Several people have contacted me wanting to know if they have a coat of arms or family crest.
Five things to know about coats of arms
- Most people did not have coats of arms. Most people who used coats of arms, were well-to-do. Often they were nobles, rich merchants (patricians) or administrators. If your ancestor was a poor farmer, chances are that he did not have a coat of arms.
- Anybody was free to adopt a coat of arms. There was no need to have it recorded. This means there is no central register that we can consult.
- Adopting somebody else’s coat of arms is ‘not done.’ Coats of arms were used to distinguish one family from another. Adopting a coat of arms that belongs to another family is against heraldic regulations and considered as ‘usurpation.’
- Coats of arms weren’t strictly hereditary. Although most people who used coats of arms adopted the same one that their father used, others chose to combine the coats of arms of both their parents, especially if the mother came from a notable family. Different branches of the family may have used different coats of arms, or one branch may have used a coat of arms while another did not.
In other words, the answer to the question: “Does my family have a coat of arms?” is “only if you adopted one.” Anybody can choose to adopt a coat of arms, you don’t inherit one.
How to find out if your ancestor had a coat of arms
A more relevant question might be: “Did any of my ancestors use a coat of arms?”
The only way to answer this question is to find a source that includes your ancestor with the coat of arms. This requires that you first research your family tree. Simply finding a coat of arms with your name is not enough, there might have been many people by that name.
One way to find out which people used a crest is by checking the heraldic collections of the Central Bureau for Genealogy. These collections are being entered into the Heraldische Databank [Heraldic Database].
Beware of charlatans
Beware of charlatans out there. There are several firms that will be happy to sell you a picture of “your” family crest. My grandmother had a lovely Marijnissen coat of arms on her wall, created by a research firm in the US. When I traced the image back to its source, I found that it was for a complete unrelated De Maurissens family. It appears that the firm just looked up the name in a book of arms and chose a coats of armsfor a name that had the most letters in common.
Needless to say, this was not our coat of arms. My Marijnissen ancestors were poor, so I haven’t been able to find a coat of arms and don’t expect I ever will.
How to adopt a coat of arms
If you want to adopt a family crest you have two options:
- You can adopt a coat of arms that is in use in your family. The most common scenario is if you find an original source in which your ancestor in the strict male line used a coat of arms.
- You can design your own coat of arms. You can choose to have it recorded, for example with the Nederlandse Genealogische Vereniging. This does not have any legal standing, but helps to make sure that your coat of arms is only being used by your family and that it follows the heraldic guidelines.
Have any of you found ancestors who used a coat of arms? Do you use one yourself? Please leave a comment and tell me about your coats of arms.
- Emperor Jozef II, nobility charter for Jacobus de Breff, call number 149, 1709; Familie Van Grotenhuis, record group 0462; Gelders Archief, Arnhem, the Netherlands; online finding aid and digital image, Gelders Archief (http://www.geldersarchief.nl : accessed 27 March 2015)