Genealogy Myths: Coats of Arms

15 Mar 2013

Isn’t it surprising how quickly a week can pass? Here were are on Friday, and it is time for the last in our series on genealogy myths. I saved for the finale one of the most heinous travesties imposed on the public: family crests and coats of arms.

We’ve all seen them. In shopping malls and airports. Online. In magazines. Companies that are willing to sell you a copy of your family crest or coat of arms. You can have it emblazoned on a wall plaque, on a flag, on t-shirts and polo shirts, on coffee mugs and keychains, and a thousand other products. All yours for a low fee: the Smith Family coat of arms. There’s only one problem: there’s no such thing.

Coats of arms is a misnomer. It is actually a heraldic design. They were originally used in the Middle Ages by knights to help identify them. The designs were worn on cloth coats that went over suits of armour (thus, coat of arms). They were also painted onto shields and escutcheons. This helped to identify individual soldiers on the field of battle.


Arms from the Fenwick Roll, created during the times of Henry V and Henry VI, from the College of Arms in London.


Control of these heraldic designs is tightly controlled by official organizations, such as the College of Arms for England and Wales or the Chief Herald in Ireland. These designs were granted to individuals and institutions or governments. They were NEVER granted to a family. Fathers could leave their arms to their sons (usually the eldest). Wives and daughters could also bear arms. These would be an offshoot of the arms belonging to their husband or father.

Arms can only belong to one individual at a time. Other descendants could bear their own arms. These would be a variation of the original arms. Usually a major color was switched and another major change or two was initiated. If both parents were armigerous, the descendants might include elements from both arms in their new design.

All of those family crests and coats of arms you see in the stores were created for an individual, and they are the legal property of the descendants to whom they passed. It is a myth that they belong to an entire family. Just because a crest or coat of arms belonged to someone with the same surname as you, it does not mean it belongs to you.

There is no official system of creating arms in the United States. You can, however, have arms created for you. This would be done in a country that still recognizes arms and has a Chief Herald or the equivalent. The cost, however, can run into the tens of thousands of dollars or more, so be certain you really want it.

Don’t waste your money in the store on those arms. They are not legally yours or your family’s. Educate yourself. If you discover that an ancestor had arms, realize that they do not automatically belong to you, and you do not have the legal right to use them.

With this we come to the close of our genealogy myths week. I hope you found these pieces interesting and informative. And I hope you are not too disillusioned with your family and all of the things you thought you knew about them.