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.

19 Comments

Excellent reminder. Thanks. Hopefully it will save some folks some money.
I’ve been fortunate to find coats of arms for two distant but direct ancestors, and a description of a third. Upon finding them, I checked with the College of Arms to determine protocol. Interesting project.

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The official heraldic authority in Scotland is the Court of the Lord Lyon:
https://www.courtofthelordlyon.scot
See the FAQ page for the Scottish use of clan badges.

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Gwenda Elin Gustafson Malnati July 13, 2019 at 12:16 am

My family used to get these advertisements in the mail. My father would show us the letter and laugh. With the Swedish surname of Gustafson/Gustafsson, meaning the son of Gustaf, the last thing we would have is a family crest. He delighted in writing back very sarcastic letters saying we were the descendants of farmers in Sweden and how dare they try to put a scam over on a population that might not know any better than to believe their scam, con, lies. “Balderdash!” is the perfect word if one is being polite.

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Sons could use their father’s arms in his lifetime but with additional marks
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cadency
but this could become unworkable over several generations

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All true but, it can be interesting to research an Arms to determine who may have actually owned a particular Arms.

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I remember when you used to issue regular warnings about a company in Bath, OH which ran the same scam nationally. What was their name?

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    That was Halbert’s of Bath, Ohio. Many years ago, before I started this newsletter, I was driving on a cross-country trip and I stopped at Halbert’s mailing address in Bath. It was a tiny building that was a real estate office. It seems that the address in Bath had been the original location but the company had later moved to nearby Akron but maintained the old mailing address. It was simply a mail drop location.

    The company had numerous legal actions against the company, most for fraud. Halbert’s went bankrupt some years ago. Gary Halbert eventually went into another shady line of work, unrelated to mail order fraud, and eventually served several years in prison.

    Liked by 1 person

In Canada, Coats of Arms are awarded by the Governor General of Canada, via the Canadian Heraldic Authority (CHA) which is “a the government service that creates coats of arms, flags and badges. It works to the highest standards of the art form, and its practices are at an international level of excellence”. (https://www.gg.ca/en/heraldry/canadian-heraldic-authority).
Coats of Arms are not only given to individuals but also provinces, cities, town and incorporated organizations. Our family association which is incorporated has a coat of arms that has been granted and officially recognized by the Canadian Heraldic authority in this way.(https://reg.gg.ca/heraldry/pub-reg/project.asp?lang=e&ProjectID=2470)
While it is true that a Coat of Arms is attribute to only one person at a time, several members of a family may own and display a similar Coat of Arms via the use of Cadency (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cadency).

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    Canadian arms and flags are really beautiful. Hudson’s Bay Company, and Province of Nova Scotia are particular favorites of mine.

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Never knew this. Thank you for another excellent article.

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Learned something new! Thank you! Now I’m wondering about family/clan tartans, emblems, mottos… Makes me wonder if the whole kit-and-kaboodle is balderdash!

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    Scottish clan badges are a different matter – I think that the reference link to the Lord Lyon’ stuff is given further up this page. Even there, one should be careful to use the badge designed for clan members and not that for the clan chief, say.
    I have no idea if there is even a theoretical restriction on the use of clan tartans, many of which date no further back than Sir Walter Scott’s era. Personally I think that you should just eat the shortbread and drink the whisky and not worry about the tartan on the packaging!

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    There are a gazillion tartans with more being created every year.. Use of some of them are restricted to members of a particular organization or family for whom they were especially created, but most can be used by anyone. All the Canadian provinces and several American states have regional tartans that anyone whose family resided in the province is welcome to use. I think there is even an Ellis Island tartan specially commissioned for use by descendants of immigrants who arrived there from anywhere in the world. If you check the Scottish Register of Tartans, you should certainly be able to find one you like:
    https://www.tartanregister.gov.uk/index
    Of course, if you’re worried about giving offense, you can always opt for a genuine Harris Tweed jacket — made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the islands of the Outer Hebrides, and hand woven by the islanders in their own homes. Definitely worth the price.

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There is no such thing as ‘British heraldry’. The law in heraldry in Scotland is very different to that in England, and is regulated by the Lord Lyon King of Arms and the Court of the Lord Lyon (https://www.courtofthelordlyon.scot/), which has its own public prosecutor (procurator fiscal). If you use someone else’s arms in Scotland you can be prosecuted for doing so and fined, with the illegal usage treated as if it were theft, and a real personal injury.

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Many years ago, long before I began studying genealogy, I bought a “Bowman” coat-of-arms and surname history document at a community fair and gave it to my Dad for Father’s Day. He thanked me and then pointed out that our name was actually “Bauman”, a German word meaning small farmer and not likely to have a coat-of-arms.

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Wair until you research German Heraldry, all recorded in Siebmacher books. BTW, a coat of arms can be given for “service” to the King, but only to one person.

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This reminds me of the one my dad fell for when he was researching his Waggoner family. He got a letter from someone claiming to be collecting the names of all the Waggoners in the world, as an aid for researchers. Luckily, he didn’t want a lot of money, as my dad paid up. A 1/2 inch thick book did actually result, which I only recycled recently. It was simply a world-wide geographical list of those who had also paid. It was of no use whatsoever. You’d be surprised how common our name is. Either that, or the guy just made up lots of the names. The list wasn’t even attractively presented. At least it included an ostensible Waggoner coat of arms at the front of the book, with an explanation of the “source” of the name.

Doris

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One of the cousins in Italy did this. I got a copy of the “family seal” then proceeded to make t-shirts, decals even a magnetic sign that I attach to the car I am driving while in Italy.
I give the t-shirts to relatives and any Goglia that would like one. It’s fun

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