Coats of arms are colourful, meaningful, mini-puzzles, and great fun. People use them to illustrate online family trees. And there are loads of websites and physical tourist shops where you can buy coats of arms as scrolls, mugs, tea towels and fridge magnets.
Serious and official heraldry bodies frown on such things. Personally, I would advise against adding a ‘family’ coat of arms to your headed notepaper. But, I doubt there is too much harm done if you want to pay $30 to have a nice design on a cheeseboard.
The thing is, what you will have bought is a novelty. The chances that coat of arms is connected to anyone on your family tree will be remote. The chances you are entitled to display that coats of arms as your own are even remoter.
Key facts about coats of arms
The most interesting of all facts about coats of arms is the most important one. They aren’t even awarded to all members of one family. Let alone every person on the planet with the same surname.
The Royal College of Arms (which grants new coats of arms and keeps registers of them) makes this clear on its home page:
‘Coats of arms belong to specific individuals and families and there is no such thing as a coat of arms for a family name‘.
The BBC explained some facts about coats of arms when Meghan Markle was granted a coat of arms as:
‘For any British person to have a legal right to a coat of arms it must have been granted to them or they must be descended in the male line from a person to whom arms were awarded’.
I have details from the Royal College of Arms on one seven-times-removed cousin who was awarded arms. He’d never married, had no children, and the grant was made to him and direct male descendants of his paternal grandfather.
As a direct female descendant, I don’t qualify. And nor would I want to, really.
For it was HIS coat of arms, granted to him for his achievements.
You can still have fun
I have about as much chance of ever being officially granted a coat of arms as I have of winning the lottery (I’ve never bought a ticket). But I have an eye for design and I thought it would it be fun to have a go.
So, I found a couple of heraldic elements that appear on legitimate coats of arms granted to members of my family. And added a couple used by families with the same surnames, a couple I thought fitted me, then came up with a nice motto.
The result (main image for this page) is something I could print on a tea towel that would be every bit as legitimate as anything I could buy from a website. Ie, a lovely novelty, is all.
Facts about coats of arms – the terminology
Give the title of this post is ‘facts about coats of arms’ – ie plural – there should be more than the one key fact! So…
The terminology used for coats of arms could fill a book. There are many permutations for the basic design of the shield; there are almost endless variations on heraldic symbols (animals, flowers, objects). And that’s without the options for a crest on the top, supporters at the sides, and a motto underneath. There are plenty of other sites where you can read it in detail, eg here.
I’ll stick with one example.
I tried to re-create a coat of arms granted to someone on my family tree from a written description. I did this for my book (quick plug! Port Carlisle – a history built on hope)*.
The description was:
Peter Irving of Port Carlisle (Bowness on Solway). Impaling Simpson (Bowness on Solway).
Three holly leaves and a bordure vert, an arm erect embowed armed holding two holly leaves. Motto: Nullis cadentia Ventis.
Impaling Simpson: argent on a chief azure three increscents.
Impaling sounds painful, but means Peter’s shield was split half and half with his wife Jane, née Simpson.
The man’s side is always the left (facing the shield): this is the right for the person standing behind it.
The chief is a plain area across roughly the top third of the shield. Increscents are half-moons with the points facing left. Azure is blue. Vert is green – and the bordure is a border. The arm erect is raised; being embowed means it is bent; being armed means it is clad in armour.
It must have looked something like this:
Peter’s son James Irving seems to have used his father’s coat of arms (or his father’s half – not his mother’s). But James’s son John Bell Irving varied it.
The holly Peter chose was a common Irving emblem, and the increscents (or crescents) were used by other Simpsons.
Update: turns out I used the wrong holly! See this post.
Facts about coats of arms: Colours and metals
One quick list of facts about coats of arms I can give is a description of heraldic colours (or ‘tinctures’).
Azure = blue; gules = red; pupure = purple; sable – black; sanguine (or murray) = maroon; tawny = orange; vert = green.
Argent = silver. But can also be white.
Or = gold. But can also be yellow.
These look a bit like spots or stubble (!). A common one is ermine. Another is vair. It is a theory that Cinderella’s glass slippers were actually made of squirrel fur – vair, rather than glass (Fr verre, pronounced the same way).
You are not supposed to put a colour on a colour, or a metal on a metal.
I didn’t choose all the elements in ‘my’ coat of arms for their symbolism. For a start, blue is simply my favourite colour!
However, it may be of interest to list what they are agreed to symbolise.
- Argent = peace and sincerity
- Or = generosity and elevation of the mind
- Gules = strength and magnanimity
- Azure = truth and loyalty
- Sable – constancy
- Pears = felicity and peace
- Wheat garb (sheaf) = the harvest of one’s hopes has been secured
- Trefoils = perpetuity
- Increscent = hope of glory (or honoured by the sovereign)
- Dove = peace, constancy
- Pen = Art of writing and educated employment
*If you haven't already, you can read more about Port Carlisle, a history built on hope, in this post.