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Common Misconceptions about Heraldry

1. Misuse of the word "Crest"

The term "crest" is commonly used to refer to an entire coat of arms, including the shield. This is incorrect, since the crest is only the object that is placed at the top of the design, above the shield. It represents an identifying device (often a figure or animal) that was worn on the helmet of a knight - it is usually shown in heraldic art as sitting on the top of a stylized helmet. It is sometimes shown by itself, without shield or helmet, as an identifying symbol - likely the reason for the common confusion about its meaning.

2. The idea of "Family Arms"

This is concept whose validity depends on one's ancestry, since there exist two different heraldic traditions relating to the inheritance of arms. For brevity (but slightly inaccurately) we will call them the British and European traditions. The former involve arms granted by or inherited from the heraldic authorities of England, Scotland, Ireland and Canada - those that assert the principle of "one man, one coat". The latter encompass arms inherited from the numerous granting authorities of Continental Europe. These differ in some ways among themselves, but all hew to the concept that arms represent a surname and may be inherited by all sons of the original bearer and by their descendants. In other words, they are "family arms". The two traditions are discussed below.

(a) The British Tradition.

If one's surname and ancestry are British (historically, the term includes Irish), there is no such thing as family arms! Under this tradition, a coat of arms is granted to a single individual, not a family. Those arms may be inherited by a (single) descendant of the original owner (usually the eldest son) and he in turn may pass them on to his heir, and so on. Note that this only occurs on the death of the current holder and only to one person at a time.

However, it is not uncommon for a younger child or later descendant of the original bearer to be granted arms that resemble the ancestral grant. They may have the same charges in a different arrangement or in different colours; or they may have a border or some additional object that differences them in some way from the original - there are many ways in which this can be done. The important things to remember, however, are:

  1. The new arms must be readily distinguishable from the original - no two persons may bear the same arms; and
  2. They must be acquired through a new grant of arms from a legal Authority - you can't just make them up yourself.

This rule applies particularly to the most important part of a coat of arms - the shield. It is not uncommon (particularly in Scottish practice) for members of the same family to be granted shields that are different in various ways but be permitted to use the same crest. In this way, it is possible for the often-misused term "family crest" to have a real meaning - so long as it is understood to refer only to the crest (the device above the shield) and not to the whole coat of arms.

(b) The European Tradition.

As mentioned above, under this tradition it is possible for several persons of the same surname to bear the same arms. If one's surname and ancestry derive from many of the countries or states of continental Europe, you may have inherited a coat of arms originally belonging to an ancestor of the same surname. However, the mere possession of a particular surname does not mean that you have a right to a particular coat of arms. You may descend from a collateral line (i.e. from someone in a generation senior to the original grantee); or you may descend from a totally unrelated line with the same surname. In either of these situations, you do not have a right to the arms in question - although you may be entitled to others. To establish a right to a particular coat, you must establish descent from the original armiger and provide adequate documentation of it. To do so usually involves some genealogical research and contact with one of the semi-official rolls of arms in various European countries or states.

3. Use of Assumed Arms

  1. In some countries where a heraldic granting authority exists -- and notably in Scotland -- it is illegal to "assume" a coat of arms (i.e. merely to design one yourself and use it without a grant). In Canada, it is not strictly illegal but is considered improper and such arms have no legitimacy -- that is, they confer no ownership or protection against unauthorized copying or use by another person or institution. Unfortunately, this practice of assuming arms is not uncommon among Canadian municipalities, often with pretty ghastly results. In most cases, such arms are used quite innocently in the belief that they have been "properly approved" by some official body in the past - usually the City Council itself, which was unaware that it lacked the authority to do what can only be done by the Crown. This sort of thing was common - and to some extent excusable - when application for arms had to be made in Britain and was a long and costly process. Now, however, with a Canadian Heraldic Authority to provide a relatively simple and inexpensive means to acquire arms, there is no further reason for the practice, especially for a municipality (see Obtaining a Coat of Arms). It is one of the projects of the RHSC to inform municipalities of this and encourage them to obtain properly designed and granted arms. The same principle applies to other corporate arms and to personal arms.
  2. In countries where (as in the U.S.) there is no granting authority, and where the use of assumed arms is, by default, legal, the Society may recognize the use of such arms by a member, under certain conditions. The arms themselves must be heraldically correct and the Society may require that they be registered by a well-known and respected heraldic body (such as, in the US, the American College of Heraldry).