A coat of arms is a heraldic symbol that represents a particular person, family, or organization. Coats of arms were originally used by medieval knights to identify themselves in battle and tournaments. If your family has a coat of arms, it means your ancestors likely had some noble status or were part of the landed gentry in Europe many centuries ago.
History of Coats of Arms
The use of coats of arms emerged in Europe during the Middle Ages. They served as a way for knights and nobles to identify themselves on the battlefield when they were dressed in armor from head to toe. The symbols and colors on the coat of arms were unique to that family or individual. This allowed others to recognize them.
Over time, coats of arms began to be passed down through noble and landed gentry families. Sons would inherit their father’s coat of arms, sometimes with slight variations. As families expanded into different branches, variations of the original coat of arms would be used to identify each branch.
By the 14th and 15th centuries, coats of arms were adopted far beyond the nobility. Prominent merchants and towns adopted them. Guilds, churches, and universities also began using heraldic symbols to identify themselves. Even ordinary individuals not of noble birth began adopting coat of arms if they had the money to do so.
Significance of a Family Coat of Arms
So what did it mean when a family had a coat of arms in medieval Europe? There are a few key implications:
- Noble ancestry – The family likely had some noble forebearers, even if they were not members of the highest aristocracy. They may have been knights, landed gentry, or part of the minor nobility.
- Wealth and status – The cost of creating and utilizing a coat of arms meant the family had some wealth and social status in medieval society. Commoners did not have the means to adopt heraldic symbols.
- Land ownership – Landed gentry families especially tended to have coats of arms. It was a way to mark their status as landowners and members of the upper classes.
- Heredity – Passing a coat of arms down to each generation implied continuity and heritage. It proclaimed that a family’s nobility or gentry status was stable across generations.
- Unique identity – No two families could have the exact same coat of arms. The uniqueness gave each family a sense of identity. Their status and history was symbolized in the arms.
Of course, not every coat of arms originated with an actual noble ancestor. As they became popular, it was not uncommon for families to simply create and adopt coats of arms if they could afford it. But generally, having a coat of arms still implied elevation above commoner status.
Parts of a Family Coat of Arms
A family coat of arms is comprised of several parts that make up the full heraldic achievement:
- Shield – The central element is the shield which features the main symbols or design of the coat of arms.
- Crest – The crest sits atop the shield and consists of some type of ornamentation such as a plume or crown.
- Helm – The helmet sits above the crest and represents the status of the bearer.
- Mantling – This is the stylized cloth which frames the shield and flows down around it.
- Motto – A motto often accompanies the coat of arms, written on a scroll beneath the shield.
- Supporters – Some coats of arms feature supporters which are figures that stand on either side, such as lions or knights.
There are also many rules around colors and designs for heraldic symbols. The specific choices carry meaning about the family’s history and values. For example, lions often symbolize bravery, eagles represent freedom, and crosses mean faith. Colors also matter – gold represents generosity and blue stands for loyalty.
Reading a Family Coat of Arms
The full coat of arms tells a story about a family’s history, status, and reputation. By reading the symbols and understanding their meaning, you can unlock that story. Here are some of the key things to look for:
- Animals indicate positive virtues like strength, courage, or fertility.
- Weapons represent military service and preparedness.
- Colors have symbolic meaning (i.e. black for constancy, green for life and hope).
- Partitions of the shield suggest alliances between families.
- Stylized figures represent cultural or regional significance.
- Crowns show rank and extent of nobility.
- Helm design indicates noble status.
- A motto provides a mission statement or value.
Put together, the full coat of arms yields a rich symbolic representation of a family’s background. Their history is encoded in the images and heraldic conventions used. Understanding this coded language allows you to read their story.
Tracing Your Family Coat of Arms
If you have a family coat of arms, you may be interested in researching its full history. Here are some tips for tracing its origin:
- Talk to relatives – Family stories and oral histories can provide clues plus details to guide your search.
- Look for images of the arms – Check family heirlooms, historic houses, churches, and public records for representations.
- Search heraldry authority records – Colleges of Arms hold extensive records of coats of arms.
- Look for royal grants – Royal grants to use certain arms may be recorded in chancery rolls.
- Search parish and family records – Genealogical records may reference the family arms.
- Research the surname – The surname origins could point to a particular region or sept.
- Study the symbols – Understanding the meanings provides useful context.
Reconstructing the history of your family coat of arms takes some detective work. But the research can uncover intriguing details about your ancestors and bring deeper meaning to the arms.
Registering New Coats of Arms
While most existing family coats of arms have centuries of history, new personal or family arms can still be created and registered today. Here is the general process:
- Come up with a unique design – Consider visual symbols with personal meaning.
- Follow heraldic rules – Colors, divisions, placement, etc. should align with conventions.
- Research to avoid duplication – Thoroughly check that your design is entirely original.
- File a petition – Submit an official request to assume arms to the heraldic authority.
- Gain approval – The granting authority will approve or require modifications.
- Obtain letters patent – Formal letters will officially grant the right to bear the new arms.
The main heraldic authorities today are the College of Arms in England and the Court of the Lord Lyon in Scotland. Each institution has their own procedures and fees for applying.
While newly granted arms do not carry centuries of history, the right to bear them is still governed by heraldic authorities that uphold tradition. New arms should adhere to these longstanding rules and conventions.
Families with Notable Coats of Arms
Here are some prominent examples of aristocratic and landed gentry British families and their associated coats of arms:
|Family||Coat of Arms Description|
|Spencer||Quarterly Argent and Gules, with insignia of the Order of the Garter|
|Percy||Or, a lion rampant Azure, crowned of the first|
|Stanley||On a Bend Azure, three buck’s heads cabossed Or|
|Douglas||Argent, a heart imperially crowned Gules on a chief Azure three mullets Or|
|Stewart||Or, a fess chequy Azure and Argent|
|Campbell||Gyronny of eight Or and Sable|
|Graham||Or, on a chief Sable three escallops Or|
These families were members of the peerage, had titles like Duke and Earl, and possessed country estates and castles. Their coats of arms reflected their status as nobility or landed gentry in British history. The arms became synonymous with their names and histories.
Modern Uses of Family Coats of Arms
While coats of arms originated in medieval heraldry, they continue to be used decoratively and ceremonially by families today:
- Displayed on walls, flags, or as lawn ornaments at ancestral homes and estates
- Incorporated into jewelry, cufflinks, and other decorative items
- Added to personalized stationery, invitations, documents
- Displayed at weddings, graduations, and other formal events
- Used as part of private school and university insignia
- Depicted on funeral hatchments and memorials
Families take pride in their heritage, and coat of arms remain symbolic of background despite changes to the class system over time. Their decorative and ornamental roles make them still relevant today.
In summary, if your family has a coat of arms, it signifies some elite ancestral roots as nobility or gentry, though possibly back many generations. The specific symbols encode clues about your family’s lineage and history. With some research, you may be able to uncover more details about the origin story. While the class system is not as relevant today, family coats of arms still represent a symbolic heritage. Their uniqueness continues to allow families to celebrate their backgrounds. For those without ancestral arms, new coats of arms can be designed and assumed through the proper authorities if desired.