Publications, 2006 (Preview available from Google Books)

Buy Now on Amazon

Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles. The Art of Heraldry: an Encyclopedia of Armory: Bloomsbury Books, 1986 (1904)

Buy Now on Amazon

Fox-Davies, Arthur, Charles. A Complete Guide to Heraldry: Skyhorse Publishing, 2007 (1909) (Available online at the Internet Archive)

Buy Now on Amazon

Franklyn, Julian, and John Tanner. An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Heraldry: Pergamon Press, 1970

Buy Now on Amazon

Friar, Stephen. A New Dictionary of Heraldry: A & C Black, 1987

Buy Now on Amazon

Friar, Stephen. Heraldry for the Local Historian and Genealogist: Sutton, 1996

Buy Now on Amazon

Friar, Stephen & Ferguson, John. Basic Heraldry: A & C Black, 1999 Buy Now on Amazon
Friar, Stephen. Companion to Heraldry: Sutton Publishing, 2004  Buy Now on Amazon
Friar, Stephen. The Sutton Companion to Heraldry: The History Press, 2004  Buy Now on Amazon
Moncreiffe, Iain & Pottinger, Don. Simple Heraldry: Cheerfully Illustrated: Bartholomew & Son, 1979 Buy Now on Amazon

Oliver, Stefan. Introduction to Heraldry: Apple Press, 1986

 

Oliver, Stefan & Croton, Guy. Heraldry: Understanding Signs and Symbols: Park Lane Books, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon
Pastoureau, Michel & Garvie, Francisca. Heraldry: Its Origins and Meaning: Thames & Hudson, 1997 Buy Now on Amazon
Raymond, Stuart. My Ancestor was a Gentleman: Society of Genealogists, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon
Siddons, Michael Powell. A Dictionary of Mottoes in England and Wales: Harleian Society, 2014 Buy Now on Amazon

Slater, Stephen. The Complete Book of Heraldry: Lorenz Books, 2002

Buy Now on Amazon

Slater, Stephen. The History and Meaning of Heraldry: Southwater, 2004  Buy Now on Amazon
Slater, Stephen. The Story and Language of Heraldry: The Development of Coats of Arms and Heraldic Symbols, with 575 Illustrations: Southwater, 2013  Buy Now on Amazon

Slater, Stephen. The Illustrated Book Of Heraldry: An International History of Heraldry and Its Contemporary Uses: Lorenz Books, 2013

Buy Now on Amazon

St John Hope, W.H. An Introduction to Heraldry: David & Charles, 2001 (Preview available from Google Books)

Buy Now on Amazon

Woodcock, T & Robinson, J.M. The Oxford Guide to Heraldry: Oxford University Press, 1988

Buy Now on Amazon

Publications that match an individual to a coat of arms, listing families in alphabetical order with descriptions (blazons) of the arms they used (armorials)

 

Burke, Bernard. The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales: Heritage Books, 2009, (1884) (Available online at the Internet Archive)

Buy Now on Amazon

Burke, John. A General and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire, vol 1: Henry Colburn, 1832 (Available to download from the Internet Archive and to view at Google Books)

Buy Now on Amazon

Burke, John. A General and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire, vol 2: Henry Colburn, 1832 Buy Now on Amazon

Burke, John A General And Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerages of England, Ireland, and Scotland: Extinct, Dormant, and in Abeyance: H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1831 (Available to download from the Internet Archive and to view at Google Books)

Buy Now on Amazon

Burke's Family Index: Burke's Peerage, 1976 (Listing of all families that appeared in Burke's publications between 1826 and 1976)

Buy Now on Amazon

Fairbairn, James. Fairbairn's Book of Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1993 (1800) (Volume I available from the Internet Archive)

Buy Now on Amazon

Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles. Armorial Families 1890-1929: David & Charles, 1905 (Some volumes are available at the Internet Archive, a database version is available online at ancestry and the CD at S & N Genealogy Supplies)

Buy Now on Amazon

Humphrey-Smith, Cecil. Anglo-Norman Armory: Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, 1986

Buy Now on Amazon

Humphrey-Smith, General Armory Two: Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, 1974 (Includes A W Morant's additions and corrections to Burke's)

Buy Now on Amazon

Indexes of arms by design (ordinaries) with the names of families to whom they have been attributed

 

Fairbairn, James. Fairbairn's Book of Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1993 (1800) (Volume I available from the Internet Archive)

Buy Now on Amazon

Foster, Joseph. The Dictionary of Heraldry, Feudal Coats of Arms and Pedigrees, Bracken Books, 1989 (1902) (Includes arms from heraldic rolls)

Buy Now on Amazon

Garter's Ordinaries (Collection of manuscript volumes held at the College of Arms arranged by the design of the crest or arms)

 

Papworth, John. Ordinary of British Armorials: Heraldry Today, 1874

Buy Now on Amazon

Woodcock, Thomas (eds). The Dictionary of British Arms, (Vol.1 & Vol.2) Heraldry Today, 1996 (Concentrates on pre-visitation arms recorded prior to 1530)

Buy Now on Amazon

Compilation of pedigrees

 

Barrow, Geoffrey B. The Genealogist's Guide: Research Publishing Co., 1977 (Whereabouts of printed pedigrees extracted from various sources containing post-1903 pedigrees and some missed by Marshall)

Buy Now on Amazon

Marshall, George. The Genealogist's Guide: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1981 (1879) (Whereabouts of printed pedigrees extracted from various sources pre-1903. Browsable images of printed edition available at www.ancestry.co.uk)

Buy Now on Amazon

O'Hart, John. Irish Pedigrees: The Origin of the Irish Nation: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1989 (1892) (Available from the Internet Archive)

Buy Now on Amazon

Squibb, George Drewry. Visitation Pedigrees and the Genealogist: Phillimore, 1964 (Whereabouts of printed pedigrees)

Buy Now on Amazon

Thomson, Theodore Radford. Catalogue of British Family Histories: Society of Genealogists, 1980 (Whereabouts of printed pedigrees, 1975-1980)

Buy Now on Amazon

Whitmore, John Beach. A Genealogical Guide: Walford Brothers, 1953 (Whereabouts of printed pedigrees extracted from various sources containing some missed by Marshall and others post-1903)

Buy Now on Amazon

Websites

www.burkespeerage.com (Burke’s Peerage. Definitive guide to the genealogy and heraldry of the Peerage and Landed Gentry of the United Kingdom, the historical families of Ireland and the Commonwealth of Nations. Online resources include free access to Burke's Family Index, Burke's General Armory and Burke's Colonial Gentry and a Glossary of Heraldry)
www.family-history.co.uk/research-heraldry (Achievements of Canterbury: Heraldry Research)
www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/resources/the-law-of-arms (College of Arms: The Law of Arms: The Descent of Arms)
http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2012/09/another-instance-of-bogus-family-coats-of-arms.html (Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter: The Myth of Family Coats of Arms)
www.sog.org.uk/leaflets/arms.pdf (SoG Information Leaflet: The Right to Arms)
www.rarebooks.nd.edu/digital/heraldry/index.html (Heraldic Dictionary and guide)
http://cheshire-heraldry.org.uk/lesson.html (How to read a Coat of Arms)
http://genealogy.about.com/cs/heraldry/a/heraldry.htm (Intro to Heraldry - A Primer for Genealogists, Heraldry, History & Inheritance, by Kimberly Powell)
www.medievalgenealogy.org.uk/guide/her.shtml (Heraldry and genealogy includes links and bibliography)
www.heraldica.org (Beginners guide to heraldry)
www.heraldica.org/biblio/annotate.htm (Annotated Heraldry Bibliography)
www.baronage.co.uk/jag-ht/jag003.html (An Heraldic Achievement: The Components of an Heraldic Achievement)
http://heraldry.sca.org/laurel/lexarm.html?ref=Guzels.TV (The Law of Arms in Mediaeval England, by Dom Pedro de Alcazar)
www.theheraldrysociety.com/treeview/links.htm (Heraldry links)
www.internationalheraldry.com (International Heraldry & Heralds: Guide to all aspects of heraldry)  
www.heraldry.ws (Free coats of arms for over 8,000 surnames)
www.societies.cam.ac.uk/cuhags/links/her_info.htm (Heraldic links from the Cambridge University Heraldic and Genealogical Society)
www.civicheraldry.co.uk (Coats of arms of local authorities in England and Wales)
www.briantimms.fr (Heraldry: Wide ranging site covering many aspects of heraldry)
www.ngw.nl (Heraldry of the World: Coats of arms of cities, states, municipalities, countries)
www.heraldsnet.org/saitou/parker (A glossary of terms used in Heraldry, first published in 1894)
http://elizabethan.org/heraldry/primer.html (A Visual Introduction to Heraldry)
www.harnmaster.us/blazon.html (Heraldic design software)
www.digiserve.com/heraldry/clipart.htm (Heraldic clipart)
www.heraldryclipart.com (Heraldic clipart, symbolism, dictionary and how to blazon)
www.oocities.org/skuinsbalk/women.html
(Women and heraldry, by Mike Oettle)
www.winslowtree.com/heraldry/heraldry-women.htm (How to Interpret the Heraldry: Women & Arms)

Online Databases

The Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) (An online database that aims to register every recorded individual who lived in Anglo-Saxon England from late sixth to the end of the eleventh century. The database is a collaboration between King's College, London and the University of Cambridge and include sources such as chronicles, saints' lives, charters, inscriptions and coins)
www.burkespeerage.com (Burke's Peerage & Gentry: Access to genealogical records containing 1 million plus names from various Burke's publications. Entries include Coat of Arms plus the image where available)
www.findmypast.co.uk (Britain, Knights Of The Realm & Commonwealth Index. The Knights of the Realm index records the details of over 35,000 individuals who were awarded an order of chivalry by a British monarch. The index was created by Colin J Parry over a 40 year period)
http://thepeerage.com (The Peerage: Place index and surname index containing information on European royal families and on the British Peerage compiled by Darryl Lundy)
www.findmypast.co.uk
(Britain, Knights of The Realm & Commonwealth Index. The Index is comprised of individual transcripts that list a recipient's name, birth year, death year, the type of order of chivalry and the date they received it)
www.court-of-chivalry.bham.ac.uk (Online access to cases heard at The Court of Chivalry)
http://uk-genealogy.org.uk/Database/wc_toc.htm (Herald's Visitations transcriptions covering Devon, Dorset, Cornwall, Somerset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire)

CD Roms

S & N Genealogy Supplies (Complete guide to Heraldry & The Art of Heraldry; Burke's Landed Gentry, 1914; Fox Davies Armorial Families; Neve's Pedigrees of the Knights)
Genealogical Publishing Company (CD publications include British and American Coats of Arms and other heraldic related items including Burke's The General Armory, Fairbairn's Book of Crests and An Ordinary of Scottish Arms by Sir James Balfour Paul)
Archive CD Books (Various titles)