The study of family history—of little interest to many people and of intense interest to others—has innumerable byways and sidelines. Curiosity about your forebears almost naturally leads to questions about where they lived and how they lived.
Scampering down any number of who-where-how rabbit holes has been delightful. I found out, for example, that in the late 1700’s, my great-grandmother’s family established “the gentleman’s sport” of horse-racing in both Virginia and Maryland. No wonder I gave my husband a trip to the Kentucky Derby for his recent “big birthday!” And SO much more (stop me now).
The latest byway I pursued was a 3-part introductory course on heraldry from American Ancestors. Now, it isn’t that I believe any of my family came from European gentry so distinguished they were granted “the right to bear arms,” but in writing my family history, I’ve succumbed to using purported family coats of arms as occasional graphic elements. Oops!
Hearing the scorn with which the researchers view “arms by name,” I’ll have to stop doing that! Discover the problems for yourself by researching my family name “Edwards coats of arms” (better yet, substitute your own family name) and see the wild variety. But which of these belongs to your family, and can you prove it? In the past, family historians weren’t especially particular about documentation, so you cannot rely on an old family history.
Nevertheless, coats of arms of towns and counties are relatively stable (County Tyrone, Ireland, is shown), and I’ll still use Lord Baltimore’s arms in a chapter about early Maryland relatives, because they became the basis for Maryland’s distinctive state flag (below).
Did You Know?
- Coats of arms began around the 12th century, used in seals and on tombs, and, especially, battle flags.
- The English king sent his representatives (called heralds) into the countryside to make sure people using coats of arms were entitled to do so and were paying the associated taxes. These visitations, made from 1530 to 1688, resulted in extensive notes about lineage invaluable to genealogists today.
- First sons could adopt their father’s coat of arms unchanged; second sons generally added a small crescent and third sons a star. But there are many exceptions. A daughter could become a “heraldic heiress” if she had no brothers.
- All official coats of arms use only five colors: red, blue, black, green, and purple, plus gold and silver. Rules about use of color assured good contrast and visibility on the battlefield.
- Even today, people like to look back in time and establish their right to their family’s ancient heraldic arms, with Colin Powell’s father one of the most notable of these aspirants.
In America, educational and other institutions frequently adopt some type of heraldic emblem and are free to use it without engendering a visit from the Homeland Security Herald.
Interested to know more? For the traditional approach, try the UK College of Arms, a government agency. Or, for something more American and do-it-your-own-way, the nonprofit American College of Heraldry.