Ruggles on “The Right to Bear Arms,” 1903

Right to Bear Arms

by Henry Stoddard Ruggles

Originally published in the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Vol 34:291-295 (Oct 1903)

Those in this country, who have pretended to a knowledge of this subject, have generally treated it as though armory were an exact and settled science, governed by certain fixed and rigid laws of world-wide application. The regulations these learned ones have set forth as the guide in these matters, are found, upon examination, to be almost invariably the rules of the present English College of Arms, with some additions for which no precedent can be found in England.

As the college has no shadow of authority of any name or nature, outside of England and Wales (not even in Scotland or Ireland or the colonies) and as the practice, custom and rules of the officers of arms in other parts of the kingdom are radically different from the English heralds’, and as each of the continental nations acts independently, it becomes perfectly apparent that such a thing as a uniform system of heraldry can have no existence.

Armorial bearings may be assumed (i. e. created at pleasure) by the bearer, or they may be the grant of a monarch or great noble, or of a herald acting under the monarch or noble.1 In all countries arms were first assumed by the bearer; arms by grant of king or lord came later, but in most countries private assumption was still permitted. This right exists in England, if for no other reason, because the power to prevent the bearing of such arms is not as some claim, vested in the Crown, but in Parliament. Britain is not an absolute monarchy. Only one king ever presumed to assail this privilege of every Englishman, Henry VIII, “an unlawful encroachment upon the rights of his subjects.”2 Some decrees of the Crown, restricting the arms to be exhibited on certain occasions of military display, have been distorted by the advocates of the heralds into the assertion of authority by the king to govern the use of arms by the individual. These have no bearing upon the subject, for there is no pretence to control the display of family arms in private houses, in churches, on seals or tombstones.

“In Germany it is lawful for every citizen to assume a coat-of-arms. It is, however, forbidden to assume a coat which is already in use by another family. The same rule obtains in Austria."3

There is not even this restriction in England. A man may take the arms of the family from which he thinks he is descended, or he may devise a new coat for himself, and upon the payment of a yearly two guinea fee to the Inland Revenue, may bear those arms upon his carriage, upon his plate, his book-plate and his signet ring.4 Another man may go to the college, and upon payment of the fees there exacted, obtain a grant of arms, yet he cannot make use of these arms in any of the ways mentioned until he pays for the Inland Revenue license like his neighbor. The law makes no distinction between arms of assumption and the grants of the college. “You may be the last survivor of a line which flew a banner at Agincourt, but if you carry that banner’s golden hedge-hog on an old seal for the possession of which you have paid no tax, you will be fined, while your new-rich neighbor, who on the strength of a remote resemblance of surname, has powdered house, carriage and plate with the arms which belong in honor and right to you, pays his two guineas and is law free, for there is nobody which is competent to pronounce with authority upon such questions of right in armorial bearings.”5 Our amateur heralds in America have told us so often that in England heavy penalties followed the use of another man’s arms, that the college is the authority to decide these matters—one is hardly prepared to find there is nobody competent to pronounce with authority.

In old times the right of heralds to grant arms was questioned, and the Book of St. Albans,6 in which is the earliest English, printed treatise on arms-bearing, contains this statement: “It is the opinion of many men that a herald of arms may give arms, but I say if any such arms be borne by any herald given that those arms be of no more authority than those which are taken by a man’s own authority.”

No further evidence would seem needful that Parliament, and not the Crown, is the power controlling the bearing of family arms in England, than the passage of the act making the display of such bearings dependent upon a yearly tax. It is generally understood that the enactment was in this form for the protection of persons whose right to ancestral arms, through lapse of time, could not be established by unbroken pedigree. The heralds enter the names of descendants of arms-bearers only so far as fees are paid for such entries, and the result is that very few descents are carried beyond the next generation from the grantee. Their records contain the merest fraction of the number in justice entitled to be the bearers of ancient arms.7

Sir Bernard Burke, Ulster King of Arms, realizing the paucity of the heralds’ records, issued at great labor, his General Armory, an honest effort to give a reasonably complete register of British family arms. It has preserved the blazonry of thousands of shields, not officially recorded, and is a work of great value, however some heralds and their followers may feign to regard it. A. C. Fox-Davies, the chief worker in the interests of the officers of arms, has been very persistent in an effort to coerce people to contribute to the college revenues. First in the Saturday Review over the pseudonym of X,8 attacking as “bogus” all arms that had not paid tribute to the heralds; he later in the pages of The Genealogical Magazine (a periodical apparently established for the sole object of furthering the cause of the college) over his own name and this and other aliases, continued the struggle along similar lines. He is the editor of a great volume, Armorial Families, in which he prints arms of the “college brand” in Roman, the others in italics. One naturally asks: If these arms are bogus, why print them at all? The object is plainly evident. These people are of the class the herald looks to for fees and on whom he is ready and anxious to confer arms, and the victim is expected to purchase immunity from this form of annoyance.9 If he remains indifferent, or has sufficient sentiment to prefer the ensigns his forbears carried before him, to the new-made thing the college has to offer, the repetition surely follows in the subsequent editions of the work. There are examples in this book where the identical arms are recorded for different members of the same house in Roman and italics, in one instance an uncle in Roman the nephew in italics—-this because the heralds’ pedigree ended with the generation of the uncle, and the nephew must pay to record himself as his father’s son. His other work, The Right to Bear Arms, is a specious attempt to bolster the theory that only arms sanctioned by the herald have any value, that the possession of such arms is the evidence of gentle birth and, like peerages, grants of arms are honors conferred by the soverign [sic] who is the sole fountain of honor.10 A complete refutation of its fallacies will be found in the Ancestor,11 Vol. I., pages 77 to 88, written by Sir George Sitwell, who is amply qualified by his knowledge of the subject and who fortifies his statements by endless citations. The conclusion of his chapter contains these words: “The early writers upon heraldry were without exception of the opinion that any man may lawfully bear arms chosen by himself. That opinion is supported by the unbroken custom of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The royal proclamation of 1417 admits unreservedly that long usage gives good title to arms assumed without authority. Any subject may lawfully assume arms of his own mere motion—-such was the rule of heraldry at the time the College of Arms was founded and such is the law of England at the present hour. Both the Crown and the college have over and over again allowed the title of gentleman to persons who did not even pretend to be armigerous, and have described as noble or gentle the families from which they sprang. Gentility does not depend upon the possession of a coat-of-arms.”

Two years ago, in a London daily paper, this declaration was quoted from Lord Hatherley12: “Armorial devices used for a certain period, however acquired in the first instance, are the bona-fide property of the bearer, and nine-tenths of the armigeri of this country can show no better title.” An editorial in The Ancestor13 says: “The principle that a certain period of usage gives to arms for which no original grant by the Crown or its officers can be shown a valid right to recognition, is still acted on in Ireland,”14 and in Peerage and Family History15 it is said, “As a matter of fact the oldest and purest right to arms was that conferred by user.” Wolseley Emerton, D.C.L., writing on this subject is very emphatic:16 “That rights are established by user is in the Civil Law, a rule so notorious that the only difficulty is to choose one’s authorities—-and it must be noted that (contrary to the general principle of English statutes of limitation) the Civil Law does not only ‘bar the remedy of an opponent,’ but actually ‘confers a right’ on the originally wrongful possessor.” Self constituted heralds in America are telling us ceaselessly, “there is no such thing as prescriptive right to arms.”

Regarding arms in America, it must be very clear that in colonial days and at the present, everyone has been strictly within his lawful right who has displayed these harmless evidences of vanity. Antiquarians will feel interest only in those bearings that have the stamp of time, and the armorial evidences to be found in the old colonies from New England to the Carolinas may well engage the attention of our historical societies. These are precious relics, and in examining them let no one dare to question their authenticity. “There is nobody which is competent to pronounce with authority upon such questions of right in armorial bearings.”



1 “Arms are borne by four titles, viz.: inheritance, grant, transfer and assumption.” E. M. Chadwick in The Archaeological Journal of London, Vol. 58.
2 Sir George Sitwell, Baronet.
3 Edward Singleton Holden, late president of the University of California.
4 “Long established custom has the force of law. It is now a long established custom or practice of widely spread usage, to bear arms which are unknown to the heralds’ college. There is no law or authority in England or Ireland which can interfere with or prevent any person bearing arms by an assumptive title. If any herald should attempt to impose upon any person any indignity because he chose to bear arms of his own devising, it is the herald whom the law would punish and not the other.”-—E. M. Chadwick, in The Archaeological Journal.
5 Oswald Barron, F.S.A., in Arms and Inland Revenue.
6 Published in 1486.
7 “Title by inheritance vests in all descendants of the ancestor, no matter what their social status or condition may be.”—E. M. Chadwick, in The Archaeological Journal.
8 “Reviewers of X’s book have stated in more than one instance that X is Mr. Fox-Davies.” —- Contemporary Review, London, Aug., 1899.
9 “The avowed object of this campaign, conducted through books and through the public press, is to hold up to ridicule and scorn certain ‘prominent people whose social position is undoubted,’ and who will cease to be attacked and they will no longer be exposed to insult if they should be induced to pay certain fees.” —- Contemporary Review, Aug., 1899.
10 “A patent of peerage is a special favor from the Crown, which cannot be purchased by fees-—a grant of arms is a commercial transaction, needing nothing but the payment of fees. We need only to turn to the pages of Mr. Fox-Davies to find the world turned upside down. Men of county family and established social position figure among his ‘plebeians’ while among his ‘gentlemen of coat armor’ are men whose origin is familiar enough, whom no one could accuse of being gentlemen by birth, by education or by breeding.” —- Contemporary Review, Aug., 1899.
“Ordinary armorials are not ‘honors’ but merely the insignia by which families may be symbolically or pictorially distinguished from other families. There is a material difference between heraldic insignia and ‘honors’ properly so called, for the latter, if not for life only, descend to one person to the exclusion of all others, but heraldic insigna [sic] descend to all the sons of the possessor.” -— E. M. Chadwick, in The Archaeological Review.
11 London, 1902.
12 Chancellor of the Court of Chancery.
13 Vol. 2, p. 41.
14 The italics are the editor’s own.
15 By J. Horace Round, London, 1901.
16 The Archaeological Review, Vol. 58.