Introducing Heraldry to Genealogists

by David B. Appleton, FAHS, AIH

This article is both an outline of important points for teaching heraldry to genealogists, and a distillation of my experience in doing just that over the course of the last several years. I have attempted different approaches to the topic, with an eye to what worked and what didn’t, as well as noting the questions that were asked so as to include common ones in updated versions my presentations. 

The most important thing is to be aware of your audience. Genealogists are not, as a general rule, heraldists. As a consequence, their goals are not those of the heraldist. They are interested in heraldry as an adjunct to their genealogy, and how it might be a tool in their genealogical endeavors. 

Further, they usually will not have any knowledge of the specialized language of heraldry. Put another way, most of them don’t know the difference between rampant and gules. Speak to their level, then; if they need the specialized jargon later (e.g., looking up blazons of arms in Burke’s General Armory), you can help them at that point, or recommend some basic heraldry texts (such as J.P. Brooke-Little’s An Heraldic Alphabet) to assist them in their further research.

Throughout any presentation, the use of lots of pictures and examples is very helpful.

Define what heraldry is. Yes, I know, there are a lot of sometimes widely varying definitions. Two of the better ones from a genealogist’s point of view are: heraldry is “designs painted on shields and used to identify the owner,” and even better, it is “the systematic use of hereditary devices centered on the shield.” 

Some background in heraldry is useful, but they really aren’t interested in a detailed historical analysis. Still, the history of identifying insignia goes back literally thousands of years, and it is sometimes helpful to put heraldry into that context. You find such identifying insignia among the Hebrews on their flight from Egypt (Num. 1:51), in use by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and even among those who accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066. But none of these were considered to be “heraldry,” which developed in the 12th Century and rapidly spread throughout Europe. 

There are a number of influences which have influenced the growth and use of heraldry in the United States. First and foremost, of course, is the heraldry and coats of arms brought by settlers from the British Isles (including Ireland). But other nations have also made their heraldic influence felt here, too, including the Netherlands (in New Amsterdam, now New York), France (in the upper Midwest and the Louisiana Purchase territories), and Spain (Florida and the American Southwest, from Texas to California). 

Nor is heraldry to be considered something to be left to the antiquarian and historian. Many prominent Americans have inherited, adopted, acquired, and used coats of arms. George Washington is probably one of the better known examples, but even more recently, President John F. Kennedy received a grant of arms from Ireland in 1963, and President Ronald Reagan sought and obtained a coat of arms from Switzerland while he was governor of California. 

Nor are American presidents the only notable Americans obtaining coats of arms. As recently as September 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell received a coat of arms from the Lord Lyon King of Arms in Scotland. 

Heraldry, then, is a living art, though its roots extend deeply into the past. 

With all that as a general background, how can heraldry be of assistance to genealogists? First, because coats of arms are passed down from generation to generation within a family, they can give clues to family lines and relations. Using the arms of an immigrant to America, for example, you might be able to find his ancestors oversees who bore the same or similar arms. This is especially helpful with common surnames or when immigrant modified his surname in America. 

Second, because arms are frequently modified in specific ways for descendants — a practice called “cadency” — it is sometimes possible to determine through which son a coat of arms descended. Cadency marks are in Continental European heraldry (e.g., French, German, etc.), but most often in British heraldry (i.e., English, Scottish, Irish, or Welsh). 

Third, because of the way in which arms are sometimes “marshalled” — combined with other coats of arms onto a single shield — it is possible to trace alliances by marriage with other families.

There are effectively two ways to identify coats of arms. The first is by name, to find the coat of arms borne by someone. For this, you will most often look through what are called “armorials,” which are listings of coats of arms organized by the surname of the bearer. The two most commonly used armorials are Burke’s General Armory and Rietstap’s Armorial Général. The other way is to identify the bearer is by the shield and its colors and the charges on it. Here, one will consult an “ordinary,” which is a listing of coats of arms organized by the charges, the geometrical shapes and animals or objects placed upon the shield. The three most commonly used ordinaries are Papworth’s Ordinary of British Armorials, Renesse’s ordinary of Rietstap, the Dictionnaire des figures héraldiques, and An Ordinary of Arms Contained in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland (in two volumes). 

Left: Marks of cadency indicating birth order of a male heir.  Right: An example of marshalling in the coat-of- arms of Henry Godfrey Fausett (1749-1825). This armorial shows Godfrey’s arms on the left, the arms of his first wife, Susan Sandys, on the right, and the arms of his second wife, Sarah Nott, in pretense at the center. (Source for all: University of Notre Dame bookplate special collections).

Heraldry has been called “the genealogist’s most colorful tool.” But what if there’s no color used in a rendition of a coat of arms? Two methods used over the years for noting the various colors used in a coat of arms are: tricking, where the colors are written through the use of abbreviations; and hatching, where a series of dots or lines in various directions are used to denote the colors. (It’s fun to see the “light come on” when someone realizes that an illustration of a coat of arms they own is not “just messed up,” as one audience participant put it, but actually symbolizes the various colors used in the arms.) 

It is helpful to describe an achievement of arms, broken down into its component parts, with emphasis on those that might help a genealogist identify an individual (notably, the shield, the crest, the motto, any supporters, and insignia of rank, including coronets of rank, collars of orders, awards which may accompany a coat of arms in an achievement). It is also beneficial to relate the various parts of an achievement to the actual items they represent, as it brings a greater understanding of what these otherwise odd elements are.

One of the techniques that I have also found to be valuable is, after describing the various items in an achievement of arms, to display an actual achievement and then go through step by step identifying, through all of the individual parts, exactly whose arms and achievement are displayed. This demonstration lets the audience actually see the process of interpreting the clues to be found in an achievement of arms and how they can lead to a positive identification of an individual. 

Now, where might someone look to see if there is a coat of arms in their family? In addition to the more common items that may have been passed down such as bookplates, engraved silver items, seals and signet rings, “crested” china, or family portraits with a coat of arms, there are other less common items that may have armory on them. Such items may include: heraldic embroideries or needlework; 18th and 19th Century mother of pearl playing tokens (the “poker chips” of their day); family tombstones; armorial stained glass; and so on. Even small personal items, such as a pocket watch, may be decorated with a coat of arms. 

Having discovered a coat of arms in their family, or having otherwise obtained one (by grant or registration with an heraldic authority or, in the United States at least, having assumed one), how might heraldry be used to enhance their own genealogy? First, of course, all of the places in which to look for heraldry in the family are also places in which to use heraldry: bookplates, engraved silver, crested china, seals and signet rings, stained glass, and so on. Illustrated armorial family trees are always an eye-catching use. Memorials to individual family members (not unlike some of the hatchments found in Great Britain, but even more — and more recently — on the continent of Europe) can make a colorful display. It is even possible to use heraldic display on modern technology, in the wallpaper or changing pictures of a screensaver on a computer.

Nor are such uses of heraldry limited to the arms of family members. Arms of affiliation – the arms of nations, states, cities, universities, schools, institutions, military units, corporations, and so on, even Indian tribes – with which a family member is or has been affiliated, may be incorporated in various ways into displays of genealogical heraldry. 

Finally, there are a couple of common misconceptions about heraldry that should be discussed and corrected. The first is that the colors and charges on the shield have “meanings;” for example, that red is for blood spilled in battle, that an embattled line of division is for an ancestor who helped capture a city. The short answer is that it just isn’t so. Unless the person who designed the arms left us notes stating why specific charges and colors were chosen, we can almost never know the meaning of the various colors and charges on a shield. 

The primary exception to this general rule is for “canting arms” or arms which are a pun on the name of the bearer. Examples of such arms include the falcons in the arms of Falkenstein; the lions in the arms of Lyons; the hedgehogs, or “herrisons” in the arms of Harris, and so on. 

The other common misconception is the idea usually stated as “your family coat of arms”, or worse, “Your Family Crest” — a coat of arms for a surname. Generally this is propounded by people who want to sell you your “family coat of arms” at a price. A review of any of the armorials available will quickly demonstrate that there is no such thing as a coat of arms for a surname. Looking in Burke’s General Armory under “Warren,” for example, we find that there are almost sixty different coats of arms borne by individuals of that surname. So, just as not everyone named “Ford” is heir to the Henry Ford fortune, not everyone named “Ford” (or Smith, or Jones, or McGillicuddy, or any other surname) has the right to use any of the coats of arms borne by various Ford (or Smith, or Jones, or McGillicuddy, etc.) families.