Family Heirlooms: how heraldic inheritance really works

With the interest in heraldry growing from the funeral of QEII, there’s something I’ve noticed a lot of lately from folks outside of the SCA, and that is (mostly Americans) not understanding how heraldry works.

So, you know those heraldic shops at cultural festivals and renaissance faires and occasionally the mall? You know, the ones that have the giant books with “buy your family’s crest?” They’re usually called something like “House of Names” or something like that. A lot of times, they’ll have lists of last names and you can buy literally anything that has your last name and a coat of arms that attributed to a family and you can have your own family’s coat of arms to put on a keychain or a beer koozie or even eventually tattooed someplace on your body.

Before you all run out and get that bitchin’ heraldic tattoo, couple things.

1) heraldry belongs to individuals (generally speaking, of course. There are exceptions, like in Germany, Italy, and other places in more Eastern parts of Europe).
2) most of these companies are really just trying to make a really quick buck and aren’t really doing actual genealogical work.

So, let’s get into heraldic inheritance for a second. I’m going with Anglo-Norman heraldic law, since that’s what system I know the best, and what a lot of people want to use when covering their home in heraldic swag.

Much like you might have inherited your grandma’s china or a piece of jewellery from her or your grandpa’s pocketwatch, heraldry belongs to one person. Most places in Western Europe follow Anglo-Norman heraldic practice (that is, what England and France did for years), meaning that arms pass from father to first born son, unless the family has other rules regarding how the title and the arms that go with the title are inherited.

Prince of Wales’ arms.

This means that in order to be able to display your father’s arms, you basically have to wait for him to die or get promoted in the form of succession. (See also why Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, now has Prince of Wales in his list of titles – QEII died, making Charles king, and everyone moved up in the line of succession). Think of heraldic inheritance most like inheriting a house: only one person realistically owns the house. (and even if you might live there, it’s still maybe not your house legally.)

There are cases of heraldic heiresses. These are women who are daughters of a deceased man who was entitled to a coat of arms (an armiger) and who carries forward the right to those arms for the benefit of her future male descendants. This carrying forward only applies if she has no brothers or other male relatives alive who would inherit the arms on the death of the holder. If she marries someone else who is an armiger, she then uses her spouse’s arms and in the center of her heraldic display, she can use an escutcheon of pretense to display her father’s arms for as long as there is no blood male in her extended family. Her husband never owns her inherited arms, and they cannot pass on his death to any of his sons who are not also hers. When her husband dies, her first-born son inherits arms from both parents and quarters them, creating a new coat to pass to his descendants in the usual way.

I can hear you all going “sure, fine. But someone told me that this was my family’s arms!

Okay, so, let’s talk about the scourge of family crests and the shops that sell them.

We have all been to them. We might even have purchased something from them at some point because who doesn’t want heraldry and their name on it? Heraldry is cool. Who wouldn’t want a beer koozie with that kind of legacy, am I right?

I’m not providing the actual link, but this is an actual screenshot of one of those sorts of sites that just sell heraldry without it actually being checked about who actually gets to use it.

The problem is, while we might be related to someone who bore those arms in the heraldry store or share a name with them, because of how heraldic inheritance works, you may not be legally allowed to display those arms. In places like the US, the heraldic authority really doesn’t exist (okay, they do, but they pretty much only work in a military capacity), but in places like Canada, the UK, or Scotland, those heraldic authorities are charged with registering arms (and doing the appropriate genealogical research to make sure that the inheritance lines are preserved).

Let’s say that your last name is Spencer. One day, you’re at the ren fest with your turkey leg and go to a Haus of Heraldry. You see this particular coat of arms with frets and escallops and you think it’s really cool. (Because it is, no lie.)

The problem is, it’s the actual property of Viscount Spencer, or Charles Edward Maurice Spencer, 9th Earl SpencerDL, also known as Diana Spencer‘s brother and the holder of that piece of heraldry. Or, of course, you could go the route of someone who basically took someone else’s heraldry and plagiarized it anyway. (BTW, not the most ethical choice, 0/10 do not recommend.)

The point is: the most important thing to remember about heraldry (at least in the UK or areas that follow Anglo-Norman heraldry) is that there is no such thing as a coat of arms that is granted to a surname. They are granted to individuals only. To legally use the arms, a person must be the person to whom the arms were originally granted to or a direct male-line descendant (in a legitimate line of descent, so no illegitimate lines are eligible for use of the arms) of that person. (Again, there are exceptions.) So, this also applies to “clan crests” too – just because you have a Scottish last name does not automatically mean that you can display the crest of a Scots clan. Only the chief alone and never the individual clan member can display it.

Am I going to stop you from purchasing items from these stores? Hey, if you want to waste your money, I’m not stopping you. If you still, after reading this, want to get that bitchin’ tattoo, sure. The numerous heraldic authorities really don’t have jurisdiction outside of their own countries, either. But if you want to pull the less ethical stuff and display it anyway, well, wouldn’t you want to spend your money on something more worthwhile?

But I really want my own heraldry! It makes perfect sense – having that bit of visual imagery is awesome, and I don’t blame people for wanting their own. In the Society for Creative Anachronism, participants are assumed noble in the group, and can register their own heraldry with their own College of Arms. Other groups, similar to the SCA, may also have a similar registration process (I can only speak on the SCA’s process; please don’t @ me). If you are less interested in playing in the SCA, but you still want your own arms, you still might be able to register them provided you live in Canada or in the UK, but check your local jurisdiction. In the United States, there is no heraldic authority – so you could technically create your own, but because there is no heraldic authority to register them to, you could run the risk of someone else having the same idea. (You can always attempt to copyright the design, but that could also get expensive and is not guaranteed.)

To sum up, here’s what I’ve covered.

  • Family coats of arms are not actually family coats of arms. Same with clan crests.
  • Coats of arms are transferred from firstborn son to firstborn son in Anglo-Norman heraldic law. Exceptions do exist, but these are far rarer than what is typically outlined.
  • Most heraldry shops at the mall or a ren fest are basically there to make their own money and don’t actually have an idea of what they’re selling or how heraldic law actually works.
  • You can still register and display your own modern heraldry, but the rules still apply for that heraldry being passed down.
  • Your heraldry in your medieval reenactment/recreationist society is still your heraldry and legally you can display it.

So, yes, basically, if you want heraldry, don’t take someone else’s heraldry, especially if it’s in current usage. It’s not yours.

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