Heraldry and It's Use Today

The Right to Bear Arms

It is a popular misconception that arms or armorial bearings are associated with a family name or surname. This belief is played upon by organisations that offer for sale 'family arms' relating to one's surname. What in fact one is buying is a coat of arms once recorded for a family of that surname, usually taken from reference books such as Burke or Reitstap. This in no way confers any right to these arms or to use them as if they were one's own.

In countries under the jurisdiction of the Earl Marshall of England a right to arms is acquired almost exclusively by either proving descent in an unbroken male line from someone registered as so entitled or by a new grant from the Kings of Arms. Either way it is necessary to approach one of the Heralds at the College of Arms who will act as agent for the client.

Arms of The College of Arms

Establishing a right to arms by descent can be a complicated and expensive business, as essentially it requires a standard of evidence that would be acceptable as proof in a court of law.

Any subject of the Crown who wishes the right to use arms can apply for a Grant of Arms. The Kings of Arms are authorised to grant arms to 'eminent men' - which nowadays is interpreted as being at least the possession of a professional qualification, university degree, civil or military commission, or evidence of public service. Consequently the Kings of Arms cannot grant arms indiscriminately, but must first satisfy themselves of the applicants eligibility. Once this step is complete the candidate submits a petition to the Earl Marshall of England ( an hereditary Office held by the Duke of Norfolk ) that he is desirous of having arms granted to him under lawful authority and recorded for him in Her Majesty's College of Arms. He is assisted in this regard by the Herald who is acting as agent for him. After a period of time, typically about six months, the Earl Marshall issues his Warrant authorising and directing the Kings of Arms to grant to the petitioner such arms as they deem fit to be borne by him and his descendants, with their due and proper differences and according to the Laws of Arms.

Arms and Badge granted by Garter and Clarenceux Kings of Arms in 1988

Although in theory the Kings of Arms can grant any design of arms they deem suitable, in reality the agent in conjunction with the grantee come to an agreement as to the design of the arms. It is the agent's task to ensure that the arms to be granted comply with the Laws of Arms and are sufficiently distinct from the thousands of coats of arms already on record. A preliminary 'approval sketch' is made and this is sent to the client for his consideration. Once approved the sketch together with the description in words or blazon is submitted to the Kings of Arms for their agreement. Once obtained the artist and scrivener can be directed to draw up the Letters Patent by which the arms will be officially granted. An example of Letters Patent dated 1988 granting arms together with a badge is shown below.

Grant of arms and badge by Letters Patent

The Letters Patent is a vellum document measuring about 15 x 21 inches, embellished at the top with the royal arms flanked by those of the Earl Marshall and the College of Arms. The grantee's new arms are painted in the top left hand corner and the scrivener adds the text, which refers to the petition and the Earl Marshall's Warrant, as well as describing the grantee and his new arms. Both text and illustration must then be copied into the official register of the College of Arms. The Letters Patent are finally signed by the Kings of Arms who affix their seals and the document is given to the grantee.

It can be seen that the grant of arms is a lengthy process and involves a not inconsiderable expense. The Letters Patent state that the arms depicted are to be ".............borne and used forever hereafter by the grantee and by his descendants with due and proper differences and according to the Laws of Arms.........". It follows that arms are a form of personal property and one cannot just assume the use of arms as one's own on the basis that they happen to be borne by someone with the same family name.

Much information on the Granting of Arms, together with current fees can be found on the College of Arms web site.

On the next page I will deal with the components that go to make up the coat of arms.

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