Are these coats of arms authentic?

    “Are these coats of arms authentic?” Ensign, Jan. 1977, 71–72

    I just got a brochure from a company offering to find out—for a fee—if my family is entitled to a coat of arms. Are these coats of arms authentic?

    Henry E. Christiansen, temple ordinance coordinator for the Genealogical Department of the Church Usually the coats of arms these companies locate are authentic for the particular family name. However, a far more important question is whether you are entitled to display the coat of arms for that family.

    Coats of arms began as symbols and emblems displayed on the shields of knights in armor. In an age of illiteracy, such symbols provided clear identification of families and individuals within families. However, there is more to heraldry than mere identification.

    Knighthood was a rare honor in medieval Europe. Nobility was even more rare. To display a particular coat of arms a person had to belong to the family legally entitled to it. Furthermore, certain branches of a family might have a variation in the coat of arms, and in many cases only the male heir had the right to use the symbol.

    Thus heraldry became more than identifying knights in armor from the symbols displayed on their shields. It is now the science of determining the hereditary right of a person to display a coat of arms or other emblem earned by an ancestor. It also includes the science of describing and recording such symbols.

    Even if there is a coat of arms for your family name, you might not be entitled to display it. One of the more common misconceptions is that all persons with the same surname are descended from a common ancestor. This is not true—and this is where fraud or error can enter into the picture.

    Established family surnames that were passed on from one generation to the next began at different times in different countries. In England, surnames were established around the end of the thirteenth century. Other European nations began the custom much later, and in Scandinavia and some areas of Germany surnames were not established until the mid-1800s.

    Surnames usually began as patronymics, occupation names, or geographical names. A patronymic is the father’s first name, used by the son as a surname. For example, in old Scandinavia, if Hans had a son named Peder, his son would be called Peder Hansson. And if Peder named his son Christian, he would be called Christian Pederson—and so on. In Scotland and Ireland the prefix mac or mc meant “son of,” and in Ireland the prefix o’ was also used, giving rise to such names as McKay, or “son of Kay,” and O’Reilly, or “son of Reilly.” Welsh patronymics included ap and fitz, giving us names like Pritchard (ap Richard) and Fitzgerald.

    A man’s trade or profession might also give rise to his surname. That is why we have Smiths, Carpenters, Fenstermakers (windowmakers), and Taylors today.

    And a surname could also have come from a geographical area, such as Despain (of Spain), Van Dyke (from Dyke), Huntington, or Welch.

    Thus two people can have the same last name and yet not be descended from the same ancestor at all. If they share the last name Richards it only means that both are descended from someone named Richard. If both have the last name Miller, it only means that both had an ancestor who worked in a mill.

    So, even if there is a coat of arms for your last name, you might not be related to the family that is entitled to display it. If you are related, you may not be from the right branch of the family or you may not be the particular descendant entitled to use the coat of arms. And even if you are allowed to display the coat of arms, you may need to use a modified coat of arms showing your position in the family. Such modifications are called differencing.

    Though heraldry has no legal basis in the United States, in some countries it has the force of law, and coats of arms should only be displayed by those who can prove their claim. Space does riot permit a detailed listing of all the conditions that allow display of a coat of arms. But chances are that companies offering you a coat of arms will not make a serious effort to determine whether you have a right to use one. That is something that can be determined only by carefully documented genealogical research.