International Heraldry - Genealogy

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Genealogy, or "family history" is the study of families, their lineages and history. Genealogists establish kinship and pedigrees using a range of techniques including interviews, historical records, genetic analysis, heraldry, art, and other records to obtain information about a family.

Pedigrees may be written as narratives but are more often displayed in charts.

Heraldry can be of great use to genealogists, but is often under-used because a degree of expertise is required to interpret heraldic achievements.

On this page are some of the things you need to know about to help you with research if you have armigerous ancestors - ie ancestors entitled to coats of arms.

If you want to use heraldry, then your first task will be to familiarize yourself with the technical vocabulary of heraldry, (achievement, field, crest, supporters, etc.), cadency, hatchments, marshalling, augmentations, and so on - which you can do on the home page of this website.

If you interested in various genealogy tools and services available to you, you should turn off your ad-blocker for this website.




If you have a coat of arms to work from, do you know which country it comes from? If from the UK you need to know whether it is England / Wales, Scotland or Ireland. If you don't know, then you might be lucky in that some element of the arms will give you a clue (for example a motto in Irish might suggest they are Irish while a motto above the arms instead of below might suggest that they are Scottish).

If you are hoping to find a coat of arms that you are entitled to, then you need to know which country your ancestors came from. The only ones who matter for this purpose are your father, his father, his father, his father …and so on.

The country is important because that's the only place you are stand any realistic chance of finding your ancestor's coat of arms.

If you don't even know the country, do not despair. With a bit of practice you can make a good guess at the country of origin. For example Spanish arms often feature cooking pots - something that is otherwise rare. Canadian arms often feature distinctive Canadian animals (moose, narwhals, polar bears, ...). German arms feature distinctive crests. Your first line of inquiry for any gyrony arms should be the Campbell clan.

The arms on the right are easily identifiable as English. They are surmounted by the coronet of a British duke. They are encircled by a garter, representing the English Order of the Garter. They feature two old versions of the royal coat of arms - a clear sign of close relationship to English royalty (or just as often, a sign of completely bogus arms). Do not be mislead by the French motto. French mottos are common in English arms.


What can you tell from the arms below?

They belonged to a man

He is dead

His wife outlived him

He was a Duke

He was a Knight of the Garter

His family and his wife's were both related to royalty


In fact this Hatchment belonged to

Charles Manners, 4th Duke of Rutland


Heraldic Conventions


Are you familiar with heraldic terminology and conventions. If not, you need to understand some important elements that carry potentially useful information. You need to understand

  • that looking up a coat of arms that belonged to someone with your surname is not likely to get you anywhere unless you happen to have a very rare and distinctive surname.
    More ...
  • who is or was entitled to use coats of arms in the jurisdiction you are interested in. Beware that misuse may be a civil or even a criminal offence.
    More ...
  • the elements of heraldry, including terminology in the jurisdiction you are interested in (e.g. achievement & crest, dexter & sinister)
    More ...
  • the rules of differencing and cadency in the jurisdiction you are interested in - a potential goldmine
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  • the rules that govern the combining of arms (marshalling) in the jurisdiction you are interested in - another potential goldmine
    More ...
  • the rules that govern the design of hatchments (funerary heraldry) - yet another potential goldmine
    More ...


What can you deduce from the arms shown below?

It's a hatchment - so belongs to someone who is dead

The shield tells you it was for a man

The artistic style tells you these are modern arms so he probably died relatively recently

The black background and lack of a wife's arms tell you he was a bachelor or that his wife did not come from an armigerous family

The quartered arms with two crests tell you that a predecessor married an heraldic heiress

The naval crown and anchor tell you he was a naval officer

The medal below the motto tell you that he won a DSO

(Distinguished Service Order) which also identifies him as a British or Commonwealth officer - so presumably an officer in the Royal Navy.

If you search the Internet for the motto "cressa ne careat" you'll soon find this is the hatchment of Captain Addison Joe Baker-Cresswell (1901 - 1997), a famous Royal Naval officer. In 1940 he was given command of the destroyer HMS Bulldog. On the 9 May 1941 a party from his ship captured the German U-Boat U-110, seizing amongst other items an intact 'Enigma' code machine and code book, which explains why he was awarded his DSO

Lists of Arms


Next you need to understand that there is no single authoritative international list of arms that you can turn to. In fact you are very unlikely to find a single authoritative national list, though most with heraldic authorities have lists for certain periods. See below for sources in different jurisdictions.

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Early arms are recorded on heralds' rolls, such as this one: The Dering Roll, late 13th.c., the earliest surviving English original roll of arms.


Bogus Arms


Be aware that coats of arms are not always genuine, even if they are old.

In the Middle Ages the assumption of arms was totally unregulated, but from around the fifteenth century the awarding coats of arms was reserved to senior nobles and then to royalty. Arms assumed after this were often regularized (after four generations or so), but some never were.

Unscrupulous merchants have been selling bogus coats of arms for centuries (and they are still in business). The older the arms are, the more difficult they are to spot as bogus, but you should be suspicious of nobodies whose purported arms proclaim descent from several noble families - for a genuine genealogist they are worse than no arms at all. With a bit of heraldic expertise you will be able to spot anachronisms and other examples of bogus heraldry.

With a bit of practice you will be able to spot the arms on the right as bogus.

More ...


An example of Bogus arms

Who used arms? and when?


You might find it useful to understand when arms started to be used, as this can give a clue as to the status of armigers.

By the middle of the 14th century English courts upheld the principle that no man could use arms already adopted by another. Later the Crown forbade the bearing of arms without authority.

Beyond the early 1500s it is almost impossible to find evidence of commoner ancestors because written records of them were rarely made. Only records of the nobility are likely to exist, and only they bore arms, except in northern Europe where commoners could become knights.

A man of gentle birth was originally one born into the nobility - debonair "de bonne aire" - "from a good nest". Later the word gentleman came to designate a position below a knight but above a yeoman. An English act of parliament of 1429 used les gentiles to describe men holding freehold property of at least 40 shillings a year. From the 16th century the term gentleman usually refers to those who did not labour physically and who employed servants.

In many continental countries it became common for rich merchants and the grand bourgeoisie to assume arms.

What can you tell from the arms below?

They belong to a man

He is dead

The quartered arms with two crests tell you that a predecessor married an heraldic heiress

He married twice

His first wife predeceased him

His second wife outlived him

His second wife was an heraldic heiress (so his descendants will include her arms in the third quarter)


What to Look For


Once you have a coat of arms to investigate, here are some points to bear in mind:

  1. Arms traditionally descend unchanged through the male line to the eldest son. This makes it easy to trace the male line but is no help at all for other lines, unless someone married an heiress. In this case the arms will change and identify who the heiress's family were. - More ...
  2. For the male line, sons will (or at least should) bear arms with marks of cadency, until they inherit their father's arms (if they ever do). - More ...
  3. You might also be able to make useful deductions from other clues in a coat of arms. For example:
    • age. The style in which arms are rendered often tell you the period they belong to. You just need to familiarize yourself with changing fashions in heraldic art.
    • colours. Even if there are no colours on the example in your possession, you might be able to deduce them using the Petra Sancta method.. - More ...
    • breeches of the rule of tincture, or other errors. This might well indicate that the arms are bogus - ie assumed by someone
    • augmentations. If a new symbol appears in the arms it might signify a honour reflecting special recognition by a monarch - More
    • supporters. If your arms look genuine and have supporters then they belong to someone important - nobility, a very old family, or someone favoured by the monarch (like Kate Middleton's father) . - More
    • coronets. If the arms are surmounted by a coronet then you can tell the rank - and the country - of the bearer. Note that ancient crowns have no such significance. - More
    • orders. Orders of knighthood sometimes encircle arms - in which case you can what the order is, and which country it comes from
    • national styles. Different countries have different conventions and practices. For example cooking implements are very common in Spanish arms, including very prestigious arms, but very rare in other arms.
    • impaled arms. Impaled arms may represent the two coats of arms of a married couple. But note that impaled arms are not always personal arms. Holders of certain offices traditionally impale their own arms with those of the office they hold - examples are bishops, masters of Oxbridge colleges, and kings of arms. Bishops and kings of arms are easily identifiable by the mitres and crowns that surmount their impaled arms. - More ...
    • Quartered Arms and Inescutcheons. Arms with inescutcheons and quartered arms may indicate marriage to an heiress - children of the marriage inherit their mother's arms quartered with their father's. This also marks the end of a male line for the wife's family of birth. - More ...
    • Hatchments can be a real goldmine. They encode information about marriage status, previous marriages and even who died before whom. Look out for ornaments on the hatchment - for example an anchor might suggest the deceased was a naval officer. - More ...
    • Mottos. Mottos have a number of disadvantages as they are not strictly part of the heraldic achievement. They might change from generation to generation, and unrelated armigers might use the same motto. They have three advantages: the spelling might tell you something about their age or even conceivably the location of their original use; the language might give you useful clues; and phrases are much easier to search on the Internet than images.

What can you tell from the arms below?

On first sight they look like the arms of a man whose wife has died, but a few minutes' research tells you that the Dexter arms are those of All Souls College, Oxford

So these are the arms of a Warden of All Souls who died in office


What can you tell from the arms below?

They belong to a man

He is dead

He was married twice

His first wife predeceased him

His second wife survived him

All three families were probable old "county" families

Where to find other Examples


One you have one example of a coat of arms you might want to look for another, in the hope that it will convey more information. Where are good places to look:

  • Inherited objects: seals, signet rings, cufflinks, bookplates, crockery, jewellery, beds, silverware (remember the Darbyfields' teaspoon in Tess of the D'Urbervilles?)
  • records of arms - official lists, rolls of arms, books, official bodies (eg orders of knighthood)
  • buildings - old family properties often had the owner's arms carved over doorways, on mantelpieces, etc
  • churches - the local church of a dead armiger might retain their hatchment - or even a collection of family hatchments. There might also be a monument, providing not only coats of arms, but some text and often images of the dead person's children, telling you the number of girls and boys - boys to one side, girls to the other, in decreasing order of age, those already dead wearing their burial shrouds. Don't forget to check the church window's too.
  • The Internet. Worth a try, especially if you can blazon a coat of arms from an image

What can you tell from the arms below?

They belonged to a man

He is dead

He was a bachelor

He came from a noble family

He was the second son

This is the Hatchment of a second son of the Duke of Rutland,

who died a bachelor

What can you tell from this monument?

Seventeenth century - from the clothing

This couple had 8 children

1 boy, 7 girls

their third girl died in infancy (she is shown in her funeral shroud)

The man's arms were per saltire gules and azure


The family tree of Sigmund Christoph von Wldburg-Zeil-Trauchburg

Notice that all the arms disappear except (working upwards) the male line



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