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A person entitled to bear arms is an armiger. An armiger’s legitimate male descendants can inherit the right to use his coat of arms. The eldest son inherited his father's arms directly and younger sons inherited them with marks added to difference them. Most English did not have a coat of arms.
The Crown awards the right to use coat of arms to a person who performs a heroic deed, makes a notable achievement, or holds a prominent position. Such grants are recorded by representatives of the Crown called King’s heralds, who house their records at:
College of Arms
Queen Victoria Street
London EC4V 4BT
Achievements of Arms
An achievement of arms usually contains elements of the following: shield, crest, mantling or lambrequin, helm & torse, motto, supporters, compartment, badges, and banners. The shield usually has the arms of the bearer, and many times this is mistakenly called the "crest". The crest appears on top of the helm or helmet and bears a symbol the represents the wearer, such as an animal, horns, a design, and so on.
The mantling was a silken cloth that was fastened to the top of the helmet, and was of two colors. The upper surface was normally the principal color of the arms and the underside was the color of the principal metal. The torse - which was shown as twists of cloth, hid the attachment to the helm. Usually the torse was of the same colors as the mantling.
The coat that was worn was called a surcoat, and the arms of the wearer were represented on this. Helmets or helms had various presentations depending upon the rank of the wearer. To complete the achievement of arms, there would be supporters on each side of the shield which could be a person or nearly any animal or figure - these would usually be reserved for the nobility.
The supporters stood upon the compartment, which could be nearly anything. The motto represented a war cry or other important slogan, and is usually found near the base of the compartment. The final item of the achievement may contain an inscription on the compartment or shield.
Once granted, the arms adorned the knight's horsecloth, blanket, banner and any thing else of value. One of the most important reasons for many of the items above was to be able to identify friend or foe at a distance.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, heralds visited all parts of England to discover who was using coats of arms and the title of Gentleman, Esquire, or Knight. They asked for proof of the right to use such coats of arms or titles. These proofs often included documentation of male descent from the original grantee. Heraldic visitations are records of these visits (see England Nobility). Most visitations focus on the male heir's descendants, but often include descents of siblings. Information in Visitations can be very useful in tracing ancestors once a connection to a landed family is verified. The Family History Library in co-operation with Brigham Young University has scanned many visitations that are available free online at the Family History Archive.
Heralds developed terms to describe the records they kept. To understand a coat of arms, you need to understand the terms used by the heralds. Many books define heraldic terms. Look in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
ENGLAND - HERALDRY
GREAT BRITAIN - HERALDRY
One such book is:
- Lynch-Robinson, Sir Christopher, and Adrian Lynch-Robinson. Intelligible Heraldry. Baltimore, Maryland: Heraldic Book Company, 1967. (FHL 942 D24Ly. BYU Harold B Lee Library book CR 21 .L9 1967) This is a good basic explanation of heraldic symbols and heraldry.
There are two kinds of books that describe a coat of arms. "Armorials" are alphabetical lists of names with a description, or "blazon," of the arms. "Ordinaries" are similar books that describe coats of arms and arrange them according to design. Some minor armigers are not included in either type of book. The following books are of particular interest:
- Burke, Sir John Bernard. The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, Comprising a Registry of Armorial Bearings from the Earliest to the Present Time. Second Edition. 1884 reprint. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1969. (FHL book 942 D24b 1969; film 962347 item 1. BYU Harold B Lee Library book CR 1619 .B73, microfiche CS 43 .G46x LH 12828.) This book lists names alphabetically and contains a blazon and a brief explanation, a glossary, and a few black and white sample coats of arms.
- Humphery-Smith, Cecil R. General Armory Two. London, England: Tabard Press, Ltd., 1973. (FHL 942 D24hg. BYU Harold B Lee Library book CR 1619 .H86 1974) This book contains additions and corrections to the Burke book listed previously.
- Papworth, John W. Ordinary of British Armorials. Reprint. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1965. (FHL 942 D6p; film 1559395 item 3.) This ordinary is arranged by design and gives the names of those who use each design.
The Family History Library has many books on heraldry, including armorials and ordinaries. They are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
ENGLAND - HERALDRY
- Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies
- The Heraldry Society
- The Heralds Visitations
- Regulation of Heraldry in England
- Civic Heraldry of England & Wales - towns and counties