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Heraldry and Coats of Arms

The Myth of Family Arms

Many people believe that somewhere in the great heraldic stratosphere is a coat of arms that belongs to their family name – therefore to them. This is a myth promoted and encouraged by the many heraldic “bucket shops” that populate our malls and websites. These folk undertake to provide (for a fee) a beautifully rendered plaque bearing “the Arms of Robinson” (or whatever), No such thing exists. Arms are granted to individuals, not families, and are transmitted in the same way. There is therefore no heraldic achievement that can properly be called “the arms of Robinson.” That is not to say that the shield demonstrated in the Olde Heraldry Shoppe is false – it is probably a real one. Just as probably, however, it was granted in 1795 to a Henry Robinson of Liverpool and has since descended by legal inheritance via a long line – to a Peter Robinson of Brisbane, Australia. The point is, it isn’t yours, and you do not have the right to use or display it. This is a myth that dies hard, but it is a myth that needs to be dispelled.

This doesn’t mean that there is not a coat of arms out there to which you are entitled by descent or at least one to which you have at least a partial ancestral claim. It does mean, however, that to claim that entitlement you have to establish descent from the original armiger. This is what genealogy is all about and every genealogist knows that hearing the same surname as a long-dead person does not imply descent from him. It must be borne in mind as well that only a minority of families were armigerous in the first place and that, even for those that were, tracing the exact relationship to the original grantee may prove impossible. As a result, many people have found that the most satisfactory way to obtain your own arms is to have them granted by the Canadian Heraldic Authority.

Applying For Your Own Coat of Arms

How to obtain your own coat of arms in Canada is covered in the Primer, in Chapter 6 – The Canadian Heraldic Authority; and in Chapter 1.2 – Designing Your Own Arms. If you can prove direct descent (according to the laws of the originating country) from a legitimate armiger, you may have the arms registered in your name by the Authority, rather than granted. If, however, the descent is a collateral one, you may still use elements from the original arms in a new grant, since the other parts of the design will almost certainly be accepted as sufficient to difference the new arms from the old.

If, on the other hand, your genealogical research has failed to find an armigerous ancestor, this is not a problem. There is nothing to prevent you from becoming one to your descendants. Start from scratch. Consider what features you would like in your coat of arms and, with expert help from a Heraldic Consultant, petition for a grant – all as outlined in the Primer. Under Canadian heraldic practice, you will have a number of advantages denied to most of our ancestors. In Canada, (unique among heraldic authorities) women are granted arms on exactly the same footing as men. Secondly, the “undifferenced” arms (exactly as granted) may be transmitted, not necessarily to the first son, but to any designated heir who bears the same surname, and this can apply to either sex (for example, a favourite niece could be so designated). Thirdly, the petitioner can request that “differences” of his/her own choice can be specified in the original grant for the other heraldic beneficiaries, rather than requiring new grants after his/her death.

Costs and Time

While the expense of a grant of arms in Canada is relatively modest as compared to that in many other jurisdictions, it is obviously not without cost. As of this writing, the usual fee for the grant itself (the “processing fee” ) is $435.00 plus GST, which includes payment to the Heraldic Consultant. Additional costs for concept and final art work and for calligraphy will bring the final price to between $1,500 and $2,000. The time between the original petition and the actual grant is generally in the vicinity of 12-18 months. The delay is due largely to the very success of the Authority’s work , which has created a considerable demand for arms and with it an inevitable backlog. The result, however, is always worth waiting for.

Canadian Heraldic Authority

If you would like to know more about obtaining your own grant of arms, check the Canadian Heraldic Authority’s website. Ask for their Procedure Guide for Granting Coats of Arms in Canada.

The Royal Heraldry Society of Canada

If we have piqued your interest in this ancient but modern art form, in this means of personal identification in an increasingly impersonal world then the Heraldry Society is for you. Join us in our quest to educate Canadians – particularly young Canadians – about this fascinating subject and our dedication to maintaining high standards of heraldry in this country. For further information, see the Society’s website.