Know your Heraldic ABC (Arms, Badge and Crest): Part 1 - Myths Debunked

It's this Liveryman's opinion that every Liveryman should have a working knowledge of heraldry sufficient to explain their Livery Company's coat of arms to friends, family and guests. Heraldry has been described as the shorthand of history and in that respect the arms of a Livery Company are, or perhaps should be, a concise representation of the Company's origins and purpose.

This article is the first in a two part series that provides Liverymen with the knowledge required to learn their heraldic ABC (Arms, Badge and Crest). It is not intended to explain the coat of arms of each and every Livery Company, there are two excellent books that do that far better than I can (details of which in part two).

This first part deals with some of the myths that have become 'common knowledge' regarding heraldry since before we can learn, we must first unlearn.

Heraldic myths debunked

You don't have to look far to understand why myths, legends and misconceptions have become so readily attached to the subject of heraldry. The Royal Coat of Arms of England and of Scotland, both are supported by that noble heraldic beast, the unicorn.

Royal Coat of Arms England (Left) and of Scotland (Right)

Any subject which includes unicorns is likely to embrace fantasy more readily than facts, yet heraldry is surprisingly rational and practical in nature. A coat of arms should be designed to be instantly recognisable when approached at speed while mounted on the back of a horse, with a limited field of view such that the rider can recognise it before being run through with a lance.

Modern road traffic signs follow the same principles: Clear, uncomplicated and illustrated in bright contrasting colours that give information to the driver so they are able to drive safely.

Myth #1: Heraldry has no place in the modern world

Some may view heraldry as anachronistic, a hangover from the past that has little relevance in the 21st century, others may view the study of heraldry as an esoteric pastime akin to philately, yet heraldry is omnipresent in our every day life in the United Kingdom, Commonwealth realms and dependent territories. A quick perusal of current coinage will dispel this myth.

Heraldry in your pocket!

Myth #2: A Crest and a Coat of Arms are one and the same thing

How often have you heard, or read of, a coat of arms referred to as a crest?

In heraldry a crest and a coat of arms are separate, distinct, different but connected things, they are not and never were synonymous. Technically the arms comprise everything shown on the shield, which may be held up by supporters (heraldic beasts or humans) and is surmounted by a helm.

The crest is a unique combination of objects e.g., a sword held by a bent arm, that is placed on top of a helm and usually fixed to it with a wreath (also called a torse) or occasionally with a coronet. The helm upon which the crest is displayed is placed above the shield of the arms, although it's often the case that the crest is omitted as is the case for my digital avatar on this blog.

Returning to the road traffic analogy, the crest is a bit like a roof box on top of a car. Its contents will vary from one vehicle to the next, you can leave it at home if you like, but if you do attach it to the roof of the car, you still refer to the roof box and the car as distinct and separate entities.

The crest on top of my arms is crammed full of objects, each with their own symbolism known only to my family. Rather like our car roof box it contains all sorts of personal effects but it is not the same thing as our car.

When a coat of arms is referred to as a crest it immediately tells the reader or listener that the person writing or speaking has no basic knowledge of heraldry.

The crest of my arms is an arm in armour holding the sword of St Paul with various other objects all issuing from a ducal coronet (which does not mean I am a Duke).

Myth #3: There is a coat of arms for your surname

One of the fundamental principles of heraldry is that arms are hereditary. In English and Scottish heraldic law the inheritance of arms is via the male line. One can quickly see how arms and surnames became implicitly connected, as right to the arms seems to follow the surname through the generations. The good news is that sons and unmarried daughters can use their father's arms immediately and don't need to wait to inherit the right to use the arms.

Arms are granted to a single named person, not to all their relatives with the same surname, and certainly not to everyone on the planet with the same surname. In point of fact a person who has arms can change their surname and it in no way changes their right to use their arms. The arms granted to that person are their property, and may not be sold or licensed for others to use.

Note: Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary, Alastair Bruce of Crionaich, has reminded me that a Scottish Clan Chieftain can appoint a successor by a curious Gaelic process known as tanistry which confers to the tainist (the Chief's nominated successor) the right to use the arms of the Chief.

Enough of curious Scottish heraldic practices and back to the vehicular comparison: If you are the registered owner of a car, it belongs to you, not to anyone who happens to have the same or similar surname to you. If you change your surname, the car is still yours (ok, you have to update the vehicle ownership records, but the analogy only stretches so far).

Myth #4: There are Pantone® colours for heraldry

Pantone® and other standardised colour models were developed many centuries after heraldry which takes its start point as the Norman Conquest of October 1066 in England. The colours used in heraldry are those of the child's paint box - simple and bright.

The depiction of arms is a matter for the artist and consequently the exact shade of red, blue, green, purple, yellow (also gold), white (also silver) used in different depictions of the same arms can, and often does vary. So long as the artist doesn't change the fundamental nature of the design (e.g., changing a white horse to a unicorn), or the colours used for each object (changing a white horse to a black horse) then all is well.

As a matter of legal precision the design of the arms is described in written form in a language called Blazon which has its own terminology and grammar. The blazon of a coat of arms is what precisely defines the arms in law and not the visual depiction of the arms. This means that all coats of arms are unique because the blazon for each is different. It therefore doesn't matter if one depiction of a coat of arms uses a slightly brighter red than another, they will both fade in sunlight anyway but the blazon will remain unchanged.

Myth #5: Mottos have to be in Latin

The motto, usually shown on a scroll below an armorial achievement, has no legal standing in English heraldic law. There is no requirement to have a motto, and no requirement for the motto to be in a particular language. Some mottos are in Latin, others in Greek, increasingly mottos are in English and occasionally Welsh. An armiger may change their motto at will, since it forms no part of the grant in English law. It is usually included in the illustration of the arms in the Letters Patent, but that is nothing more than a nicety and the motto remains unknown to English heraldic law.

The situation is slightly different in Scotland where the motto is part of the legal grant of arms and hence cannot be changed. Again there is no requirement to use a particular language, or indeed to have a motto at all. A feature of Scottish heraldic practice is the inclusion of a slogan (battle cry) often in Gaelic, but not always, and usually placed above the armorial achievement in addition to a motto below the achievement. See the Royal Arms of Scotland (above) by way of example.

Myth #6: You can buy your coat of arms from a shop or website

This is the only myth likely to damage your wallet or purse.

For England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, Isle of Man and most Commonwealth Realms and Territories the heraldic authority is HM College of Arms in the City of London. Scotland has its own heraldic authority at the Court of Lord Lyon in Edinburgh, and Canada has its own heraldic authority in the office of the Chief Herald of Canada based in Rideau Hall, home of the Governor General of Canada.

There is no other lawful authority capable of granting arms in any country where HM The Queen is Head of State. Using someone else's arms as your own is a form of defamation.

Just as the motor trade has used car dealers of all grades of legitimacy and honesty from Arthur Daley upward, all dealers in coats of arms that you might discover on the web, in a tourist shop or operating from a pop-up stall at a heritage event have all the credentials of the most dishonest and disreputable car dealer you may have the misfortune to meet. CAVEAT EMPTOR. They are engaged in a fraudulent practice.

Myth #7: Coats of Arms are only for Lords and Knights

While it is true to say that a peer of the realm or a knight should have a coat of arms, and ancient noble families will invariably be armigerous, it has never been the case in English or Scottish law that arms are restricted to peers or knights. In fact there are plenty of people who receive a knighthood from the Crown who do not have arms and choose not to petition for armorial bearings. This is a shame as they are amply eligible, but each to his or her own!

Arms are granted to persons who are suitably eminent, and the test of eminence is at the absolute discretion of the Kings of Arms. As such they have wide scope for considering the achievements, qualifications, standing and contribution to society of the petitioner. The test of eminence is not a tick list, rather it is a flexible, inclusive and broadly defined test that allows the Kings of Arms to consider each petition on its own merits.

If you are a subject of the Crown with no serious criminal record then it is a fundamental mistake to assume that a coat of arms is only for 'them' and not for people like you. If you would like to learn more about the process, timescale, options and cost of petitioning for arms I am hosting a workshop in the City of London on St George's Day in 2018.

A note to readers from outside the UK, Commonwealth realms and dependent territories

Very few countries have a heraldic authority that regulates the use of heraldry, and this is especially true of former colonial possessions of the British Crown as was illustrated by the recent actions of one particular citizen of the United States of America who purloined the arms of another person whose ancestor had been lawfully granted the arms in Britain as recently as 1939. The Constitution of the United States of America is silent on heraldic matters, and no regulating authority or laws to govern its usage in the USA or its dependent territories. Essentially the USA is a lawless 'wild west' where heraldry is concerned and there are plenty of heraldic carpet baggers and snake oil salesmen plying their wares in the fifty States of the Union.

In part two...

That's the myths dealt with and in part two I will deconstruct the arms of my own Livery Company, the Information Technologists, to explain the component parts and the meaning attributed to the symbols and colours employed in the arms.

Want to learn more about the Livery Companies?

The City of London Freeman's Guide is the definitive concise guide to the City of London and its ancient and modern Livery Companies, their customs, traditions, officers, events and landmarks. Available in full colour hardback and eBook formats and now in its fourth or Masterpiece edition. The guide is available online from Apple (as an eBook), Amazon (in hardback or eBook) Payhip (in ePub format) or Etsy (in hardback or hardback with the author's seal attached). Also available from all major City of London tourist outlets and bookstores.

The City of London Freeman's Guide is available in all major City retail outlets and online

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