Why Liverymen should petition for Arms

Raising the standard of heraldic knowledge and understanding, aptly with my very own heraldic standard!

Petitioning for a grant of arms is, without a doubt, among the most unusual things I have done and yet it has been one of the most fascinating experiences, triggering a study of the subject that has proven immensely rewarding. The result of the petitioning process will also outlast me because arms are hereditary in English law and have already passed to my children.

I believe that every Liveryman should, if they have the qualification, means and motivation, petition the Crown for a grant of arms to continue the City's centuries old custom of burgesses acquiring armorial bearings.

When the Heralds last conducted a systematic survey of armigerous persons in the City of London the late 1700s almost 1 in 3 of the residents of some of the City's wards were armigerous (had a lawful right to armorial bearings). That is a vast concentration of gentry in a tiny area and reflects the nature of the mercantile elite that lived cheek by jowl in the commercial heart of the United Kingdom and its growing trading empire. It is perhaps no surprise that the College of Arms, which is part of the Royal Household, set up shop in the City rather than Westminster, and has occupied the same site close to its core market since 1555.

A glance around some of the older and grander livery halls will reveal a rich history of Past Masters displaying their arms either on shields, banners or stained glass windows; the halls of the Ironmongers, Armourers & Brasiers, Stationers and Goldsmiths being prime examples that illustrate this noble practice. However the granting of arms is not restricted to those who reach the lofty heights of Master, Prime Warden or Upper Bailiff of a Livery Company even if those are the most prominent examples in the City.

Arms of Past Masters displayed in Ironmongers' Hall. Of course you don't have to be Master to be entitled to arms.

Times have moved on and in the twenty-first century petitioning for a Grant of Arms is not something that crosses the minds of many captains of industry or commerce, let alone leaders in politics, law, academia or the military, all professions that are well represented among the ranks of those who traditionally petitioned for arms in centuries past.

That said, interest in heraldry and personal arms is at its zenith in the 21st century. Perhaps this is a result of the world-wide web, genealogical research websites, and TV programs such as 'Who do you think you are?'. Whatever the cause, the number of people petitioning for arms is at an all time high. Far from being a vestige of medievalism, heraldry is surprisingly modern.

Liverymen, this is your call to arms (unless of course you already have them, in which case display them!).

How many grants are made each year?

Fewer than one hundred and fifty people and organisations petition for arms through the College of Arms in any given year, and not all of them are resident in the UK because the College is also the granting authority for arms to persons living in Australia, New Zealand and all but one of the other commonwealth realms where Her Majesty the Queen is Head of State (Canada has its own heraldic authority). In addition, a smattering of American Citizens are given 'honorary' grants if they can show descent from a direct male ancestor who was a British citizen.

Considering that heraldry is an omnipresent aspect of life in the UK and that millions of its citizens are likely to be eligible to petition for arms through either the College of Arms in London or the Court of Lord Lyon in Edinburgh, it is surprising that so few apply. Moreover there is no shortage of tourist shops and websites offering to sell the unwary their 'family crest' on everything from key-rings to tea towels, so there is clearly a demand for heraldic paraphernalia. The cognate subject of genealogy remains one of the most popular pastimes and a successful business model on the world wide web, yet heraldry remains an opaque subject to all but a tiny fraction of the population.

Why don't more people petition for a Grant of Arms?

In my view there are three inter-related reasons:
  1. Knowledge of heraldry, and particularly the process by which arms are granted, is next to non-existent outside of a small community of persons who have studied the subject and are often members of one or more of the learned societies that cover the topic in the UK.
  2. The two heraldic authorities in the UK do not advertise, and make little effort (beyond the clear information on their respective websites) to dispel myths and misconceptions about heraldry, in particularly they take no action to tackle the scourge of bucket shop heraldry, an inoffensive term to describe the trade of the heraldic fraudster. With the exception of the occasional intervention in a blatant abuse of the law, the College of Arms and the Court of Lord Lyon display, for the most part, a couchant posture (heraldic joke) where enforcement of the law of arms is concerned. Lord Lyon tends to be more proactive in upholding the law, or as I prefer to put it 'Lord Lyon not only has claws, but is apt to use them'.
  3. Persons who are vaguely aware of heraldry and know that the College of Arms and the Court of Lord Lyon are the granting authorities in the UK and Commonwealth realms assume they are not eligible to petition for arms and hence do not apply.
Note: During a visit to Edinburgh in August 2018 I was stunned to see that images of arms were being sold in a 'Heraldry Shop' in Edinburgh Castle. The shop concerned had purloined the Royal Arms of Scotland to give it a sense of authenticity and the average tourist would reasonably assume this retail outlet was engaged in a legitimate trade given its location in the same building where are kept the Honours of Scotland (Scotland's Crown Jewels). The reality is that this business is as much a bucket shop as any other.

No matter how legitimate it may seem, you cannot buy your 'family' coat of arms in a shop.
Why is this a problem?

There is no problem to fix regarding the process; the granting authorities have existed for many centuries and will continue to exist long after I'm gone. The structure and working practices of the granting authorities may be rather antiquated, but that's all part of the charm. Heraldry will not be enhanced by a sophisticated marketing campaign, digital design of arms or a self-serve web ordering process whereby your arms can be delivered to your smartphone and paid for with your preferred crypto-currency. When you step inside the College of Arms you gain an instantaneous sense of the antiquity and gravitas of the institution, and so it should be.

Neither the College of Arms or the Court of Lord Lyon need, or would benefit from, a transformative increase in the pipeline of petitioners who come forward seeking a Grant of Arms, and in any case they couldn't cope with thousands of petitioners queuing up at the door.

Improving knowledge and understanding of heraldic practice and the law of arms is another matter, and in my opinion much can and should be done to raise awareness of the law of arms and fundamental principles of heraldry if for no other reason than to steer the unwary away from the dubious practice of bucket shop heraldry.

Where can you learn the basics of heraldry?

An earlier two part blog article introduced the ABCs of heraldry for beginners, particularly Liverymen who would like to be able to explain the arms of their own Livery Company, but also to inspire further discovery and perhaps set them off on the path to petitioning for arms. Those two blog articles are an excellent place to start, especially if some of the terminology and concepts mentioned in this article are unclear to the reader.

Who is eligible to petition the Crown for a grant of arms?

There are four criteria that need to be met in order for a person to petition the Crown for a grant of arms; each warrants a brief explanation:

1) Be a subject of the Crown, that is a citizen of one of the countries, dependencies or territories where Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State
2) Be a fit and proper person of good standing, that is someone who has not been convicted of a serious criminal offence
3) Be of sufficient eminence, that is someone who the Kings of Arms deem of sufficient standing to meet the test of eminence
4) Be of sufficient means to pay the fees of the granting authority. The current scale of fees can always be obtained direct from the relevant granting authority in London, Edinburgh or Ottawa

Is the right to armorial bearings restricted to Liverymen?

No, there is no requirement for a petitioner to be clothed with the Livery, however such persons as may be Liverymen are likely to meet the criteria listed above. There will be exceptions, for example a person who is a citizen of any country may become a Liveryman, but only subjects of the Crown may petition for arms. There are no hard and fast rules, yet most Liverymen will qualify one way or another.

What is the test of eminence?

Firstly it's not a test. There's no examination, no interview panel, no essay and no practical exercise to complete. The Kings of Arms have the exclusive right to determine who is sufficiently eminent to qualify and as such they can and do take into account a very wide spectrum of evidence. It is beyond the scope of this article to list all the possible examples and it is also unhelpful to do so as past experience has taught me that readers tend to use it as a tick list, wrongly assuming they must meet some threshold of ticks on the list.

A better approach is to gather your own evidence, take advice from those who have been through the process, ask lots of questions, and make an approach to one of the granting authorities to test the waters. Eminence is acquired, so if at first you don't succeed...

What influence do I have in the design of my arms?

The law of arms requires that all arms be unique; in a practical sense that means at least two differences, not including a change of colour, from existing arms. Most petitioners will want their arms to be unique in any case and the heralds will guide you on the rules of heraldic design but otherwise you have a free hand to choose what you will, with some specific exceptions (e.g, don't expect to be able to use symbols that indicate a status that you don't have). Conversely there is no requirement for the petitioner to play a role in designing the arms and in extremis the matter can be left to the heralds; naturally most petitioners will want to discuss the design and have a role in deciding the elements included in the arms.

How long does the process take?

This depends on a number of factors, not least how motivated the petitioner is to drive the process, how organised he or she is and the workload of the granting authority. My experience was that the process took two years from start to finish; others have completed the process faster; others have taken significantly longer. Some petitioners also register their family pedigree with the College of Arms at the same time as they petition for arms, or engage the services of a Herald to conduct genealogical research, all of which increases the timescale and cost.

Have other Liverymen been successful?

Yes, emphatically YES! I know of several Liverymen who have go on to successfully petition the Crown for a grant of arms after attending one of the workshops I have run in previous years. Several others proceeded on their own initiative before I started running a series of Grant of Arms workshops in 2016 and it was the success of another Liveryman that motivated me to petition. The next workshop is on 7 October 2019 at IT Hall in the City of London.

What do I receive once I have been granted arms?

The grant is recorded in a document called a Letters Patent (an 'open' letter) written on vellum and illustrated with the arms of the Monarch, the Earl Marshal and the College of Arms (in the case of petitioning in London). Grants of arms issued in Scotland or Ottawa follow a similar form.

The opening text of a Letters Patent granting arms and featuring the arms of the Monarch, the Earl Marshal and the College of Arms in London

What can I do with my arms once granted?

Armorial bearings are the personal property of the person to whom they are granted; they may not be sold, given away or licensed. There are endless ways in which the arms may be displayed and some of the examples I have chosen include:

  • The digital avatar of this blog and my website
  • My business cards
  • Placemats and coasters
  • Lapel pins
  • A table banner
  • A banner of arms (flag suitable for a flagpole)

My arms as employed on my business card

Elsewhere I have seen armigerous persons commission cushions, wood cuts, stained glass windows and myriad other accoutrements.

As a Liveryman do I get any special privileges?

The process of petitioning for arms is remarkably meritocratic and inclusive, contrary to what you might perceive; however there are a couple of ways in which a Liveryman might wish to record their status. Firstly it is entirely acceptable to have your status as a Liverymen written into the text of the letters patent granting arms; secondly you may do the same if you register your family pedigree with the granting authority.

Lastly, if you go on to become Master of your Livery Company then it would be entirely correct and appropriate to impale your personal arms with those of your Company during your term of office and to display those arms on invitations, letter heads, and other Company materials while you serve as Master. Naturally the Company will expect you to pick up the cost of these indulgences, but why not proudly show off your arms once you've reached the pinnacle of your Company?

Is there any requirement for a Liveryman to have armorial bearings?

Yes, but only in the specific circumstances of being elected to the office of Sheriff in the City of London. If you are thinking of standing for election as Sheriff, whether an Alderman or not, you will need to be, or rapidly become, armigerous if you are successful. Since it is a pre-requisite that the Lord Mayor must have served as Sheriff, it follows that every Lord Mayor is armigerous.

How can I get the process started?

Anyone may write to the College of Arms to seek the advice of one of the Heralds, although it is a good idea to do a bit of research first, learn a little about heraldry and the law of arms, perhaps consider what you might want to incorporate in the design of your arms, and ensure you have the finances.

Where can I learn more?

There are plenty of good books about heraldry, a particularly good introduction which is both easy to read, richly illustrated and factually accurate (without being pedantic) is Coats of Arms by Pitkin which builds on the material in my earlier blog article introducing heraldry. The Pitkin guide is a little dated but it remains an authoritative if not detailed primer on the topic.

Coats of Arms by Pitkin, an accessible primer on the topic of heraldry in the UK

The websites of the College of Arms, the Court of the Lord Lyon and the Canadian Heraldic Authority also provide much factual information such as the current fees, the contact details of the officers of arms and information about recent grants.

Lastly you may wish to attend one of the Grant of Arms workshops that I host from time to time in the City of London. Usually I run two workshops a year, one in the spring and one in the autumn. The workshops are designed to move the prospective armiger from the realm of 'this is a fantasy that surely cannot be true' to.... 'where do I sign?'.

A wider exploration of the role of heraldry among the City of London Livery Companies and their Liverymen may be found The City of London Freeman's Guide available online from Apple (as an eBook), Amazon (in hardback or eBook) or Etsy (in hardback or hardback with the author's seal attached)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. An excellent and accurate guide by Mr Jagger.

    While the College of Arms and Lord Lyon's Office would be the final arbiters of the design were you to seek a grant of arms, the International Association of Amateur Heralds (IAAH) can help you (at no cost) to refine your ideas into an heraldically correct design which you can use as a basis for your discussion with them.


    Christian Green
    President of the IAAH

  3. Fascinating reading, a subject that I'd like to explore in more detail, so thanks for researching and for sharing and, once again, dispelling myths!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Livery Companies and Freemasonry

The Etiquette of Livery Company Dinners and Banquets

Charity, the North Star of the Livery Companies