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Heraldry: A Pathfinder

New nobility is but the act of power, but ancient nobility is the act of time. -- Francis Bacon, 1625

Heraldry is --

  • the art or practice of devising armorial insignia or coats of arms
  • the art and language of describing them
  • the investigation and granting of a person's right to use arms
  • the tracing and recording of pedigrees
  • the history and practice of bearing and displaying armorial insignia

Since earliest times, tribal groups throughout the world have adopted symbols or totems to distinguish themselves from other groups. These symbols would allow individuals to be easily recognized by other members of their own group. Examples of this are the tartan plaids of the clans of Scotland, the totem poles of North American Indians, and the colors carried today by inner city youth gangs.

During the Middle Ages, Heraldry, or the use of Coats of Arms, enabled European nobles and knights to distinguish themselves from each other, especially in battle. Knights in armor would be difficult to identify without crests, plumes, shields, and other devices.

Heraldry focuses on the shield. Originally, Flemish descendants of Charlemagne used civil or family marks or seals for identification. These marks or devices could have been transferred to lance flags and carried in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. The Bayeux Tapestry details thirty or more lance flags with proto-heraldic devices. These devices may have been purely decorative and not necessarily exclusive to one individual. Eventually, these devices were transferred to shields to become "true heraldry."

The use of Coats of Arms to identify individual leaders on the battlefield probably became popular during the First Crusade in 1099. By the mid-twelfth century, heraldry spread over a wide area of Europe. Between 1135 and 1155, seals show the general adoption of heraldic devices in England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

Heraldry assumed a hereditary nature and eventually became associated with the pomp and pageantry of tournaments and ceremonial events. Heraldic devices became a symbol of the owner's identity and a mark of his status.

In the twelfth century, the shields of arms were essentially simple stripes or crosses. By the thirteenth century, heraldry developed in complexity and was acquiring rules and terminology which are the basis of its present laws and language. In England, the College of Arms was created to regulate the assignment and the use of arms. There are similar heraldic authorities in other European countries. The traditional language for heraldry is French.

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The Rules of Heraldry

  • Coats of arms are usually displayed on a shield.
  • A written description of a coat of arms is called a blazon.
  • The colors used are called tinctures. These consist of two metals, gold and silver (argent), and eight colors: azure (blue), gules (red), sable (black), vert (green), purpure (purple), tenne (tawny orange), sanguine (blood red), and murrey (mulberry).
  • There are also eight furs.
  • Designs or devices on the shield can be abstract, geometrical, or represent fruit, trees, flowers, leaves, animals, etc.
  • The use of a helm varies according to rank.
  • The device that rests on the helm is called a crest.
  • Human or animals figures flanking the shield and supporting it are called supporters.
  • For peers, a coronet is placed above the shield.
  • Mottoes can appear in any language and are usually derived from war cries or are expressions of piety. "Ich dien," the motto of the Prince of Wales, means "I serve."
  • Badges or other insignia are personal symbols adopted by the user.

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The Use of Arms

In England, a right to arms is acquired almost exclusively by proving descent in an unbroken male line from someone who is registered as being so entitled. A right to arms can be granted by the King of Arms from the College of Arms or by an Act of Parliament. Arms in England belong to families passing down all male lines, and not to the senior male heir only. In Scotland, junior male members of a family must take a variation of the hereditary arms.

If your surname matches that of a noble family of Europe, that does not mean that you are either related to that family or that you are entitled to claim that family's coat of arms as your own. Mr. Andrew Carnegie, on the other hand, manifesting his independent, democratic spirit, designed his own coat of arms.

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Heraldry Resources in the Pennsylvania Department

Online Catalog
The Pennsylvania Department maintains a considerable number of books on the subject of Heraldry. To access the titles, use the library's online computer catalog. Type in the subject entry "heraldry," and a list of available book titles will appear on the screen. Most of the titles are reference books and cannot be checked out of the library. There are also several titles that do circulate.

The Pennsylvania Department also collects surname books and volumes that deal with the lineage of the royal families of various European countries. These are also accessible through the online catalog--or, just ask one of the Staff to assist you.

Heraldry Index
The Pennsylvania Department also maintains an alphabetical list of surnames in a special Heraldry Index. Here you will find hundreds of names with references to images of specific coats of arms. These images can be found in a variety of books in the general collection of the Department.

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A Selected Bibliography

Heraldic Design: A Handbook for Students.
Heather Child.
Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1982, c1965.
(CR 31 .C5 1982x)
Heraldry: A Pictorial Archive for Artists and Designers.
Arthur Charles Fox-Davies.
New York: Dover, 1991.
(rq CR 21 .F725 1991)

Heraldic Standards and Other Ensigns.
Lt. Col. Robert Gayre.
Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, c1959.
(929.6 G25)

The Pageant of Heraldry: An Explanation of its Principles & Its Uses.
Hugh Cuthbert Basset Rogers.
London: Seeley Service, [1955].
(929.8 R61)

Looking at Heraldry.
C. Wilfrid Scott-Giles.
New York: Roy Publishers, [1962].
(929.6 S43L)

The Romance of Heraldry. Rev. ed.
C. Wilfrid Scott-Giles.
London: J. M. Dent & Sons Limited, 1967.
(929.6 S43a)

How To Read a Coat of Arms.
Peter G. Summers.
New York: Harmony Books, 1987, c1986.
(r CR 28 .S86 1987)

Heraldry of the World.
Carl Alexander Von Volborth.
New York: Macmillan, [1974, c1973].
(r CR 23 .V6313 1974)

Debrett's Guide to Heraldry and Regalia.
David Williamson.
London: Headline House, c1992.
(r CR 492 .W48 1992x)

The Oxford Guide to Heraldry
Thomas Woodcock and John Martin Robinson.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
(r CR 492 .W66 1988)