Guidelines for Heraldic Practice

(Approved by the Board of Directors of the American Heraldry Society, March 15, 2007)

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

1.0. The following guidelines were developed by the American Heraldry Society to provide Americans with a set of recommended best practices for the use of traditional heraldry in the United States. The American Heraldry Society does not claim to have any authority to mandate heraldic practices. It recognizes that, for various reasons, some people will disagree with certain of the guidelines. The decision to comply or not to comply with the guidelines is entirely up to the individual.

1.1. For the purposes of these guidelines, heraldry may be defined as a hereditary system of emblems that are:

  • centered on a shield
  • used to identify and distinguish individuals, families, and collective bodies
  • composed primarily of certain conventional tinctures and figures
  • designed and employed in accordance with rules that have evolved in Europe and European-influenced countries over the past eight centuries.

Note: Many systems of personal, family, and group symbolism which are more or less comparable to heraldry also developed in non-European cultures. These systems are usually subject to their own customary rules and are not covered in these guidelines.

1.2. Some of the rules governing heraldry grew out of the customary law of arms that prevailed across most of Europe beginning in the Middle Ages. With isolated exceptions, these rules tend to be common to all countries in which heraldry is used. Other rules were developed from time to time to meet the social, legal, and political needs of particular countries. These rules apply only to the heraldry of those countries.

1.3. While the extent to which heraldic rules are officially enforced has varied from country to country and time to time, it has always been understood that arms are governed by a set of norms which enjoy general acceptance within the given society. While there is nothing preventing the use of graphic emblems of other kinds, those that diverge excessively from the established norms cannot be regarded as heraldic.

1.4. Both individual and collective heraldry have been used in what is now the United States since the time of the earliest European settlements in the late 16th century. For a variety of reasons, however, it has been difficult to develop a set of agreed norms with which American heraldry ought to comply. The purpose of these guidelines on American heraldic customs and etiquette is to fill this void in a way that is consistent with American heraldic history, American cultural and legal values, and the common international heritage of heraldry going back to the Middle Ages.

1.5. The development of these recommended guidelines has been shaped by the following fundamental principles:

1.5.1. The primary purpose of heraldic arms has always been identification. Armorial ensigns have also filled a variety of other functions at different times and places, such as providing a symbolic focus for family, group, or national loyalty, or serving as a means of distinguishing one social class from another. These guidelines are designed to encourage the use of heraldry for purposes that are consistent with the ideals characteristic of the United States, and to discourage uses that are at odds with those ideals.

1.5.2. These guidelines reject the premise that possession of a coat of arms, regardless of the means by which it was acquired, indicates any type of superiority over those who do not possess arms. They also discourage the display by American citizens of any heraldic accoutrements indicative of titles of nobility or other hereditary social ranks that have no recognized place in American society.

1.5.3. The guidelines reflect an understanding of the ethnic and national diversity of the American people and seek wherever possible to avoid the universal application of practices that are peculiar to any particular foreign country.

1.5.4. The guidelines are derived from two main sources: (1) the shared body of norms that are common to the majority of areas in which heraldry has historically been used; and (2) the customary usages of American heraldry as inferred from actual historic practice. Practices that are specific to particular foreign countries are adopted only if they seem to fill an unanswered need within American heraldry, and if the underlying rationale for the practice is consistent with American conditions and values.

1.5.5. The guidelines take into account that certain traditional heraldic norms (such as exclusive inheritance in the male line, differencing for illegitimacy, and restrictions on the way women may use arms) are not consistent with modern American mores. In these cases, the traditional rules are modified to take account of contemporary laws and customs.

1.6. Four overarching principles bear emphasis above all the others.

1.6.1. It has always been perfectly legal and legitimate for any person in the United States to design, adopt, and use an original coat of arms of his or her choice. While some countries have laws or traditions limiting this right to bear arms without official approval, such laws have no force whatsoever in the United States.

1.6.2. It has never been legitimate anywhere for a person to take someone else’s arms for his own. Since arms are hereditary emblems of identity, the proven descendants of a person who bore arms have a right to those arms in accordance with the rules of heraldic succession (section 3.4) applicable to the place and time. However, the mere coincidence of bearing the same family name as another person is not proof of descent from that person. Commercial enterprises that claim to sell the arms of a name do so under false pretenses, and anyone who pays them for such arms has been duped.

1.6.3. The grant, certification, or registration of arms by a foreign heraldic authority confers no special right to the use of the arms outside the country of origin. In the United States, therefore, the status of such arms is precisely the same as the status of arms designed and adopted unilaterally.

1.6.4. Heraldry should never be used to imply a personal status that the person bearing the arms does not actually have.

1.7. To the greatest extent possible, the guidelines have been written using plain English terms rather than the technical language of heraldic blazon.

2. Heraldic Composition

2.1. The Basic Arms

2.1.1. The Shield Heraldry is an art form constrained by certain rules of composition. While a limited degree of flexibility is permissible, at a certain point a composition that diverges too far from these rules ceases to be a coat of arms. In particular, arms should, with very rare exceptions, comply with the heraldic “rule of tincture”: a metal object—that is, one that is gold (yellow) or silver (white)— should not be placed on a metal field, while a colored object—one that is black, red, blue, green, purple, etc.—should not be placed on a colored field. Objects displayed on the shield (known as charges) should normally be oriented toward the dexter (viewer’s left), particularly if only one of a particular charge appears on the shield. Compositions should normally be limited to the traditional palette of heraldic tinctures, although the use of “proper” (natural colored) objects is permissible in moderation. If the shield is divided into different tinctures, the partition lines should preferably conform to the standard heraldic forms, although some innovation is permissible provided the final product remains identifiably heraldic. Other than in inscriptions on books and the like, writing on the shield is to be avoided; heraldry is supposed to be a graphic art form, not a verbal one. Anyone setting out to design a coat of arms should carefully study several standard texts on the subject to get a feel for what constitutes appropriate heraldic composition. As far as possible, the design displayed on the shield should be unique; the intentional usurpation of someone else’s arms is morally tantamount to identity theft. Moreover, a newly devised coat of arms should not resemble an existing one so closely as to suggest a connection that does not exist. While the coincidental selection by different people of the same or similar designs is probably inevitable considering the hundreds of thousands of arms in existence—most of which have never been published—the designer of a new coat of arms is morally obliged to make a good faith effort to verify that his design is truly original. A qualified heraldist can help in this effort. A particular coat of arms pertains to a single specific individual and his direct descendants, not to everyone who happens to share the same last name. If you are a direct descendant of someone who previously bore arms, and if you can prove it, you may well have the right to use those arms—see section 3.4 on inheritance of arms for further discussion. But appropriating a coat of arms merely because the last name is the same as your own is absolutely out of bounds. It is permissible to design new arms that are variations on those of a family with the same name, but the differences between the existing coat and the new one must be substantial enough to reflect the degree of kinship or lack thereof. If in doubt, consult a standard heraldry text on the subject of differencing. Neither personal nor institutional arms should incorporate a field consisting of the arms of the United States, a foreign country, a former or present ruling house, or a U.S. state. (An exception is that an official agency may incorporate the arms of the government of which it is a part, if doing so is permitted under the laws and regulations of the government concerned.) In addition, designers of new arms should be aware of certain elements that are widely recognized as traditional augmentations granted by foreign sovereigns to their subjects as marks of special favor. These include the Scottish royal tressure, chiefs and cantons showing a gold English lion passant guardant on red or the gold French fleurs-de-lis on blue, and red bordures scattered with the gold castles of Castile. The use of these traditional augmentations should be avoided in devising new arms, as should elements that are universally recognized as emblematic of particular honors, orders of chivalry, and the like. For example, a silver (white) canton or small shield with the red open hand of Ulster is the distinctive mark of a baronet of the United Kingdom—it should not be used by anyone who is not a baronet. Similarly, a red chief with a white cross throughout is peculiar to specific grades of knights of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Again, it should not be used by anyone else. Many of these distinctive emblems are addressed in general heraldic textbooks. Newly designed arms should normally consist of a single united field, not of several distinct fields combined together. This does not exclude the use of the standard heraldic partition lines (per pale, per fess, per pall, per saltire, per chevron, quarterly, etc.), but anyone using them should take care not to imply incorrectly that the new arms are a combination of previously existing arms. The risk of such a misleading impression is particularly high when the arms are divided per pale or quarterly, as these are the most common methods of combining arms as a result of marriage or inheritance. The more complex each of the fields, and the more diverse the fields are from one another in color and composition, the more likely this false impression will be created. For example, a shield divided quarterly, blue and gold, with a star of the opposite color on each quarter (counterchanged) is unlikely to be viewed as anything but a single composition. On the other hand, a shield in which the first and fourth quarters are blue with a gold star and the second and third quarters are white with a red cross between four green fleurs-de-lys will probably be taken by most heraldists as a combination of two preexisting coats. There are a few exceptions to this principle—notably arms following the traditional quarterly pattern used by clans in the western Highlands of Scotland—but even in these cases it is best to include some element that serves to unify the four fields, such as a chief, or a cross, fess, or pale over all. Alternatively, one may introduce variations in the partition lines dividing the quarters (making one or both of them indented, wavy, nebuly, etc.), which indicates that they are not merely a combination of separate heraldic compositions. In general, however, designers should keep in mind that simpler designs are usually better (subject to the rule against negligent or intentional duplication), and that complicated combinations work against the arms’ function as an easily recognizable sign of identity. With the exception of the lozenge (diamond), there is no significance to the shape of the shield. The lozenge has traditionally been distinctive of the arms of women in the heraldry of certain countries, including much of the United States (see section 3.2 on heraldry of women). Other than that, any style of shield is available to anyone. Some styles are more characteristic of certain times and places than others, and the good heraldic artist will avoid putting charges drawn in an 18th century style on a 15th century Italian shield and pairing it with a 17th century French helmet. But ultimately the shape of the shield is a matter to be decided by the taste of the bearer of the arms and his artist. While there is no firm rule prohibiting a person from redesigning his arms or even adopting new ones from time to time, doing so defeats the basic purpose of the arms as a graphic representation of personal and family identity. In principle, once a person has adopted a coat of arms, it should be as unusual to change them as it would be to change his or her name.

2.1.2. Crest In the United States, a complete coat of arms customarily includes a crest, a three-dimensional figure originally modeled and placed atop the ceremonial helmet displayed by a knight at a tournament. However, while having a crest is certainly the norm in American heraldry, anyone bearing arms may forgo a crest he or she wishes. This might be the case, for example, if the use of crests is not customary in his or her family’s country of origin. (In addition, some religious bodies prohibit or discourage the use of crests by their clergy and members of religious orders. Those who might be affected should consult the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities.) The crest should be sufficiently distinctive to be able to stand alone as a recognizable symbol of personal or family identity. On the other hand, in most heraldic traditions the uniqueness of the crest is less important than that of the shield, and in any case the desire for uniqueness must be balanced against the need to avoid excessive complexity. In any case, however, a newly devised crest should never be intentionally copied from that of an unrelated person. In armorial displays, the crest is usually depicted as joined to the helmet with a circlet of twisted cloth, called a wreath or torse. The norm in the United States is to show the torse as a twisted band, with three twists of the principal metal from the shield alternating with three twists of the principal color, starting with a twist of metal at the dexter side (the front of the helmet if shown in profile). However, there is nothing mandatory about this practice, and someone designing new arms is at liberty to choose other tinctures, to show more or fewer than six twists, to use an untwisted strip of cloth, known as a banderole, or simply to show the crest emerging directly from the mantling. Those with arms of foreign origin may either follow the normal U.S. method of depicting the torse or retain the design previously used with the arms. In some heraldic traditions, the torse may be replaced with a coronet or crown of conventional form. It is also possible to use such a coronet in addition to the torse. The most common design is called a crest coronet; others include the mural, naval, astral, vallary, Eastern, and ancient crowns. None of these signify social rank, although the mural, naval, and astral crowns are traditionally used to symbolize distinction in military, naval, or air force service respectively. Nevertheless, those contemplating the use a crest coronet or one of the conventional crowns in their crests should be aware of the possibility that such elements will be misconstrued as a claim of noble status. A crest coronet or other conventional crown should never be used as the sole element of a crest, and no coronet of a design indicating noble, chivalric, or similar status in any country should be used as a crest coronet. When in doubt, those designing arms should consult a reference showing the crowns and coronets of rank used in various countries. The crest may be shown atop the helm as part of a full achievement of arms, or it may be shown mounted on the torse (or crest coronet) slightly above the upper edge of the shield, omitting the helm and mantling, or it may be depicted with a motto scroll or alone.

2.1.3. Helmets The customary helmets (also known as helms) used on personal arms in the United States are the barrel (great) helm, tilting helm, or armet with closed visor. These are the only types of helm that are universally recognized as appropriate for use with arms assumed in this country. The helm depicted may vary from one emblazonment to another. The helm should be shown as made of steel rather than precious metal and oriented to be artistically consistent with the design of the crest: in profile facing dexter (the viewer’s left), in three-quarters perspective to dexter, or directly facing the viewer (affronty). If there is no crest, the helm is normally shown in profile, although this is a matter of taste. American citizens bearing arms of foreign origin may show their arms either with one of the simple helms listed above (preferred) or with the type of helm correctly used with the arms in the country of origin, provided that the design used carries no nobiliary connotations in that country. See section 5 on the use of foreign arms in the United States.

2.1.4. Mantling The term mantling (also known as the lambrequin) refers to the cloth covering fastened to the top of the helmet and falling behind and to the sides of it. Mantling is usually of the principal color and metal contained on the shield (conventionally the first color and metal mentioned in the blazon), with the color on the outside and the metal forming the lining. However, there is no absolute rule against other combinations, including the use of multiple colors and metals. It is also permissible for the outside of the mantling to be scattered with small charges if desired; in fact, this was not at all unusual during the Middle Ages. It is recommended that furs not be used in mantling on American arms, as certain furs are sometimes an indicator of noble rank and could be interpreted as asserting a claim to such status. Mantling is not to be confused with the mantle or robe of estate discussed in section 2.2.5.

2.1.5. Mottoes Except in countries where a motto is explicitly specified as part of an armorial grant, mottoes and slogans are not an intrinsic part of the arms. A motto or slogan may be shown or omitted, displayed below the shield, above the crest, or elsewhere, and may be changed by the armiger at will without affecting the essential nature of the arms.

2.2. Additions to the Basic Arms

2.2.1. Supporters The use of supporters with personal arms is not customary in the United States. In most countries where supporters are part of the heraldic tradition, they tend to be associated with the arms of the titled nobility, even where there are no formal regulations on the matter. Supporters should therefore not be included in personal arms adopted in the United States. American citizens who have a hereditary right to arms that have traditionally been displayed with supporters in their ancestors’ country of origin, or in their own right as recipients of foreign grants of arms are encouraged to omit the supporters when using such arms as their own in the United States. This is both a matter of honoring the prevailing U.S. custom as well as of avoiding the impression of a claim to noble status that is not recognized by American social and legal norms. Supporters should definitely not be used if the current bearer of the arms does not meet the legal criteria for possession of supporters in the country in which the arms were created (for example, the descendant of a British knight grand cross who was entitled to supporters only during his own lifetime). In addition, if the supporters are indicative of noble status in the country of origin, they should not be used if the current bearer of the arms or an ancestor from whom they were inherited renounced such noble status in connection with naturalization in the United States. See section 5 on the use of foreign arms in the United States for further discussion. There is no objection to the private display of the full achievement with supporters if it is presented as the arms of an ancestor who was entitled to them. See section 5 on the use of foreign arms in the United States. There is no objection to the use of supporters in the arms of states, counties, cities, and other governmental entities, major educational institutions, and other corporate bodies of national or historic stature.

2.2.2. Crowns, Coronets, and Chapeaux The use of coronets or any similar headgear as an external ornament with the personal arms of U.S. citizens is not customary and is discouraged. This includes coronets, caps of maintenance, and the like placed directly above the shield, or shown in lieu of a full crest. Such displays are generally recognized as a claim of noble status and are not appropriate for arms assumed in the United States. (The use of crest coronets and crowns of conventional design as part of a crest is covered in section on crests.) Arms with such coronets, etc., used by ancestors who were entitled to them in the family’s country of origin may be displayed as one would display any other heirloom, but the coronet should be omitted in personal use of the arms. It is particularly inappropriate to display a coronet symbolic of a title or degree of nobility if the current bearer of the arms or an ancestor from whom the arms are inherited renounced noble status in connection with naturalization in the United States. Coronets of conventional design that are not indicative of noble status in any country may be used as integral elements of a crest. For further details see section on crests. The above guidelines should not be construed as precluding members of the clergy from using hats emblematic of their clerical status that are prescribed or customarily used by the religious bodies in which they are ordained. Members of the clergy who choose to use such hats should take care not to use hats that are distinctive of religious offices other than their own. It is permissible for counties and incorporated municipalities to display atop the shield a civic or mural crown or another coronet symbolic of the locality’s history if it wishes to do so, but not a royal crown or a coronet specifically associated with a degree of nobility.

2.2.3. Orders, Decorations, and Awards Military and civil decorations awarded by the United States government or one of the states may be displayed as part of an armorial achievement as follows:

  • Decorations worn in the form of a shoulder sash and breast star are indicated by a depiction of the sash encircling the shield, with the badge that fastens the sash at the hip shown surmounting the crossed ends of the sash below the base of the shield and/or by placing the breast star behind the shield with the perimeter of the star sufficiently visible around the shield to identify the decoration represented.
  • Decorations worn on a neck ribbon are indicated by a depiction of the ribbon emerging from behind the shield with the pendant of the decoration depicted below the base of the shield.
  • Decorations worn on a breast ribbon are indicated by a depiction of the decoration suspended below the base of the shield by a length of the ribbon emerging from behind the shield. The insignia of orders and decorations conferred by or under the auspices of a foreign head of state recognized by the United States may be displayed either in accordance with the guidelines for U.S. decorations or with the customs governing heraldic display in the country granting the honor. It is recommended that, if the recipient of such a foreign honor is also the bearer of a U.S. decoration, the foreign insignia be displayed only if the highest U.S. decoration held is also depicted. In addition to those conferred by recognized heads of state, many orders of chivalry exist autonomously or are granted by former monarchs, former ruling families, and royal pretenders. Some of these are universally recognized as legitimate, while others are the subject of considerable controversy and still others are clearly fraudulent. It is not the business of the American Heraldry Society to adjudicate the claims of such bodies. Armigers are urged to consider carefully whether the display of their insignia is appropriate other than in connection with the affairs of the organization itself. To avoid a cluttered appearance, it is recommended that no more than three decorations or orders be suspended below the shield, nor more than one breast star be displayed behind the shield, nor more than one sash or similar insignia be shown surrounding the shield. Insignia are appropriately displayed in the following order of precedence:

  • U.S. federal decorations awarded by or in the name of the President
  • Orders and decorations awarded by or in the name of foreign heads of state
  • Other U.S. federal decorations
  • U.S. state decorations Insignia depicted encircling the shield are shown with the most senior on the outside. Those depicted suspended from neck ribbons are placed with the senior decoration in the center, the second senior to dexter, and the third senior to sinister. Those depicted suspended from breast ribbons are placed in order of seniority from dexter to sinister (viewer’s left to right). Awards and insignia of membership conferred by private organizations, including lineage societies, professional associations of a military character, and Scouting or similar groups, are not customarily depicted as part of armorial achievements in the United States, unless the rules of the organization concerned expressly provide for such display. In that case, they are normally used only in the context of the organization’s activities. Honors and awards that do not include wearable insignia are not shown as an integral part of an armorial achievement, nor are service medals (as distinct from decorations), military unit citations (except as may be authorized by military authorities for display with the arms of the unit itself), qualification badges, and other military, police, or similar insignia. However, such badges and insignia, as well as other honors and awards, may be represented within a composition of which an armorial achievement constitutes a part, such as a decorative border surrounding the arms on a bookplate. Orders and decorations belong only to the person to whom they are awarded. They do not become an inheritable part of the arms. The insignia of an order or decoration should not be displayed with a shield on which the arms of two spouses are marshaled, because the honor is specific to the person to whom it was granted, not to his or her spouse. An exception may be made if both spouses hold the same order or decoration.

2.2.4. Insignia of Office It has been traditional in many countries for the holders of certain offices and functions to display insignia of those offices with their arms. The insignia to be used and the offices entitled to them are prescribed in each country by duly constituted authority. No equivalent insignia have ever been prescribed by the United States government or any of the states for use with personal arms. It is inappropriate for anyone to devise and display such insignia as part of his arms on his own initiative. Clergy of religious bodies that have formal or customary rules for the use of insignia of office use such insignia in accordance with those rules.

2.2.5. Mantles, Robes of Estate, and Pavilions Since the late 16th century, it has been permissible in some countries for members of ruling families, the high nobility, and holders of high offices of state to display their arms against a fur-lined cloth backdrop, usually in the form of a crimson or purple cloak lined with ermine. Depending on the specific form these backdrops take, they are known as mantles (or manteaux), robes of estate, or pavilions. None of these accoutrements has any place in American heraldic custom. Note: Despite the similarity of the names, the mantle or manteau is not to be confused with mantling (also known as the lambrequin), the cloth covering of the helmet that is common to the arms of all classes.

3. American Heraldry and the “Law of Arms”

3.1. The Legal Status of Arms in the United States

3.1.0. The term “law of arms” refers to the body of rules and norms governing who may bear arms, how they are borne, and how they pass from one generation to another. The law of arms in any given country consists of a combination of (a) customary norms common almost everywhere that heraldry is used and (b) specific statutes, regulations, precedents, and practices that apply only within the particular country.

3.1.1. Under the general customary law of arms, any person is entitled to assume a coat of arms that does not infringe on the arms of another person, unless otherwise provided by the heraldic regulations established by the sovereign authorities of the country in which he lives. As no such restrictions have applied within the United States since July 4, 1776, at the latest, it is both legal and legitimate for anyone in this country to design, adopt, and use an original coat of arms of his or her choice.

3.1.2. Some countries give special legal status to heraldic arms that have been granted, certified, or registered in accordance with prescribed procedures. In these cases, the bearer of the arms usually enjoys an exclusive right to the arms that is enforceable in court, but only in the country of the arms’ origin. Any protection afforded anywhere else is entirely at the discretion of the “receiving” country. For example, a grant of arms by the English heraldic authorities conveys an exclusive right to those arms which is theoretically enforceable in the English legal system, but not necessarily in Germany. Conversely, a coat of arms unilaterally assumed in Germany and registered with one of the recognized German heraldic societies can be protected in the German courts, but will have no standing in England. In the United States, there is no legal basis at either the state or federal level for the protection of armorial bearings as such, no matter what the origin of the arms. Accordingly, the status of arms assumed in the United States and arms granted by the English or Scottish kings of arms or any other foreign heraldic authority is precisely the same—all are emblems of personal, family, or group identity, used voluntarily and enjoying no protection.

3.2. Arms of Women

3.2.1. Women in the United States have the same rights as men to assume arms of their own devising, to use arms granted or certified by foreign heraldic authorities, and to inherit arms in accordance with the principles discussed in section 3.4 on armorial inheritance. The available evidence indicates that many of the the restrictions placed on women’s armorial display in some other countries, and particularly those prohibiting women from bearing a crest and motto, have not historically been observed in the United States.

3.2.2. There is precedent for women to display their arms either in the same form as men (on a shield accompanied by crest, helm, and mantling) or in one of the following forms:

  • Single women: own arms (including arms inherited from a parent) on a lozenge or oval.
  • Married women: either (1) in the same form as for an unmarried woman; (2) on a shield or lozenge impaled with the arms of the husband, with his arms to dexter (or with her own arms placed on an inescutcheon surmounting his arms, as described in section on Marital Arms). A married woman who is not armigerous in her own right may use the arms of her husband, provided she uses the same surname.
  • Widow: either (1) in the same form as for an unmarried woman, or (2) on a lozenge or oval, impaled with the arms of her late husband. A widow who is not armigerous in her own right may use the arms of her late husband, provided she continues to bear his surname.
  • Divorcée: As for an unmarried woman, dropping any use of the former husband’s arms.

3.2.3. If a crest is used with arms displayed on a lozenge or oval, it is normally depicted without helm or mantling.

3.3. Marshalling of Arms

3.3.1. Marital Arms There are a number of ways in which spouses can display their arms together. The best known in the English-speaking world is impalement, in which the shield is divided in half vertically, with the husband’s arms placed in the dexter and the wife’s in the sinister. The impaled arms are traditionally displayed with the husband’s helmet and crest. If the wife has no brothers to inherit her father’s arms, and her father is deceased, then instead of impaling the two arms, hers may be placed on a small escutcheon in the center of the husband’s shield, known as an escutcheon of pretense. In the United States, while employed by many families, the marshaling of marital arms on a single shield has never been universal, and it should definitely be looked upon by American couples today as one among a number of options for armorial display, not as something required by formal rules. One alternative is to display each spouse’s arms on a separate shield, or on a shield and a lozenge, side by side in a single artistic composition. When this is done, the husband’s arms are customarily placed to dexter; in some traditions the charges on the husband’s arms, as well as the helm and crest, are turned so that they face toward the wife’s arms. The insignia of an order or decoration should not be displayed with a shield on which the arms of two spouses are marshaled, because the honor is specific to the person to whom it was granted, not to his or her spouse. An exception may be made if both spouses hold the same order or decoration. See also section 3.2, Arms of Women. Same-Sex Couples are also entitled to Marshall their arms. There is no proper order however we suggest viewing the College of Arms website for their guidelines on this practice.

3.3.2. Arms of Office With the exception of certain ecclesiastical dignitaries (such as Roman Catholic and Episcopalian bishops) it is not customary in the United States for office-holders to marshal their personal arms with those of the entity in which they hold office. When official and personal arms are marshaled, they are usually impaled with the arms of the office (for example, a bishop’s diocese) to dexter (the viewer’s left) and the office-holder’s personal arms to sinister. Arms of office and marital arms are never marshaled together at the same time. The arms may be impaled with either those of the spouse or those of the office, but not both.

3.4. Armorial Inheritance

3.4.1. All legally recognized children are entitled to inherit the arms of the parent whose surname they bear, as well as to use those arms by courtesy during the parent’s lifetime. This principle is derived from the most widely followed traditional practices of armorial succession—inheritance in the legitimate male line—modified to take account of modern American family law and customs. For exceptions to the principle that “the arms follow the name,” see sections 3.4.4. and 3.4.8. For families that follow the traditional American naming custom in which children take the father’s surname, this means that the children will use and inherit the arms of their father. In families in which children are given their mother’s maiden name as their surname, they will use and inherit her arms. In families in which the children are given a combination of their father’s and mother’s surnames, the children may combine both parents’s arms (if both parents have arms), typically by quartering them, with the last of the combined surnames taking precedence.

3.4.2. The term “legally recognized children” includes adopted children as well as children born out of wedlock who are legally recognized as the parent’s heirs under the laws of the state of domicile.

3.4.3. Since a final decree of adoption severs all legal rights and responsibilities between a child and the biological parents, an adopted child should not ordinarily inherit the arms of the biological parents.

3.4.4. A person who takes his or her spouse’s name upon marriage may continue using the arms to which he or she was entitled by birth, but transmits these arms to his or her own offspring only under one of the following conditions:

  • The child’s legal surname is the same as the parent’s birth surname, in which case the arms may be inherited without difference.
  • The parent has no siblings who have children bearing the name associated with the arms. In that case, the arms to which the parent was entitled by birth are quartered with those of the spouse whose surname the child bears (the latter taking precedence). For example, in a family following traditional American naming customs, a woman who had no brothers, or whose brothers had no children to whom to pass on their father’s arms, could pass those arms to her own children, even though they bore her husband’s surname.
  • If either parent is an original bearer of arms, the arms are inherited by his or her children regardless of the surname, in quartered form if the children are also entitled to inherit the other parent’s arms.

3.4.5. Modern heraldic tastes generally frown on the excessive accumulation of quarterings. It is therefore important to understand that the provisions above are permissive, not mandatory. A child in these situations may select to use only the arms of the ancestor whose surname he or she bears (or with one of his or her hyphenated surnames), or may elect to design new arms, possibly combining into a single field elements from the various arms of the parents and grandparents.

3.4.6. In retroactively determining succession to historic arms within the United States, the eligibility of adopted or illegitimate children to inherit the arms should be determined consistent with the laws on inheritance in effect at the date of the previous bearer’s death in his state of domicile.

3.4.7. It should be noted that foreign heraldic authorities and institutions will apply their own laws and regulations on these issues and may not recognize claims to inheritance of arms that involve adoption, illegitimacy, or succession through a female line. The successive inheritance of arms through people who lived in other countries should be traced according to the laws in effect in those countries at the time of each ancestor’s death, or in the country where the arms originated.

3.4.8. Persons assuming arms in the United States may specify different rules for inheritance than those set forth above if they so desire. We recommend that any desires on this matter be stated in writing and that all potential heirs be made aware of them.

3.5. Cadency

3.5.1. In some parts of Europe, the principle formerly prevailed that no two living men should bear identical arms within the same heraldic jurisdiction. This principle led to the practice of introducing small variations, known as “differences” into the arms of the heads of younger branches of a given family. This principle is still enforced in Scotland, but elsewhere is widely ignored or has died out entirely, while in many countries it was never the custom at all.

3.5.2. The tradition in the United States is for arms to be inherited without differencing for cadency. Descendants of persons whose arms contained marks of cadency at the time of U.S. independence or at the time of immigration to the United States, and whose families have continued to use the arms in that form, usually retain the design as inherited without further differencing. However, there is nothing objectionable about differencing for cadency by those who wish to follow this practice. See section 5 on foreign arms in the United States.

4. The Application of Heraldry

4.1. General

The uses to which heraldic devices may be put are innumerable. They may be stamped on leather goods, cut into metal for use as seals, engraved on silver or glass, printed on bookplates, painted and hung on walls, emblazoned in electronic form for use on personal web pages, silkscreened on T-shirts, or even tattooed onto the armiger’s body. The following discussion is not intended to be all inclusive, but merely to outline the customs that have historically been considered “proper” in the United States in connection with selected applications.

4.2. Stationery

4.2.1. Writing Paper. By the traditional etiquette, paper used for purely social correspondence may be engraved, embossed, or printed with the crest or coat of arms at the top center or upper left corner. Typically such arms were shown in monochrome. Armorial paper is used only for the first page of a letter; subsequent pages are written on matching unmarked paper. Private business letters are not written on armorial stationery. Businesses, government agencies, universities, and other corporate bodies may obviously depict their corporate arms in their official letterheads.

4.2.2. Cards. It is not customary in the United States to depict arms or crests on personal visiting (social, calling) cards. Businesses, government agencies, universities, and other corporate bodies may display their arms on business cards used by their officers and employees.

4.2.3. Invitations. The host’s coat of arms or crest may be embossed without color (preferred) or engraved in monochrome on an engraved formal invitation.

4.2.4. Menus and Place Cards. The host’s crest may be engraved at the top center of place cards and menus for a formal dinner. The same applies to the arms of the sponsoring organization in the case of a banquet.

4.3. Seals and Signet Rings

4.3.1. The requirement that legal documents be sealed with wax or wafer seals was abandoned in most of the United States in the first few decades following independence. The use of such seals is now not only unnecessary but discouraged in most jurisdictions, as they tend to jam photocopiers and scanners. An acceptable alternative for those who wish to use armorial seals is to use a press that embosses the design of the arms directly into the paper.

4.3.2. Signet rings are still sometimes used to seal envelopes, particularly of personal correspondence, although modern mail processing equipment usually ensures that the seal does not survive its trip through the postal system intact. Even if unused, however, signet rings can make an attractive and conservative piece of jewelry. Signet rings have the arms, the crest and motto, or the crest alone engraved on a metal (usually 10 to 14 carat gold) or stone surface. The engraving is done in reverse so that the design will appear correctly when pressed into hot wax. Many authorities state that signet rings are correctly worn on the little finger of the left hand, but customs vary from one place to another.

4.3.3. Women who use signets sometimes have the arms engraved on a small medallion worn as a pendant rather than in ring form.

4.4. Silver, Glass, and China

4.4.1. With the cost of hand engraving now often exceeding the value of the item to be engraved, armorial silver has declined in popularity, although laser engraving offers a more economical if less artistically satisfactory result. Traditionally the full coat of arms is engraved only on large pieces, such as trays, serving plates, and coffee pots, with the crest alone being placed on smaller items such as flatware. Silver presented as a wedding gift prior to the wedding is traditionally considered part of the bride’s trousseau and is correctly marked with her family arms or crest as appropriate. Items purchased by or given to the couple later (other than matching pieces to fill out a set) should be marked with the couple’s arms.

4.4.2. On china, the arms (on large pieces) or crest (on small ones) may be emblazoned either in full color or in gold. Otherwise, the same basic rules pertain to china as to silver.

4.4.3. Arms or crests may also be etched on stemware, tumblers, carafes, and pitchers. Again, the same basic rules apply.

4.5. Automobiles

4.5.1. The old custom of decorating carriages with the owner’s arms survives here and there in the placement of a small emblazonment of the arms or crest on automobile doors. Traditionally the arms were painted on the back door of the car, the assumption being that anyone with arms on his automobile had a driver sitting in the front. This practice can still be seen on the fleet of U.S. Presidential limousines. Arguably, a person who drives himself should place his arms on the front doors, but the use of arms on automobiles is so rare in the United States that it is hard to say that there is any standard practice in the matter. Those who are tempted to display their arms on their cars should understand that this is likely to be viewed as extremely pretentious on any but the most expensive luxury cars.

4.6. Flags

4.6.1. Heraldic tradition includes a variety of flags, including banners, standards, guidons, pennons, gonfanons, and many more. British (especially Scottish) heraldists tend to prescribe detailed rules for who can use what kind of flag, but American armigers in the United States are not bound by these restrictions. The most common heraldic flag is the basic banner of arms—the design of the shield displayed on a rectangular field. The proportions of the field are a matter of artistic taste, although a more or less square shape is the most historically authentic. Trim such as fringe, cords, tassels, and pole finials are also a matter of taste. The banner may be flown over (or, more often, in front of) the armiger’s house, or displayed in a variety of forms inside. When flown elsewhere, the banner is usually understood to imply the personal presence of the owner of the arms. Boat owners may want to use their banner of their arms as the basis for their “private signal” or “house flag.”

5. Foreign Arms in the United States

5.1. General

5.1.1. The use of arms of foreign origin in the United States normally presents no problems. Because these guidelines are designed to conform to the general customs prevailing in heraldic use internationally, most arms of foreign origin will fit easily into the framework set forth here. By using these arms in accordance with the guidelines set forth above, these foreign arms may be thought of as having been “naturalized” as American arms. The only problems that may arise concern (1) duplication, (2) the use of nobiliary and similar accessories that are occasionally present in foreign arms, and (3) determining whether American or foreign customs and rules should govern the use of the arms.

5.1.2. There is rarely if ever any need to modify the shield or crest of a foreign coat of arms to “naturalize” the arms as American.5.2. Duplication

5.2.1. The traditional international customary law of arms holds that there is no objection to people domiciled in different jurisdictions bearing the same arms. As a result, many coats of arms—especially shields—are borne by unrelated families in different countries, or even in different provinces of the same country. As a result, it would not be surprising if an immigrant to the United States found himself bearing the same arms, or at least the same shield, as an unrelated person already in the United States. Because of the lack of formal heraldic regulation in the United States (and in most other countries), there is little satisfactory basis for resolving such cases of duplication. It is therefore recommended that such duplication normally be tolerated as the inevitable consequence of living in a melting pot society.

5.2.2. If, however, the use of the same arms in close proximity is likely to cause confusion, or if demonstrable harm accrues to one party or the other as a result of the duplication, then steps should be taken to distinguish one coat of arms from the other. It is recommended that in such cases the newer arms, whether assumed or granted by a foreign authority, should yield to the older arms, whether assumed or granted by a foreign authority. The person possessing the newer arms should then introduce a difference into his arms to distinguish them from the older ones. (This difference need not be extensive, but must be sufficient to make clear that there is no family relationship between the two armigers.)

5.2.3. If it is impossible to establish reliably which of two duplicative coats of arms is older, or if both have been in continuous, open, uncontested use for 60 years or three generations of adults, whichever is less, it is recommended that both parties accept and live with the duplication. In such cases, since it is highly unlikely that both arms will have identical crests as well as identical shields, it is advisable for both parties always to display their arms with the crest, rather than omitting it as would normally be permitted.

5.2.4. If it is clear that one of the parties concerned is using the arms without having made a good faith effort to ensure their uniqueness (as discussed in section before adopting the arms, or if one of the arms was clearly usurped at the time it was assumed, then obviously the party without a bona fide right to the design should alter his arms with a sufficient difference to make clear that they are the arms of an unrelated person.

5.3. External Accessories in Foreign Arms

5.3.1. Foreign Visitors. Foreigners visiting the United States, or living in the United States with no intention of seeking American citizenship, bear their foreign arms, including any external accessories authorized under the law or custom of the arms’ country of origin, without any requirement for modification.

5.3.2. Immigrants. A foreigner who establishes permanent residence in the United States with the intention of becoming a U.S. citizen is encouraged to adapt his arms as necessary to comply with customary American heraldic practices. This includes the omission of external accessories emblematic of nobility or other status inconsistent with American principles of equality. Under U.S. law, members of foreign nobility and persons possessing hereditary titles are required to make a formal renunciation of their noble status and/or hereditary titles as a condition of naturalization as American citizens. Thus, to continue using heraldic insignia indicating noble status after naturalization is clearly inappropriate. This does not preclude the private display of the ancestral arms in their full form, just as one might display any other family heirloom, provided they are clearly presented as such.

5.3.3. Succession to Foreign Arms. On occasion, American citizens find themselves entitled under the laws or customs of another country to bear arms containing nobiliary or similar accessories, such as supporters, coronets, and helmets indicating noble rank, by right of inheritance. It is recommended that, in such cases, the public use of the foreign arms be confined to circumstances in which the bearer of the arms is acting primarily in his foreign role. Thus an American citizen who succeeds to chiefship of a major Highland clan and who is therefore entitled under Scottish heraldic law to display supporters may reasonably use the arms with supporters when acting as the chief—at Scottish games and gatherings, for example, or in correspondence with members of the clan. For other public purposes, it is recommended that emblazonments be prepared which comply with these guidelines for American arms, and which omit any accoutrements inconsistent with them. As provided for immigrants, these recommendations would not preclude the private display of the ancestral arms in their full form, just as one might display any other family heirloom (including the arms of a maternal line ancestor), provided they are clearly presented as such.

5.3.4. American Citizens with Foreign Grants of Arms. For various reasons, many Americans over the past century have been granted arms by foreign heraldic authorities. (For the sake of brevity, the term “grant” should be interpreted as including any type of certification or registration of arms recognized as authoritative under the law of a foreign country.) Most of the arms contained in such grants are fully consistent with these recommended guidelines and require no adaptation to be “naturalized” as American arms. Some, however, include various external accessories that either are or appear nobiliary in character, which would be precluded under these guidelines. Recipients of such arms are urged to eschew the public use of these accessories in the United States, except in connection with activities clearly related to the arms’ country of origin. These recommendations are not intended to preclude the private display of the foreign arms if they are clearly presented as such.

5.4. Foreign Rules to Govern Use of Foreign Arms

5.4.1. Persons who do choose to display foreign arms (that is, those with supporters, insignia of foreign offices, or various nobiliary accessories) as described above should comply with all the rules and customs governing those arms in their country of origin. This includes any rules concerning succession to the arms. In many countries, the rules on inheritance of arms are more restrictive than the guidelines set forth for American arms in section 3.4 above. In addition, persons who wish to use foreign arms that would require rematriculation, confirmation, or other types of approval in the country of origin should comply with those requirements before displaying the arms in the United States.

5.4.2. Arms that are “naturalized” and used in accordance with American customs need not comply with the rules and laws of the country of origin, and need not be confirmed or matriculated with the originating country’s heraldic authorities, unless they are taken back to that country. Such arms should be used in the form they were brought to the United States, including any marks of cadency or differences that were in use at the time of immigration.