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Overheard in GenForum: Looking for Coats of Arms
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

June 24, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Looking for information on where to find, or have someone tell me about the Coat of Arms and crest for HOMINUK and DAMINGER. -- Andrea

A: Heraldry is one of those sciences that have very specific rules. However, the rules vary from country to country. You would first need to determine what was the country of origin of your ancestors.

Heraldry has its roots in the signs and symbols used by the knights who were fighting in the Middle Ages. With their armor on, it was difficult to determine fellow warriors without the identifying marks of those unique designs that could be seen on their armor.

The term "coat of arms" can be traced back to the wearing of their bearing or "arms" on their surcoat. A surcoat was a sleeveless garment worn over the metal suite of mail to keep the mail from getting hot from the sun.

Heraldry traces its own roots back to the Middle Ages, as a way of identifying friendly warriors.

Who Is Entitled to a Coat of Arms?

To understand who is entitled to a coat of arms today, we must first look back to that early time. Originally the knights were allowed to pick the devices they wished to see displayed on their coats of arms. By the late 1400s, there was much confusion as to who was using what. At this time there were no rules as to who could use a particular symbol or group of symbols. These symbols were not yet hereditary. However, in 1483, the College of Arms, or Herald's College, was created. Their job was to cut through all the confusion.

Richard III Wants Order

With everyone being allowed to select their own symbols, there was serious chaos. Richard III decided to create a group to regain order where the coats of arms were concerned. Even today the priority of the Herald's is to trace coats of arms and confirm titles and armorial rights. It was through the name of the Herald of the College of Arms that the term heraldry has been come to be used interchangeably with coats of arms.

By What Right?

In 1528 the Heralds made their first visitation in England. The point of this trip was to visit the various towns to determine who was using a coat of arms and to discover by what right the individual felt they were entitled to use that arms. This information was recorded and the first genealogies of the families using the coats were created. Further visitations would take place in 1580, 1620 and 1686.

These genealogies are a valuable record of the important families of England. It is important to remember that it was only the important families that would have these coats of arms.

From Oldest Son to Oldest Son

In order to claim a coat of arms, you must prove, to the College of Arms, an eligible descent from an armiger. An armiger is one who is entitled to bear arms. That is, one who was granted a coat of arms. The coat of arms can only be inherited through the male line bearing the family name.

The coat of arms is inherited by the law of cadency. The law of cadency meant that each of the sons of an armiger added a token that indicated his order from oldest to youngest among the sons. The oldest would be allowed to remove his cadence at the time of the death of his father.

The art of heraldry and the rights of those who are entitled to bear the arms are involved. There are a number of useful and informative sites on the Internet. And there are some sites that look at heraldry for other countries as well.

We all find the intricate use of the colors and symbols intriguing. However, there is a market today for the selling of these coats of arms to those that really are not entitled to them. It is still possible to claim those coats of arms that you are entitled to bear. It just means researching the line back and proving your connection. Heraldry is one of the aspects of genealogy that does require extensive research.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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