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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