Pssst! Want to Buy Your Family’s Coat of Arms?

CoatOfArmsIn many shopping malls across America, you will see pushcart vendors selling reproductions of coats of arms, claiming to be the “proud history and heritage of your family name” or similar words. These merchants sell coats of arms on parchment paper, suitable for framing. They also may sell coats of arms on t-shirts, sweatshirts, golf jerseys, stationery, coffee mugs or even key chains.

Similar “businesses” exist on the Web. A number of Web sites proclaim that they can sell you “authentic” copies of your family’s coat of arms. One Web site says, “What is your Name? What was it’s origin? Was it taken from the name of a village? Was it taken from the Bible? A clan name? An Occupation? An ancient landmark? Who were your historical namesakes who bore your fine family name in the homeland of your ancestors?” Sometimes they also claim to sell “gifts of lasting heritage.”

I have one thing to say to these con artists: “Balderdash!”

Actually, that’s not my first choice of response, but, after all, this is a family newsletter.

The study of coats of arms is called heraldry. Those who control the issuance of arms are the heralds. Typically, each country in Western Europe as well as in England, Scotland, and Ireland has an office of the heralds, sometimes called the Kings of Arms. The heralds are empowered to decide who is authorized to display a certain coat of arms. If you do not have authorization from the heralds, you are not authorized to display any coat of arms. That authorization must be on paper, signed, and made out to you personally, not to your entire family and never to everyone of a certain surname.

Most Americans seem ignorant of one very basic fact: in Western Europe and in the British Isles, there is no such thing as a “family coat of arms.” A coat of arms is issued to one person, not to a family. After that person is deceased, his eldest heir may apply for the same coat of arms. Again, when he dies, his heir may apply. The rules for determining who is eligible to display a coat of arms are very similar to the rules for becoming King or Queen of England. However, even the proper heir cannot display the coat of arms until he or she has received authorization (been confirmed) by the heralds. At any one time, only one person may rightfully display a coat of arms.

According to the American College of Heraldry, “While Americans are usually fascinated by the beauty of heraldry, they are rarely familiar with its meaning and traditions and, therefore, often misunderstand and even abuse this rich cultural heritage. They seldom understand that a coat of arms is usually granted, certified, registered or otherwise recognized as belonging to one individual alone, and that only his direct descendants with proven lineage can be recognized as eligible to inherit the arms. Exceptions to this rule are rare.”

The American College of Heraldry also says, ” It is highly inappropriate for one to locate the arms of another person sharing the same surname, and to simply adopt and use these arms as one’s own.” My interpretation of this is that, if you are displaying an unauthorized coat of arms, you are impersonating someone else.

You can read more on the American College of Heraldry web site at http://www.americancollegeofheraldry.org/body.html.

The College of Arms in England (the heralds for English, Welsh, Northern Irish, and Commonwealth families) says (at http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/resources/faqs):

“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. For any person to have a right to a coat of arms they must either have had it granted to them or be descended in the legitimate male line from a person to whom arms were granted or confirmed in the past.”

Despite these warnings, many vendors are making money by preying on Americans’ ignorance of the topic. The pushcarts you see in shopping malls typically are franchise operations. One pushcart owner told me that he paid $6,000 for a “franchise” to sell this stuff. The so-called franchise did not include a protected territory; another franchisee was free to set up business in the same area. For the $6,000 investment, the franchisee receives a computer with a database containing thousands of surnames and so-called “family coats of arms,” a high-quality printer, a supply of parchment paper (actually not parchment but simply paper that has been treated to look like parchment), and a supply of coffee cups, key chains and other paraphernalia. These franchisees reportedly receive no training in the study of heraldry. The ones I have talked to didn’t recognize the term “College of Arms.”

The Web sites aren’t much better. The ones I have looked at seem to have carefully-worded claims. Instead of saying, “your family’s coat of arms,” they will say something like “your historical namesakes.” Okay, “namesakes” doesn’t mean “ancestors,” but it still will be misleading to many people. When a Web site proclaims, “your historical namesakes,” most people will think that means “my family.” However, if argued in court, the wording on the Web site would probably be considered correct. In short, I doubt if these companies will be shut down for misrepresenting their wares as they are very careful in their choice of words.

The next time someone offers a copy of your “family’s coat of arms,” ask them for the documentation. They won’t have any. If a friend of yours is displaying a coat of arms on his stationery or on his fireplace mantel, I suggest you simply walk away smiling. There’s no sense in upsetting a good friendship. But don’t be as gullible as your friend. And please, please do not display your “family’s coat of arms” on your genealogy Web site unless you have been confirmed by the heralds, Okay?

If you would like to learn more about the serious study of heraldry and any rights you might have to display coats of arms, there are a number of Web sites devoted to the truth. Here is a short list of some of the more reputable ones:

The College of Arms (the official repository of the coats of arms and pedigrees of English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Commonwealth families and their descendants) at: http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/

The Augustan Society at: http://www.augustansociety.org

The American College of Heraldry at: http://www.americancollegeofheraldry.org/

The Baronage Press at: http://www.baronage.co.uk/

British Heraldry: http://www.heraldica.org/topics/britain/ and especially the article on “Regulation of Heraldry in England” at http://www.heraldica.org/topics/britain/england.htm

None of the above sell printouts on parchment paper, t-shirts or key chains. Some of them do sell books and magazines devoted to the study of heraldry, however.

Any site that purports to sell “your family coat of arms” is a rip-off. Don’t waste your money.

23 Comments

thank-you for mentioning the augustan society

joseph uphoff
president
the augustan society, inc

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It isn’t just Americans that are fascinated by, and misunderstand the concept of, crests, coat of arms etc. Thanks for this easy to understand explanation. Every few years these vendors disappear for awhile; then poof – they materialize again.

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Many years ago my Mom ordered via back of a magazine ad, a Coat Of Arms for Drinkwater. It’s molded plastic! It came with a descriptive ‘history’ and all. I always thought it was a fraud, the molded plastic was a dead giveaway! My niece is now involved in the Drinkwater family history and has uncovered another Drinkwater ‘Coat of Arms’. Much more colorful than the brown & red plastic one! Mom was sure it was real, so I let her believe what she wanted to.

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Thanks for bringing this topic to the fore again Dick. It bears repeating frequently.
BTW – nice new photograph up top.

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This is notorious for Poland because of the amount of “royalty” or sejm which was accounted for about 10% of the Polish population which was considered royalty and had coats of arms but this was all abolished once Poland ceased to exit in 1795. In fact, one cousin was tricked into one of the online websites you mentioned. I hated to break it to him that it didn’t exist but another once did exist which I gave to him from a herald book which listed our family surname as being able to use the coat of arms once upon a time. Its interesting what you can find about the coat of arms in history though.

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Also, for Scotland, the Court of the Lord Lyon – see http://www.lyon-court.com/lordlyon/CCC_FirstPage.jsp

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My father’s family are from Trentino, in what is now part of northern Italy. I have traced nearly all of our family lines back as far as the year 1400 using parish records, notary records, local histories and legal parchments from the church archives. As Trentino was, for many centuries, part of the Holy Roman and (later) Austro-Hungarian Empires, a lot of our family lines were minor nobility. Actually one family branched off and married into major nobility (not my direct ancestors, however). In researching that line I discovered, in the archives of the Castello del Buonconsiglio in Trento, an amazing baroque era oil painting of a family tree of that particular family. There is indeed a different shield for EVERY person on the tree. In some cases a single person has two or even four crests. I had assumed, based on the appearance of the crests, that each subsequent generation had a crest that was built upon the previous one, combining the symbols from both their paternal and maternal heraldry. In your experience, is that typically the case?

Thanks for the great article.
Lynn Serafinn
http://trentinogenealogy.com

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Bravo! Plus, only nobility would have these, not some farmer or shoemaker. A select few would have access to this at any one time. They are interesting, decorative and tell a story, that’s it. Save your money, folks! It’s not quite a scam, but very close to it.

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For your Canadian readers, we can get a Coat of Arms from the Canadian Heraldic Authority, part of the Office of the Governor-General. There is a long and comprehensive process that can take up to a year or more and will end up costing you at least $3000.00. The good news is that you can be “ordinary” folk. Canadian Heraldic Authority
https://www.gg.ca/document.aspx?id=81

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what you are referring to is quartering and is standard practice

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Having conducted a one-name study of my maiden name of Foskett for nigh on 40 years, the biggest “con job” I have found is a letter of 1913 from a supposed 95 year old genealogist called Sir George Hanby to Americans trying to trace their heritage. Unfortunately the letter is full of errors but it hasn’t stopped the Americans from copying the letter and spreading its contents as the “truth”.
I have published on my website the letter and my comments about the various claims
http://www.foskett-genealogy.co.uk/Records/USA-Letter1913.html
But it is an uphill struggle convincing the Americans that the letter is almost a complete fabrication, written by someone who is untraceable.

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First “nobility” are only people that have gained power. They are no different of better than some farmer or shoemaker.
Years ago, one of my cousins in Italy found/bought a “coat of arms” for the name Goglia. This was several years ago and I don’t know the origins of this acquisition. Whether accurate or not, I use it. I make t-shirts, take them to Vitulano and hand them out to the Goglias. There are many in Vitulano. It’s fun, I even made a car door magnet with the emblem. I like to drive around Italy with it attached to the car door. The front page of my web page is the Goglia emblem.
http://thegogliafamily.com

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Everything you said, Dick, makes perfect sense, although I did not know that Coat of Arms belongs to a single individual! About 20 years ago a stranger called me to talk about my ancestors. I was leery. I always tell people “I thought she was selling a Coat of Arms.” And many people give me a blank stare because they don’t know what that is. Turns out she was a legitimate genealogist hired by an estate executor to find legitimate heirs of a lady who had already been deceased for several years. After another year or two, my siblings & I & about 20 other people we did not know received equal shares of a portion of the estate. More importantly, I received enough geanealogical info to trace several ancestors back to Jamestowne (VA). Who needs a Coat of Arms!

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My Grandmother had a black and white copy of a coat of arms for a Gwinner. Where she got it I have no idea. I have the copy now. It looks like an old photocopy. Just made me wonder if it was something handed down.

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I work in a library. A young man recently came to me with a book published by Halbert’s showing his family crest. He was looking for a color version of the crest so he could have it tattooed on his arm, but after I explained to him about family crests (and about Halbert’s), he changed his mind!

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We know the coats of arms being sold often were associated with a given person in a given family. Is there any way to determine whose Coat of Arms it was, and if anyone still has use of it currently? I know you mention those societies will provide information about heraldry in general, but is there any way to research a specific Coat of Arms? Even if we do not claim it for our own, we can post it attributing it to the correct individual(s) if there is a way to determine that.

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    if you mean the arms being sold online and similar, these are made up. as for determining the original grantor, this would involve research by reputable people

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    Papworth’s Ordinary of Arms lists all known arms (including historical), but when I bought my copy it was £75, so it may be worthwhile checking your library reference section to see if they have a copy. A word of warning though, you need to have the heraldic description in order to use it. (eg: Azure, on a bend argent three coronels gules). Burkes Peerage and Baronetage can also be consulted; this lists the families and their descent from the person awarded the arms and a picture of the arms.
    Hope this helps

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Sold online or not. Probably some are actually the coat of arms of “someone”, and possibly someone with the surname that is being attached to it. It’s one thing to claim a coat of arms as your own without any right to do so (whether it is even connected with your own family or not), but another to track it to one of your ancestors and display it as “John Doe”‘s coat of arms. In that setting, it wouldn’t be wrong since you would only be ascribing it to the person who had the right at one time, not just to anyone.

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I have two dead notices from 1891 and 1900 that indicate that my great grandfather, Pal HAMMER was given the title “Hammer von Hammerstein”. I also have a painting of a crest which I believe is 80-90 years old. Growing up it was always hidden behind a closet. It was given to me when my mother passed away. I believe that he was given the title because of his work in building the austro-hungarian railroad system circa 1864. Do you know of a directory of family crests from that time period that would include the austro-hungarian empire?
Ernie

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Gwenda Elin Gustafson Malnati June 17, 2016 at 6:57 pm

One time my dad got a phone call about buying the coat of arms for Gustafson. He had a great laugh over that phone call and enjoyed telling the caller that it was all a scam and the reason why it was. The surname Gustafsson in Sweden could never have a coat of arms since his father was the son of Gustaf Larsson. I just wish you could publish your article in many places. It always disturbs me to see improper coats of arms attributed to families on Ancestry.com and other sites.

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Just shared on my FB acount, thanks

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