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Heraldry and Genealogy

You'd be forgiven for thinking that heraldry and coats of arms is one of those medieval throwback things which has no relevance to us in the 21st century.

And that's partly true - we're no longer dependant on someone's shield or colours to work out who they are. However, once you start looking, you'll see coats of arms everywhere, from football club badges to major companies and organisations. New coats of arms are regularly issued by either the College of Arms in England, or the Court of the Lord Lyon in Scotland. From a family history and genealogy perspective though, heraldry can help us go even further back than we could with conventional genealogical records.

Why Is Heraldry Useful in Genealogy?

We've all experienced the "brick wall" in genealogy of getting back pre-1837 and civil registration in England and Wales, where tracing your ancestors starts to get tricky or impossible. If however you can link your line into a prominent family which had coats of arms, this can help you trace your line much further back. It's important to point out that coats of arms are specific to an individual, not a family. It's a common misconception that there is such as thing as a "family coat of arms" which isn't the case. It's true that certain designs, colours and symbols can be followed through a family, but it's also common for coats of arms to be merged (or impaled, in heraldry terminology) when a couple married, and their children's coats of arms will be derived from the merged coat of arms.

If you are able to link into one of these prominent families, you should be able to look them up on sites such as the Peerage, or in a heraldic book such as A Complete Guide to Heraldry by Fox-Davies. Often, these sites and books will provide a complete pedigree, sometimes going back to the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Genealogy Challenges with Heraldry

All sounds amazing, doesn't it? However there are some caveats with heraldry which means it's not always useful for every person's family history.

Making the Link

It's not always possible to link into a family with coats of arms or heraldic achievements. The temptation is to make assumptions based on surname or location and this can be dangerous, leading to spending weeks on researching the wrong people. Never jump to conclusions in your desperation to break a brick wall.

Heraldry Language and Accessibility

The language of heraldry comes from Norman French, where red is known as "gules" and describing a shield is known as "blazoning. Although descriptions are formulaic and there are websites like DrawShield which will teach you blazoning and let you create your own shield, it's not easy for a beginner.

Errors and Inconsistencies

Some of the most famous families, especially Dukes, Lords and Royals, have their lines well-documented. Not so with some of the minor nobility, especially once you get back to the 16th or 15th century. Many of the accredited sources will give different information about people's husbands or fathers, dates of death etc. This is because written records from this period are exceedingly rare, and different writers have made different assumptions. Bear this in mind when doing your own research, and avoid falling into the same trap.

Where Do I Even Start With Heraldry?

If you're interested in exploring any potential links your family might have to someone with a coat of arms, get in touch. Heraldry is a fascinating world which I'd love to help you discover.


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