Heraldry and genealogy

The coat of arms began to be used as a hereditary device in England in the mid-twelfth century. Although, presumably, it initially arose as a means of identification on the battlefield, as time went on it evolved into - literally - a status symbol. As a rule of thumb, in later medieval times it was the 'manor-holding' classes who bore arms.

Of course, it is the hereditary aspect of arms that makes them useful to the genealogist. Each coat of arms belongs to a particular family - not, as some modern 'commercial heralds' would have us believe, to a surname - and no two families are allowed to bear the same arms. This means that a coat of arms, for example on a funeral monument or a seal, should in principle identify the associated family unambiguously. The arms passed to younger sons as well as the eldest, though they were often altered (or differenced) in some way to indicate this - eventually an elaborate system of marks of cadency was developed to indicate the arms of younger sons (and also those of the eldest son during his father's lifetime).

As if this were not good enough, coats of arms can also convey information about marriages and maternal ancestry. If representatives of two armigerous (i.e.arms-bearing) families married, the union would be represented heraldically by a composite shield of arms, the husband's on the viewer's left, and the wife's on the viewer's right. (Care is needed, because in heraldic language the viewer's left is the right, or dexter, side of the person bearing the arms, and the viewer's right is the bearer's left, or sinister!) In this case, the husband's arms would be said to be impaled with the wife's.

If a wife were her father's heir (or coheir), or if she eventually became so, the right to bear her family's arms would pass, just like landed property, to her husband's family. This was indicated by dividing the arms into quarters, with (in the simplest case) the husband's arms in the first and fourth quarters (starting from the viewer's top left) and the wife's in the second and third. This process could be continued for each wife who was an heir, and in each case all the husband's quarters and all the wife's quarters would be combined in the composite shield. In this way shields with many more than four 'quarters' could be built up over successive generations. In theory, therefore, a man's coat of arms could constitute a sort of pictorial family tree, containing the arms of each family from whom he inherited.

As heraldry developed, the coat of arms acquired a number of accessories. The crest, supposed to be worn on top of the helmet, may be so depicted above the shield of arms. Later developments included mottoes, supporters (human figures or beasts supporting the shield on either side) and other embellishments, together known as the achievement of arms. It is the coat of arms that is unique to a family, and therefore most useful to the genealogist, although some lists of family crests have been published.

The laws and language of heraldry

Over the centuries, elaborate rules have evolved, which govern both the composition of the individual coat of arms, the ways in which coats of arms should be displayed and how they should be combined together (or marshalled). A basic grounding of the rules, particularly concerning marshalling, is obviously useful to the genealogist in interpreting the evidence. (It is worth bearing in mind, however, that some of the rules seem to have remained fairly fluid - or, at least, often to have been broken - until quite late in the medieval period.)

As must already be obvious, as well as rules governing the appearance of arms, heralds have invented a specialised language to describe the colours (or rather, tinctures), patterns, geometrical designs and objects depicted on the shield, and a precise grammar to allow a coat of arms to be unambiguously described in words. The description of arms in this way is called blazonry in heraldic jargon. Again, some knowledge of blazonry is necessary to use the reference books and to interpret the evidence. Although the terminology can appear offputting at first, the system is (fairly) logical and not too hard to pick up (probably no worse than HTML!).

There are several web sites which provide good general information about both the laws and the language of heraldry.

Sources for medieval heraldry

The main contemporary source for medieval heraldry is the rolls of arms. These were practical documents, which often recorded the knights present at a particular battle or tournament. Medieval English coats of arms have been catalogued by Wagner; many have been printed, and Foster's Some Feudal Coats of Arms is a useful armorial compiled from several rolls (see references).

Heraldic seals provide another contemporary source of information. It was common for arms to be displayed on seals from about the beginning of the 13th century. Generally, each member of the family would have his or her own seal, and the coat of arms would be encircled by an inscription giving the owner's name. So the impression of a seal attached to a charter has the advantage that, in principle, it is associated with an identifiable person at a particular time. Original seals attached to documents have suffered badly, as a result of both accidental damage and deliberate theft. Fortunately, antiquaries enjoyed drawing seals as well as stealing them, so that there is often a record of what has been lost.

As might be expected, the families entitled to bear arms were fond of displaying them in their own houses, whether carved, painted or in stained glass. Arms in private dwellings have occasionally survived, and have more often been recorded by antiquaries and heralds. They were also displayed in churches and religious houses, presumably to mark a benefaction by the family concerned. Here they might be painted on the ceiling, carved in wood, displayed on floor tiles or depicted in stained glass windows, perhaps with a portrait of the benefactor. Again, though they are frequently recorded in antiquaries' 'church notes' and are still occasionally to be found, most of these arms have not survived the destruction of the protestant Reformation, and the continuous process of rearrangement and redecoration of churches since then.

Arms were also used liberally to decorate funeral monuments, and have generally survived better there than elsewhere. Potentially these can be very informative, as they can include not only impaled and quartered arms, but also maternal arms (even if the mother was not an heir). Sadly, funeral monuments were not always treated with the respect that might be expected. Medieval brasses are as often as not incomplete in some respect, whether they have been stolen, worn smooth, damaged or sold by the church for scrap metal. Shields, as small, easily removed, decorative items, have often vanished leaving only their impression behind and, frustratingly, accounts of lost monuments may faithfully record the inscription but omit the heraldic evidence.

Finally, as might be expected, heraldry was recorded very fully at the heralds' visitations. These would typically include drawings of the family arms, with tinctures indicated (known as a trick of the arms). Quartered arms would be shown, often identified by surname, and the accompanying pedigree would in part be designed to show how the family acquired the quarters, if possible. Occasionally the heralds would show some of the evidence they worked with, in the form of drawings of seals, or heraldry from churches. In parallel with the visitation pedigrees themselves, there was a vogue in the late 16th and the 17th century for elaborate pedigrees in which each marriage would be illustrated by an impaled shield of arms.

Not very much heraldic source material has found its way on to the internet yet, though much has been printed, both from rolls of arms and other sources. (Note that funeral monuments and heralds' visitations are covered in separate sections.)

Reference works, and some notes of caution

Many printed works of reference are available for the identification of arms. In armorials, coats of arms are blazoned in alphabetical order of surname (often civic, ecclesiastical and academic arms are also included). The ordinary is designed to deal with the converse problem of identifying the unknown bearer of a known coat of arms (this kind of ordinary is not to be confused with the major geometrical components, also known as ordinaries!). In an ordinary, some system is used to group the arms according to their appearance, so that, with a certain amount of patience, the family can be identified from a description of the arms. Some armorials and ordinaries are listed in the reference section (some relatively small compilations are available on the internet). The Victorian giants, Burke's General Armory and Papworth's Ordinary are still indispensable, because of their sheer volume, but they should certainly be used with caution because, by the same token, they contain much material which is not based on primary evidence, and may be incorrect.

From the description above, it may sound as if heraldry is an exact science, tailor-made for the genealogist, from which a watertight pedigree can be constructed after a few hours' effort in the library. In fact there are all sorts of reasons why heraldic evidence should be handled with extreme care:

  1. Heraldic display is too closely connected with family pride to be safely taken at face value. Many Tudor families were keen to establish a long and distinguished descent, and quartered coats of arms were the outward and visible sign of this. Often pedigrees were constructed without too much regard for the truth, and certainly without applying fine critical judgment to the evidence. The degree of caution varies according to the type of evidence. Probably out-and-out fraud should not be too serious a problem for heraldry on funeral monuments (although some cases of forgery have been recorded, and there is sometimes a tendency for 'extra' quarterings to be inserted as time goes on). Heraldry on pedigrees should always be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly if the compiler has felt the need to show impaled arms for every marriage back to the Norman Conquest!
  2. Where arms have not been falsified, they may be incorrect through honest human error. Quartered arms on monuments and in pedigrees often represent marriages that took place a century or more earlier. If an older version of the arms was available to copy, it may have been in poor condition, and the charges could be miscopied (a greyhound could turn into a lion, for example...) When it came to identifying quarterings, whether by heralds at the visitation or later antiquaries, they could easily be attributed to a different family with similar arms. Conversely, the arms provided could be those of a different family of the same name, or the quarterings could belong to a different branch of the same family.
  3. To identify a coat of arms, the tinctures have to be known, as well as the rest of the design. This can present a particular problem. To start with, some forms of heraldic evidence such as seals are not tinctured. The same is largely true of arms on monumental brasses (although sometimes traces of colouring may remain on brasses, and conventions did exist for indicating tinctures when engraving brass). Even when dealing with tinctured arms, copying errors are common - blue (azure) and black (sable) may be confused, yellow (or) and white (argent), and so on. And painted arms, in modern times, can be given a nice new coat of paint, which sometimes bears little relation to the original colouring.
  4. Unfortunately, there is no single authoritative list of arms. The regulation of heraldry evolved just as its rules did. The College of Arms was not formally incorporated until 1484, and the system of visitations did not get under way until the following century. By that time, of course, many families who had borne arms previously were extinct. In practice, quite a lot of quartered arms do not seem to appear in the reference books. Or they may be assigned a surname with no indication of time or place, and even that may be the wild guess of an antiquary or the fantasy of a Tudor herald. In cases like these, genealogy has to come to the aid of heraldry, rather than vice versa.
  5. Finally, despite the elaborate rules governing the marshalling of arms and the addition of marks of cadency, it is impossible to work back from a coat of arms and deduce the shape of the pedigree without additional evidence. The quartered arms should occur in a precisely determined order, but there is nothing to indicate in which generation the marriages took place and, because each marriage can bring in more than one quarter, there are always several possible ways of reconstructing the family tree. Marks of cadency are meant to distinguish the arms of younger sons, but even when they appear - and they are freqently omitted - they cannot show how long ago the branch in question diverged from the main line.

In summary, although heraldry can provide excellent clues and pointers to ancestry, the relationships indicated should always be checked, if possible, using contemporary record evidence.

For links and bibliography for heraldry, click here