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Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center

Heraldry Guide

Researching a Coat of Arms

The tradition of heraldry, the emblazonment of shields with unique designs, originated in medieval Europe as a means of identifying knights, whose faces were covered with armor. The shield designs offered a means of distinguishing one from another on the field of tournament or battle. To regulate the proliferation of designs, the crown offered grants of coat armor, consisting of both the shield with a unique, colored design, and a crest for the helmet, also of a specific but not necessarily individual design. Over the centuries, well after armor had disappeared, coats of arms remained as symbols of honor and distinction for members of royalty, nobility, gentry, and the middle class. Typically, families displayed their arms on silver, on stationery and bookplates, on seals, and on tombs and stained glass in churches.

Many misconceptions exist about the nature and proper use of coat armor. Above all else, it is important to understand that coats of arms do not belong to a "family name." They were granted to specific individuals, as one might think of a trademark or copyright today. Heraldic law varied by country, but it generally permitted descendants of those individuals in an unbroken male line to continue display of the arms. Siblings adopted variations of their fathers' arms with added heraldic symbols and designs, so as to distinguish their arms from those of brothers and cousins. Daughters could display their fathers' arms until they married, after which they sometimes divided or "impaled" the arms with those of their husbands. If a daughter remained the only heir of her father, the law permitted her children, in turn, to quarter her arms with those of their father. Less importance was attached to crests, which the law did not consider heritable. Hence, this portion of the arms sometimes varied with each generation.

Since the United States does not recognize heraldic law, anyone may adopt and use any coat of arms, so long as it does not infringe on an insignia or logo protected by copyright. Some people have designed their own coat of arms. Ethics suggest the impropriety of assuming the use of another's coat of arms, simply because that individual or family has the same last name. As there is no such thing as an "arms of your family name," one should prove direct male-line descent from an individual entitled to the coat of arms in order to display the arms. Such a task can prove exceedingly difficult for a variety of reasons. Heraldic records from medieval times remain fragmentary, and some families used arms illegally without ever obtaining a formal grant. In the British Isles, officials conducted visitations and assembled family pedigrees in order to determine the rightful owners of certain arms, but these efforts, too, were often incomplete. It is also true that while some immigrants to America were legally armigerous or related closely to families with arms, most were not, and thus their descendants will not find record of a coat of arms registered for a direct ancestor.

This pathfinder is designed to offer assistance in researching the coats of arms of specific British, Irish, and other European families, from sources within the collection of the Historical Genealogy Department. The researcher should begin by checking the online catalog under the heading "Heraldry," followed by the geographic area of interest. For visitation records in Great Britain and Ireland, check the catalog under the heading "Visitations, heraldic," followed by the specific location. None of the sources included in the collection or this pathfinder should be considered exhaustive, and in some cases it may be necessary to do further research in the heraldic office of the country of interest. The Family History Library catalog online at may prove helpful for additional references.

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General Guides And Glossaries

A typical shield in a coat of arms is divided into several distinct parts. Each of these may contain a specific heraldic design and color. The crest is typically displayed above the shield and often is not related to the shield's design (see the arms depicted at right). The colors have distinct heraldic names: azure (blue), gules (red), or (yellow or gold), argent (silver or white), sable (black), vert (green), purpure (purple), tenne (orange). Some arms also featured furs such as ermine and vair in their designs.

The following works provide background on the history and use of heraldry and offer assistance in interpreting the various parts of a coat of arms.

Boutell, Charles, Boutell's Heraldry. Rev. ed. London: Warne, 1978. /Gc 929.6 B66hd/ A good general discussion of the field of heraldry.

Filby, P. William. American & British Genealogy & Heraldry. 3rd ed. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1983. /Gc 016.929 F47an/ Useful bibliography of major heraldic sources.

Fox-Davies, Arthur C. Complete Guide to Heraldry. 2nd ed. London: Nelson, 1969. /Gc 929.6 F83co/

Friar, Stephen, ed. A Dictionary of Heraldry. New York: Harmony Books, 1987. /Gc 929.6 D56/ Lavishly illustrated and useful for interpreting a heraldic symbol.

Gough, Henry. A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry, new ed. Oxford: Parker, 1894. /Gc 929.6 G72g/ The standard dictionary of heraldic terminology.

Mottoes: A Compilation of More Than 9,000 Mottoes from Around the World and Throughout History. Detroit Gale Research, 1986. /Gc 929.8 M85/

Pine, L. G. The Genealogist's Encyclopedia. New York: Weybright & Talley, 1969. /Gc 929 P65g/ Contains an excellent, concise overview of heraldry.

Stalins, Gaston F. L. Vocabulaire-atlas Heraldique en Six Langues. Paris: Societe du Grant Amorial de France, 1952. /Gc 929.8094 St16v / Translates heraldic terms into French, English, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch, and hence facilitates interpreting most descriptions of European arms.

Stephenson, Jean. Heraldry for the American Genealogist. Washington D.C.: National Genealogical Society, 1959. /Gc 929.8 St4h/

Summers, Peter G. How to Read a Coat of Arms. London: National Council of Social Services, 1967. /Gc 929.8 Su6h/ Concise guide in pamphlet form.

The Symbols of Heraldry Explained. Dublin: Heraldic Artists, Ltd., 1980. /Gc 929.6 Sy61/

Wilkens, Cleo Goff. Heraldry in Brief. Fort Wayne: Public Library, 1963. /Gc 929.6 W65h/

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Rolls of Arms

The following works offer descriptions and, in some cases, illustrations of coats of arms used by British and European families. Some also contain information on the individuals to whom the arms were granted; others are of a more general nature and provide only the surname associated with the arms. For more heraldic works of various countries, check the Department catalogs.

United States

Bolton, Charles Knowles. Bolton's American Armory. Boston: F. W. Faxon Co., 1927. /Gc 929.80973 B63bo/ Describes thousands of arms and book plates of American families.

Crozier, William Armstrong. A Registry of American Families Entitled to Coat Armor. New York: Genealogical Association, 1904. /Gc 929.90973 C88r/ Contains descriptions of arms, together with the name of the armigerous colonial ancestor and place of origin.

Great Britain and Ireland

Burke, John. A General Armory of England, Scotland, and Ireland. London: Edward Christian, 1842, London: Harrison, 1882. /Gc 929.80942 B912ge and B912g/ Popularly known as "Burke's General Armory," each of the two editions contain descriptions of more than 100,000 arms, including some used illegally. In a few instances the grantee is named, but usually only the residence of the family is listed.

Fairbairn, James. Fairbairn's Crests of the Leading Families in Great Britain and Ireland. New York: Heraldic Publishing Co., 1911. /Gc 929.80942 F15faa/ Illustrations of crests and mottoes (not full arms) for 50,000 names and includes much that is not in Burke's.

Foster, Joseph. Some Feudal Coats of Arms from Heraldic Rolls, 1298-1418. London: James Parker & Co., 1902. /Gc 929.80942 F81s/ Descriptions and depictions of thousands of medieval arms, giving individuals and sources.

_________. A Tudor Book of Arms. Harleian Mss. Nos 2169 & 6163. London: De Walden Library, n.d. /Gc 929.80942 F81t/ Illustrations of 900 arms from Tudor England.

Fox-Davies, Arthur C. Armorial Families: A Directory of Gentlemen of Coat-Armour. 7th ed. 2 vols. repro Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1970. /Gc 929.80942 F83a/ Lists several thousand armigerous persons with notes, but unlike Burke, includes only lawfully-borne arms.

Harleian Society Publications. (1st ser.) vols 1-117, 1869-1977; (2nd ser.) vols 1-, 1979-. /Gc 929.72062.../ These series include most published heraldic visitations.

Howard, Joseph J., and Frederick Crisp. Visitation of England and Wales. 21 vols, and 14 vol suppl. London: Privately printed, 1896-1921. /Gc 929.7206 H83v & H83vi/ Pedigrees of hundreds of families with their arms.

_________. Visitation of Ireland. 6 vols. London: Privately printed, 1897-1918. /Gc 929.720615 Aa1h/ Similar to the above work.

Humphery-Smith, Cecil. Armigerous Ancestors: A Catalogue of Sources for the Study of The Visitations of the Heralds in the 16th and 17th Centuries, with Referenced Lists of Names.Canterbury, England: Family History Books, 1997. /Gc 929.6 H8835a/ Lists of thousands offamilies entitled to bear arms. No arms are depicted.

Humphery-Smith, Cecil, ed. General Armory Two: Alfred Morant's Additions and Corrections to Burke's General Armory. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1974. /Gc 929.80942B912gen/ Notes and corrections on 10,000 arms recorded incorrectly in Burke's Co., 1974./Gc 929.80942 B912gen/ Notes and corrections on 10,000 arms recorded incorrectly in Burke's.

Kennedy, Patrick. Kennedy's Book of Arms. Canterbury, Eng.: Achievements Northgate, 1967. /Gc 929.809415 K38k/ Depicts hundreds of Irish and Anglo-Irish arms from 1816.

Knight and Butters' Crests of Great Britain & Ireland, Dominion of Canada, India, & Australia. Ed. by Joseph MacLaren. 2 vols. London: Thomas Jack, 1883. /Gc 929.80942 K74kn/ Volume one contains descriptions of crests; volume two has the plates.

MacLysaght, Edward. Irish Families: Their Names, Arms, and Origins. 4th ed. Blackrock Co. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1985. /Gc 929.121 M22it/ Illustrates 243 coats of arms.

Stodart, Robert R. Scottish Arms, Being a Collection of Armorial Bearings A.D. 1370-1678. 2 vols. Edinburgh: W. Patterson, 1881. /Gc 929.80941 St6s oversize/ Vol. 1 has plates, vol. 2 contains descriptions of arms.

Summers, Peter. Hatchments in Britain. multi-volume. London: Phillimore, 1974-ongoing. /Gc 929.80942 H28/ Descriptions of thousands of funeral hatchments by shire.


Archives Heraldiques Suisses - Archivum Heraldicum. 83 vols. Zurich: Schulthess & Co., 1887-1969. /Gc 929.794 Ar2/ Extensive genealogical collection on Swiss families and arms.

Garcia-Caraffa, Alberto. Enciclopedia Heraldico y Genealogica Hispano-Americana. 88 vols. Madrid: Marzo, 1919-1963. /Gc 929.80946 G16c/ Definitive directory to Spanish and Latin-American arms, profusely illustrated and arranged alphabetically.

Jager-Sunstenau, Hanns. General-Index zu den Siebmacher'schen Wappenbuchern 1605-1961. Gratz, Austria: Akademische Druck-U. Verlagsanstalt, 1964 /Gc 929.8 Si 11ata/ Index to the series by Siebmacher.

Manucci, Silvio. Nobiliario e Blasonario del Regno d'Italia. 5 vols. Rome: Collegio Araldico, n.d. /Gc 929.80945 M31n/ Italian arms arranged alphabetically with illustrations.

Olivier, Eugene. Manuel de l'Amateur de Reliures Armoriees Francaises. 29 vols. Paris: C. Bosse, 1924-35. /Gc 929.80944 OL 4m/ Illustrates thousands of French arms with information on the individuals granted the arms.

Rietstap, J. B. Armorial General. 2nd ed. 2 vols, with 9 volume supplement. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1965. /Gc 929.6 R44ae & R44arb/ With two volumes of textual descriptions and nine volumes of supplementary plates, this French work includes 85,000 shields for more than 100,000 European families. No information on individual grantees is included, but this source is considered the most comprehensive for Europe.

Siebmacher, Johannes. Siebmachers Grosses und Allgemeines Wappenbuch. 82 vols. Nurnberg, Germany: Verlag von Bauer und Raspe, 1856-1938. /Gc 929.8 Si11a/ Descriptions and plates for thousands of German and eastern European arms with German text.

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Ordinaries of Arms

Ordinaries provide descriptions of arms arranged by feature or "device," rather than by family name. They are useful for tracing the owners of unidentified arms.

Papworth, John W. Papworth's Ordinary of British Armorials. 2nd ed. London: Tabaid Publications, Ltd., 1961. /Gc 929.80942 P19o/ Lists heraldic devices by group and is a useful companion to Burke's General Armory, but lacks a surname index.

Paul, James Balfour. An Ordinary of Arms Contained in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1969. /Gc 929.80941 P28o/Scottish arms from 1672 to 1901 arranged by component parts with a surname index.

Renesse, Theodore de. Dictionnaire des Figures Heraldiques. Bruxelles: O. Schepens & Co., 1894- 1903. /Gc 929.6 R29d/ Definitive ordinary of arms for Europe and a useful companion to Rietstap's Armorial General.

Scotland, Lord Lyon's Office. An Ordinary of Arms. Edinburgh: Lyon Office, 1973 /Gc 929.809415 K38k/ Descriptions of all Scottish armorial bearings, 1902-1973 and intended as a companion to Paul's Ordinary, listed above.

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Heraldry Index

The Historical Genealogy Department has compiled its own index to coats of arms, which appear in selected works in the Library's collection:

Genealogy Department, Allen County Public Library. Heraldry Index. 2 vols. Fort Wayne, IN: Allen County Public Library, 1989. /Gc 929.6 H412/ Provides access by surname to over 17,000 arms and includes the Genealogy Department call number and page of the source where the coat of arms is found.

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The Genealogy Department's collection of periodicals include several titles devoted specifically to heraldry. The following are among the most noteworthy: Coat of Arms, Heraldry in Canada, Armiger's News, Miscellanea Genealogica et Heraldica, Genealogy and Heraldry, American Heraldic Journal, and The Augustan. Some are no longer published. Check the online periodical listing for the Historical Genealogy Department as well as the PERiodical Source Index (PERSI) for references to specific articles.

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