A realistic look at the name game

Many people today are under the mistaken impression that there is such a thing as a coat of arms for a particular surname. A coat of arms that serves as an umbrella for all those who share that surname. Indeed, any search of the internet will reveal a plethora of enterprises pushing this fallacy, and producing all kinds of heraldic tat printed with these coats of arms. The whole concept of a general surname coat of arms is a fantasy, a fairy tale woven to line the pockets of money making commercial enterprises. There is no universal coat of arms for the surname of James for example, nor any other surname for that matter.

Coats of arms are only ever granted to particular individuals. That person may well have the surname of James, and a fine surname it is too of course, but only he will have the right to bear those arms and not anybody else who might also have the surname of James. In fact, let's see what the College of Arms, the official body responsible for grants of arms in England and Wales, has to say on the subject:-

There is no such thing as a 'coat of arms for a surname'. Many people of the same surname will often be entitled to completely different coats of arms, and many of that surname will be entitled to no coat of arms. Coats of arms belong to individuals. For any person to have a right to a coat of arms they must either have had it granted to them or be descended in the legitimate male line from a person to whom arms were granted or confirmed in the past.

There we have it in plain and simple language, direct from the experts. Anybody can apply for a grant of arms and interestingly, the process is more exclusive in England and Wales than the same process in Scotland, whose arms are granted by the Lord Lyon. Scotland is a country notably more egalitarian in its approach to the granting of arms and the process is much less about social status and standing, and more about ones connections with Scotland.

Heraldic mugs - a wonderfully ironic tat product

The granting of arms in England and Wales is steeped in tradition and it has to be said, also seemingly steeped in the suffocating embrace of the long established class system. Coats of arms were never really meant to be obtained by the general ranks of the hoi polloi, and the transition to the modern world has often been a painful one for the old ruling class.

The College of Arms itself has this to say about the application requirements for a grant of arms:-

There are no fixed criteria of eligibility for a grant of arms, but such things as awards or honours from the Crown, civil or military commissions, university degrees, professional qualifications, public and charitable services, and eminence or good standing in national or local life, are taken into account. When approaching a herald with a view to petitioning for a grant of arms it is desirable to submit a curriculum vitae.

The process is not cheap by any means, at least for the majority of people who earn an average salary. As of the 1st January 2012 the fees payable upon a personal grant of arms and crest amount to £4,725. A fair sum to be sure. However, there are certainly worse things upon which to spend one’s hard earned cash. It is also worth remembering of course that the coat of arms will pass down your direct male line of descendants, thus leaving a real and lasting legacy to your future family.

Right of descent is actually where it gets very interesting for the family historian. If during the course of your genealogical studies you come across an ancestor in your direct male line that bore arms, you should be able to apply for a legal right to bear those arms by inheritance. To do so, it is necessary to prove a descent from that ancestor who is already recorded as entitled to arms in the registers of the College of Arms. A link to their website can be found in our Links section.

Your paperwork will need to be absolutely solid; speculation, circumstantial evidence or family legend will not cut the mustard. The College of Arms will conduct enquiries via their own records and via outside sources, and will establish your entitlement to its own satisfaction in any case. The further back in time the grant of arms was awarded, the harder it can be to prove positive entitlement to the arms.

Whilst researching your family tree, there is a very good chance you may well find a direct paternal forebear who had received a grant of arms in the past. Those exciting moments of discovery are what make family history research such a fascinating and rewarding experience. You never know what surprises you might find hidden in the mists of time when you begin to explore your family’s past; a legitimate coat of arms my already have your name on it.

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