Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Beware of Companies Selling you Family Coats of Arms and Crests

One of my interests over the years has been heraldry. Heraldry is defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as "the system by which coats of arms and other armorial bearings are devised, described, and regulated." I have been aware for a number of years individuals of my mother's family held coats of arms. One is described in the February 23, 1896 issue of the Courier-Journal (published in Louisville, KY) as "a prostrate foe, an exalted victor standing over him with upraised club." This is just a description, not an official blazon.  Blazoning is the way a herald describes what a coat of arms looks like. If a herald blazons an arms he or she is in a fairly precise language using specialized terminology describing what a coat of arms looks like. A heraldric artist can then take this description using standardized pictures and colors and reproduce what the arms look like in a work of art such as on a shield or a scroll.  It is a science developed over centuries of work on coats of arms and family crests. Another coat of arms registered to an individual of the Towles family is found in the book Encyclopaedia Heraldica Or Complete Dictionary of Heraldry Vol. 1 (as well as in other works of the period), and is blazoned "per pale, and per chev. erm. and sa. four cinquefoils counterchanged."

Having found these arms my curiosity was piqued so I went searching for more coats of arms registered to individuals of the Towles family. As usual with the searches on Google for the topic "coat of arms" results came up from many of the companies purporting to sell folks scrolls and plaques with their "family coat of arms" or "family crests" on them as well as family histories. I came up with results from companies such as 4crests.com and House of Names. I knew immediately that these companies had not done their research. House of Names and 4crests.com both give previews of one's "family coat of arms" or "family crest." In the case of both the arms pictured I knew from books listing the arms of various families were registered to an ancestor of the Tolson family, not the Towles family. They also had these arms as being the arms of the Towle family. Apparently according to these sites, these arms are the coat of arms of many familes with Towl- or Tol- in their name. While there is some evidence the Towle and Towles families may be related, I am aware of none showing that the Tolson and Towles families are. Similarity of names though was enough for these companies to assume the families were somehow related and therefore the coat of arms of one individual of the Tolson family must be the coat of arms of all these families. Of course this is not so. The arms of an individual of the Tolson family are in no way the coat of arms of the entire Towles or Towle families.

Further to the point, families from England and France do not have "coats of arms." A coat of arms is awarded to an individual, not a family. While a child may have the right to have their father's arms as a part of their own, for the most part arms are unique to an individual and are not hereditary. It has always been that way as long as the various England and France have been granting coats of arms. On the College of Arms Website FAQ (which serves the United Kingdom) it says this:
Q. Do coats of arms belong to surnames?
A. No. There is no such thing as a 'coat of arms for a surname'. Many people of the same surname will often be entitled to completely different coats of arms, and many of that surname will be entitled to no coat of arms. Coats of arms belong to individuals. For any person to have a right to a coat of arms they must either have had it granted to them or be descended in the legitimate male line from a person to whom arms were granted or confirmed in the past.

Therefore telling someone their family has a "coat of arms" is entirely misleading. Some nations did assign coats of arms to families, but many of these sites do not distinguish between countries that awarded arms to families and those that did so only to individuals. They give the impression all countries awarded arms to families which is not so. Now in England, families did and do have heraldric achievements, more commonly known as "family crests." These are the items surrounding the shield on which a coat of arms is portrayed. Crests usually consist of something like a helm atop the shield and supporters to either side of the shield like lions or other animals or items often with a scroll under the shield with the family motto. Even then some families that are not related to each may use the same crest, and sometimes the same motto. A crest is not necessarily unique to a family, and a family may use more than one crest (I have found two for the Towles family). If you can document the coat of arms of one of your ancestors from a reliable source such as Burke's Peerage or the United Kingdom College of Arms, and you find that one of these companies has that individual's arms as your "family coat of arms" and want a cool representation of them then buying a plaque or some such might be great. But otherwise do not rely on these companies to honestly give you a "family coat of arms" or a "family crest" or even a reliable family history. Instead turn to reliable sources such as Burke's Peerage and see if you can find arms registered to your ancestors. If you are of English, Welsh, or Scottish descent you can pay to have the College of Arms do research for you  (a warning though if you go that route it is a very expensive undertaking). The point is though do not rely on these "coat of arms" companies for research into any arms ancestors of your family may have used. They simply are not reliable enough to do so.

For more information on coats of arms I suggest the following websites:  College of Arms http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/ and Burke's Peerage http://www.burkespeerage.com/