I had to laugh. This morning I received an email message from a company asking me to review their new iPhone app for "Irish Family History." Normally, I would be glad to do so; but, as I read the remainder of the email message, I changed my mind. It appears this app displays so-called family information that contains fairy tales.
The press release states "... users can read about the history of their family, the meaning behind their name, their original and translated family mottos, locate their family’s origin on the map and view their family’s coat of arms."
Excuse me? Family coat of arms? Where did you get that rubbish?
Coats of arms are part of heraldry, the study of creating, granting, and blazoning arms and ruling on questions of rank or protocol. In the Republic of Ireland, all heraldry, including the use and display of coats of arms, is defined by the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland. The College of Arms performs the same function in Northern Ireland (see http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/). It was founded by King Richard III in 1484.
Quoting from the web site of the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland at http://www.nli.ie/en/heraldry-introduction.aspx, "Clearly, a system of identification, to be effective, required regulation because use of the same arms by more than one person would result in confusion." In other words, only one person at a time is allowed to use an Irish coat of arms, not an entire family and certainly not everyone with the same surname, related or not.
Any Irish person or anyone of Irish descent (with some restrictions) or any Irish corporation and a few other organizations in Ireland may apply for a coat of arms, as explained at http://www.nli.ie/en/applying-for-a-grant-of-arms.aspx. However, nobody is authorized to use or to display an Irish coat of arms without having received written permission from the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland. If you don't have written permission (called a grant of arms), it isn't your coat of arms! It certainly is not your family's coat of arms either.
For details, please do not take my word for it; check with the authorities. For Irish coats of arms, you need to check in two places. The College of Arms controls the use and display of arms in Northern Ireland as well as England and Wales. On its web site at http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/Faq.htm the College of Arms clearly states, "There is no such thing as a 'coat of arms for a surname'. Many people of the same surname will often be entitled to completely different coats of arms, and many of that surname will be entitled to no coat of arms. Coats of arms belong to individuals."
The use and display of arms in the Republic of Ireland is under the control of the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland, working for a branch of the National Library of Ireland. The Chief Herald's web site at http://www.nli.ie/en/faq/heraldry-faq.aspx#faq6 states, "There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as a ‘family coat of arms’. A grant of arms made to an individual extends to his or her descendants of the name, not to a family as such."
These folks are the experts in charge of granting and displaying coats of arms and they clearly agree there is no such thing as a family coat of arms anywhere in Ireland, not in the Republic nor in Northern Ireland.
You can also check the registry of Irish coats of arms that are currently valid at the Library of Ireland's web site at http://goo.gl/qqDpV. Please note that each coat of arms is issued to an individual, never to a family. Is your full name listed there? That means your FIRST AND LAST name. If not, that is not your coat of arms.
I have also updated an article that I wrote three years ago and am republishing below. We are getting close to the Christmas season, when many well-meaning individuals buy this junk with the intent of giving them as gifts. I think it is time for a refresher article:
The Myth of Family Coats of Arms
The holiday gift giving season will be here soon and what better personal gift to give than something with the recipient's family coat of arms? I'd suggest that isn't such a great gift. You'd be lying.
Lots of gullible people purchase various trinkets that display the "family coat of arms" without realizing there is no such thing. Coats of arms? Yes. But "family?" No. There is no such thing as a family coat of arms.
NOTE: I do have to point out two exceptions. Several hundred years ago, merchants in Belgium did adopt coats of arms that were similar to the coats of arms displayed by nobility, but with some differences. Those Belgian coats of arms, or family crests, displayed by merchants are assigned to families and are inherited. However, coats of arms displayed by nobility in Belgium are not inherited and are not "family" coats of arms.The truth is, except for the exceptions listed, families do not have family crests, usually known as "coats of arms." The crest is only a small section of the entire design and was usually depicted above the helmet.
In addition, Samurai soldiers in Japan also have family "insignia" that are assigned to families and are passed down from generation to generation. However, the Japanese symbols do not look like European coats of arms with shields and helmets, adorned with lions and dragons and birds and such things.
If your male line descends from a few merchant families in Belgium or from the Samurai class in Japan, you can ignore the rest of this article. However, if your family comes from the British Isles or any place in Europe, other than a few families in Belgium, this applies to you.
Coats of arms were designed for use in battle. If you can imagine wearing a full suit of armor, complete with a helmet with tiny eye slits for vision, the combatants had a difficult time differentiating friend from foe. It was bad form to stick a broadsword into your friend's midsection, although that did happen occasionally in the heat of battle. As a visual aid, the knights and a few other combatants started wearing brightly painted designs on their shields and elsewhere, designs that were known to their fellow combatants. The intent was to help their fellow combatants distinguish friends from foe. The brightly colored insignia was used on shields, on clothing, and on horse dressings.
Occasionally, a knight might have an attendant or two, such as a groomsman who tended the horse or even multiple horses. The attendant also might be a “squire;” a young apprentice who hoped to become a knight on his 21st birthday. The attendant might wear clothing with the same colors as his master, signifying that he was a part of "the team." However, such attendants normally did not wear armor.
If the knight had a close relative in battle as a combatant, such as his son, a brother, a nephew, or other relative, that relative never wore the same insignia as the first knight. In battle, sons never wore the same insignia as their fathers. Each had his own insignia and colors.
Off the battlefield, coats of arms were also used during tournaments to distinguish competitors. Knights, royalty, and a few wealthy individuals displayed their colorful crests and coats of arms as a symbol of themselves. In effect, the coat of arms said, "This is me." Coats of arms were never used to declare, "This is my family."
In fact, the only time that the same coat of arms can be used by more than one person is when the eldest is dead. At that point, the direct heir (typically his oldest son) can petition for the right to bear the same arms that were used by the deceased.
In the case of multiple sons, or when the father was still alive, all the sons could use SIMILAR coats of arms as their father but always added their own variations to the design. Each son created his own variations. These variations are called "cadency" and the son's insignia is referred to as "cadet coat of arms." When the father died, the oldest son removed his personal cadency, reverting the coat of arms back to his father's original design. The other sons kept their cadet coat of arms; they never used the father's original design.
Daughters can also inherit the coat of arms if no sons are living.
In olden times and today, not every coat of arms can be used by everyone with that surname. First of all, not everyone with the same surname is related. I suspect there was more than one knight named Smith, and they certainly didn't want to wear the same coats of arms in battle, especially if they were on opposing sides!
NOTE: There have been dozens of coats of arms issued to men named Smith. The same is true for many other names. If one man of that name already had a coat of arms, no other man of the same name would ever use the same coat of arms, not even his brother or his son. Each man would obtain his own coat of arms. For many names, you can find two, three, five, ten, or even more coats of arms issued over the years to men with the same surname.Another requirement has been in effect since the 15th century and still applies today: the person who wishes to display a coat of arms must first register the design in a central clearinghouse and obtain permission to display it. Registration was required in the 15th century, and it is still expected today. If you are displaying a coat of arms without written permission, you are guilty of an impolite form of forgery. In the U.S., you won't get arrested for doing so because the U.S. has no laws concerning display of forged coats of arms. Such laws do exist on the books in England and in many other countries, although they are ancient laws and are rarely enforced.
Despite what the man at the pushcart told you at the local shopping mall, the rules always required that a coat of arms was for use by a single living individual, not a family. A coat of arms is similar to an individual's signature and was used as seals on official documents.
The official office regulating coats of arms and the granting of new arms for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland is the College of Arms (http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/). It was founded by King Richard III in 1484. If you would like to display your own personally designed coat of arms, and if your male ancestry is from England, you start by applying at the College of Arms. That would be true even if you now live in the United States. You cannot apply online but you can do so by mail.
The official office regulating coats of arms and the granting of new arms for the Republic of Ireland is the Chief Herald of Ireland (http://www.nli.ie/en/intro/heraldry-introduction.aspx). All arms granted in the Republic of Ireland are recorded in the Register of Arms, maintained since the foundation of the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland in 1552.
To learn more about coat of arms granted in Scotland, visit the Court of the Lord Lyon (http://www.lyon-court.com/lordlyon/CCC_FirstPage.jsp). Scottish descendants would apply to the Court of the Lord Lyon.
Canada has its own heraldic office, the Canadian Heraldic Authority (http://www.gg.ca/document.aspx?id=81), operating under authority of the Governor General of Canada. The rules for applying for a coat of arms are slightly different in Canada. Contact the Canadian Heraldic Authority for details.
Heraldry in the United States has no legal standing. There is no Chief Herald or anything similar and the government does not recognize coats of arms or other forms of heraldry, with the one exception that anyone who incorporates heraldry into a registered trademark does receive legal protection for that trademark. The reason for that protection is that it is a trademark, not that it is a coat of arms.
In short, anyone in the United States may legally display any coat of arms or even invent his or her own. However, if an American or anyone else uses a coat of arms that is registered with the heraldic office of a foreign nation, that person is stealing personal property that belongs to someone else under the laws of the country that granted the arms. The American may be found guilty of violating those laws and be subject to penalties. Admittedly, U.S. courts will not enforce heraldry laws of other nations. However, anyone displaying a coat or arms registered in "the old country" might be advised to not do so on a trip back to the homeland!
There are several organizations claiming to represent heraldry in the United States, but none of them have authority granted by the government as is common in Europe and the British Isles. Coats of Arms granted by U.S. organizations may look pretty, but are not worth the paper they are printed on. As to the authority of the person at the pushcart at the local mall.... Well, I think you get the picture by now.
NOTE: There is an Institute of Heraldry that is part of the U.S. Army and that Institute does design coats of arms and other insignia for Army organizations. Since it is part of the U.S. Army, it obviously is "approved" by the U.S. government. However, the Army's Institute of Heraldry only deals with military organizations and does not issue coats of arms to individuals or to families. Details may be found at http://www.tioh.hqda.pentagon.mil/.I have never heard the term used in the United States, but in England the companies that claim to sell “family coats of arms” are often called “bucket shops.” A "bucket shop" is a derogatory term used by serious heraldic enthusiasts to describe "heraldry mongers" who dispense bogus or inaccurate coats of arms by the bucket load. Bucket shops usually have a large database which contains images of historic and/or bogus armorial bearings. Even if their representations are accurate renderings of someone's historic arms, these organizations will neglect to tell their customers that there might be anywhere from one to one hundred arms listed under any given surname.
Here are a few other web sites that dispel that myths concerning so-called “family” coats of arms:
The Board for the Certification of Genealogists has a rather good explanation of heraldry in the United States at http://www.bcgcertification.org/resources/heraldry.htmlIf you would like to obtain a legitimate coat of arms, start by reading the article by Halvor Moorshead at http://www.familychronicle.com/CoatofArms1.htm. Halvor did obtain a valid grant of arms from the Canadian government.
Genealogy Hoaxes, Fake Coat-of-Arms and Scams: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~sfollis/sources/genealogy_hoaxes.html
Cyndi's List: Myths, Hoaxes & Scams » Common Genealogical Myths » Myth: Family crest or coat of arms: http://www.cyndislist.com/myths/common/crest/
The Society of Genealogists (in England): The right to arms: http://www.sog.org.uk/leaflets/arms.shtml
Bagnall Village: http://www.bagnallvillage.com/Pages/Heraldry.htm
A Panorama-style investigation into bucket-shop heraldry: http://specialcorrespondent.blogspot.com/2012/09/a-panorama-style-investigation-into.html
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