Heritage in Heraldry: Rooting for a Royal Line

Heraldic Family Tree

Example of a heraldic family tree: Ahnentafel von Herzog Ludwig (1568-1593). Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart, Germany.

I have a confession to make: I have a passion outside of genealogy.

Gasp!  I know, terrible, right? In my spare time I enjoy studying the Middle Ages, including the art of heraldry.  Did you know that heraldry has a connection to family history? Well, besides the cool pictures, it is a way to trace lineages.  It also leaves me cringing most of the time when I see people plastering family coats of arms everywhere, because, unfortunately, those are most likely not their ancestors’ actual arms.  You see, in most cases, European heraldry belongs to a person—not a family.

One day I would like to trace my family line far enough to have proof, beyond a doubt, of an ancestor’s arms.  However, I think I may be looking for a long time with my rag-tag crew of ancestors.  The county and time period influence who would be allowed to carry arms, and so far no royal blood appears in these veins.  The English College of Heralds is a great resource that is still registering heraldic devices today.  I dream about raiding their archives.

I remember standing in cathedrals and castles when I was in Europe and looking up at the amazing stained glass.  There were so many windows alive with heraldry.  Years later I studied those windows more in depth to learn all I could about their history and production. Life stories of individuals were there for the telling, shown through glittering glass and paint.  You can even see manuscripts of family trees filled with coats of arms.  Tracing each branch, you can see the inheritance pattern of the family arms pass through each generation.  Almost like DNA!

One of my favorite heraldic family trees is the Sackville Pedigree, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Made in 1599, this 2 meter tall manuscript was created to celebrate the Marriage of Robert Sackville to Margaret Howard.  The portrait miniatures on it show key family members, as well as their royal relation to Henry VIII through Anne Boleyn.  Every shield is different, illustrating each person’s coat of arms and how they blended through marriage and inheritance. You can check out his family group sheet at Family Search.

So many people put coats of arms on their blog to represent their ancestral families.  Have they done the research to prove that it really is their ancestor’s arms? Or are they just relying on family name places to tell them?  I realize that most people just want an outward symbol of their family, which I can understand, and most people will never realize that there could be a problem with the image they’ve selected.

When I was first married I fell into this trap.  I wanted to buy a coat of arms display for my husband and me. At a community festival, I visited a booth set up by one of these family heraldic name companies.  My first clue that something may have been wrong—and I didn’t pick up on it at the time—was when the clerk said, “Pick whichever arms you like best.”  Wow. Pick the one most aesthetically pleasing, not the one that actually belonged to my family? I ended up buying one that was closest to our ancestral village.  Now I cringe when I look at it because I know that those arms don’t belong to our family.

Will I ever find my family’s true heraldry? Let’s hope so. There is an empty wall space above my mantle just begging for a coat of arms.


Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Shannon Bennett of Locust Grove, Va.


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4 thoughts on “Heritage in Heraldry: Rooting for a Royal Line

  1. Just an additional twist: isn’t there a difference between a family crest and an actual coat of arms? Didn’t some families have a crest that depicted something about them, but coats of arms were awarded for clans that bore arms and fought for a patron?

  2. Shannon – I’m so sorry to tell you this, but every newbie goes through what you are dreaming of. The sad fact is that there are many papers and articles out there that were written as a warning to genealogists about this very thing. There are no such things as Family Crests or Coats of Arms for family names…. These were awarded (and still are) by the proper authorities to ONE PERSON (it may or may not be passed down to a son, but he still has to apply to that office).

    The Heraldry office in London that handles this warns not to be taken in by mail order inquiries, surname histories (that may or may not be YOUR family, even though it’s the same name) or booths in shopping malls that claim to be able to give you your “coat of arms” or “family crest”. It’s fraud, plain and simple. Did you know that it is illegal to display any family crest or coat of arms unless it was granted to you by the proper authorities? Uhh Ohhh… I think you know what to do with that coat of arms now. Has anyone seen the garbage man?

  3. Jean: Unfortunately that is not the case. They are assigned to one person and one person only. Or, in the case of a hereditary title, the title itself can carry arms. That is under the English/Irish/Scottish/Canadian tradition because other European traditions can make things murky.

    Several continental countries allow several persons using the same surname to have the same arms. However, you must prove that you are a direct descendant to the original bearer. You may not be of a collateral line and you must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are not from another family with the same surname.

    As for Scottish Clans, members of the clan or others who wish to show allegiance to that clan may wear their badge. Only the Chief may wear the registered heraldry. These badges are sometimes known as clan crests or clan coat of arms, but this not correct. The heraldic badge usually shows elements from the clan chief’s heraldry. Anyone allying themselves with the clan may wear a badge with the chiefs heraldic elements surrounded by a strap and buckle. If you own the heraldry depicted on the badge you may wear a circlet around it. Scottish heraldry is protected under Scottish law and is regulated by the Lord Lyon King of Arms.

    While this is a generalized post on heraldry the principles are the same. To be safe one should know that no family owns arms, only individuals. In many places it is illegal to assume ones arms.

    L. Drewitz: I have to say that I have no illusions of grandeur on having a coat of arms myself. What I would love to prove is that an ancestor had one and can then use that on their files. Another image I can add to their picture folder so to say.

    Yes, I did know that it is illegal to show and display others arms. Unfortunately it is such a hot thing and so many places sell them to tourists, I don’t think it will stop anytime soon. Members of my family have mugs, ties, and other knick-knacks around their houses that they have picked up here in the US as well as in the UK.

    As for my heraldic present, it now sits in my closet with other pictures that I don’t have room to hang. I am debating on writing a note to my grandchildren telling them the whole sorted tale and how these are not their arms. I just can’t throw it out… not what I paid for it.

  4. My husband and I have the name of Stewart as surnames in both our trees. We acquired a clan coat of arms picture , not as blood line coat of arms but as but as part of Scotland history. Someday if we ever get to go to Scotland we try to find any connections to coat of arms or family crest. But for now it’s just history

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