a REAL Coat of Arms: Part I
is alive and well, as Halvor Moorshead explains.
supposed Moorshead family coat- of-arms. Unusually,
the design itself is real but it was issued to William
Morshead (note the single “o”) in 1744.
The author’s line and William’s line had
a common ancestor in the very early 1600s. William’s
direct line died out in the early 1900s.
are hundreds, possibly thousands, of people willing to sell
you a copy of your family coat-of-arms. On a recent trip to
England there was a kiosk at the airport from which I could
order scrolls, mugs, key-chains and all manner of items featuring
“my family coat-of-arms”. In England itself, on
The Shambles, a short touristy street in York, there were
three stores offering these products — as well as my
Since one of the first things we learn when we start out doing
our genealogy is that there is no such thing as a family coat-of-arms,
it is surprising that these vendors remain in business. I
suspect that most of their paying customers don’t take
this mass-marketed heraldry too seriously and are not too
worried about the authenticity.
Coats-of-arms are, after all, beautiful and it never hurts
to be reminded of a possible illustrious ancestor (no need
to ask questions about how closely you are related).
When I was growing up in the late-1940s and -50s, we had gummed
labels with our “family coat-of-arms”, produced
by some relative; my parents used to affix these inside the
front covers of books. The family stories never included any
tradition of nobility but secretly I was always a bit proud
that we had our own coat-of-arms. When you are nine-years-old,
it is easy to imagine that your family is something special.
My proper interest in genealogy was triggered when I was contacted
by distant relatives researching the family. In my reply I
sent them one of these labels and quickly learned the truth.
The good news was that the coat-of-arms was/is at least genuine
(which is unusual). The arms are described and sometimes illustrated
in a number of reference books.
Grant of Arms to William Morshead of Catuther in 1744.
This describes the colors in heraldic terms. The relevance
of the various elements (the cross, the martlets (an
heraldic bird), the shells and the device held by the
dragon) to William Morshead are not known.
The bad news (and the truth) is they were granted to a collateral
line who spelled their name with one “o”: Morshead.
My ancestors had separated from this collateral line in the
early 1600s and these armorial bearings were granted some
150 years later. At the time that this (very distant) relative,
who had grown rich and powerful, was granted his coat-of-arms,
my direct ancestors were toiling away as tin miners.
I dropped any references to the coat-of-arms as far as my
ancestry was concerned but not without a tinge of disappointment.
In the January/ February 1998 issue of Family Chronicle we
carried an article by Robert Watt, Chief Herald of Canada,
titled “Heraldry: Myths, Realities and Opportunities”.
As Watt wrote, in 1988 the Canadian Heraldic Authority was
created. Queen Elizabeth II (who is Queen of Canada in addition
to her other roles) transferred the exercise of her Canadian
heraldic authority to the Governor General of Canada. The
legalese of this is quite complex but effectively it means
that Canada has the authority to issue its own coats-of-arms.
In his article, Watt went to some lengths to show that heraldry
was not just a thing of the past but alive and well. The article
was illustrated entirely with recently issued coats-of-arms.
We have posted this earlier article on Family Chronicle’s
website at www.familychronicle.com/heraldry
My curiosity was piqued at the time; would I be able to acquire
a genuine coat-of-arms? Like so many things in life, I put
the idea to one side. I turned 60 last November and began
to realize that if I didn’t do those things I’d
always thought about soon, I would never do them. Why not
see if I could acquire my own, genuine coat-of-arms? How could
I apply, what were the qualifications and what would it cost?
Quite apart from wanting this for myself, I thought that the
process would make for an interesting article for Family Chronicle.
Although I had got to know the Chief Herald slightly when
preparing the 1998 article, I did not want to take advantage
of this past contact so I started my investigation exactly
as an outsider would.
You can find out almost anything on the Internet so I opened
Google and searched on “Canada Heraldry”. The
first site offered was www.gg.ca/heraldry/index_e.asp.
In his article in Family Chronicle, Watt had written: “Any
Canadian citizen can apply or ‘petition’ for a
coat-of-arms. However, eligibility is determined in relation
to public service, as befits symbols created as part of an
honors system. No particular status or title is attached to
these arms, although they do descend to heirs both male and
female. Thus, as generations unfold, the same Canadian arms
will be borne by a number of persons having different surnames,
but descending from a common ancestor. As well, the Canadian
heraldic system shares with the Scottish system the requirement
that the undifferenced coat-of-arms is borne by one person
at a time. Children and grandchildren of a grantee are assigned
differences; many of these being permanent and inherited in
turn by their heirs.” Differencing is a process where
a change, often minor, is made in the design to differentiate
it from the original.
I suspect that I am not the first person who has hesitated
when they reach the section on eligibility. Here I come to
the point where it is impossible not to be a bit personal:
I have never considered that I have made any significant contribution
to public service and I am not the volunteer type. I thought
it quite possible that I would be rejected.
I thought about the possible humiliation of being rejected
but decided to at least start the process. If it went ahead,
I thought it would make for an unusual article. If I was declined
I would not do the article — after all it would be very
short, very dull and hardly interesting to the reader! I e-mailed
Watt, the Chief Herald, to ask if his office would permit
me to write about the experience of applying and the process
and this was followed by a discussion on the phone. I received
a fairly prompt reply from the Heraldic Authority that they
would allow us to record the process in an article; in fact
they welcomed it as an opportunity to make their work better
coat-of-arms of the Canadian Heraldic Authority with
the major elements identified.
It was decided that I should apply exactly as any other
person, paying the fees involved in the process.
My first step in the process was to send a very short, formal
letter to the Chief Herald worded very specifically according
to instructions found on the
Canadian heraldic system shares with the Scottish system
the requirement that the undifferenced coat-of-arms
is borne by one person at a time. Children and grandchildren
of a grantee are assigned differences; a good example
of this is the grant to Judge James Thomas Robson on
top with the differences of his five children shown
Dear Mr. Watt:
I wish to receive a coat-of-arms from the Canadian Crown under
powers exercised by Her Excellency, the Governor General.
I had also to write a brief biographical history.
As I mentioned, I am not a volunteering type and have performed
no “good works” worth mentioning. My life for
the past 30 years, and certainly for the 23 years I have been
in Canada, has been my family and the publishing business.
The only thing I could think of was to mention my contributions
to Canadian publishing. This was not easy; it is not that
I am particularly modest but society rarely expects us to
expound whatever virtues we may possess. A colleague suggested
that I handle this by writing pretty much as I would handle
a job resume — these are not expected to be modest.
When I had done this, I passed it to people who had known
me for some years and they suggested modifications.
In 1983 I launched a magazine called Computing Now! which
became the largest Canadian consumer computer magazine targeting
consumers (as opposed to trade titles). It was the most successful
title of its type, despite several competitors, and lasted
until 1995 when we sold it.
In 1987 we converted all the magazines (we had five of them
at the time) to desktop publishing. About a year later we
learned that we were the first company in the world to adopt
this technology — we had had to invent almost every
step, including working with the printers, to produce these
issues. (One reason we were able to be such early adopters
is that we had been given a pre-release version of a publishing
program called Ventura. This worked so well that we were actually
using it commercially before it was officially released.)
article has been about a Canadian citizen applying to
the Canada Herald.
What about the Americans? Is there any way for an American
to acquire a legitimate coat-of-arms? We put this to
Robert Watt, Chief Herald of Canada, who suggested that
he contact his colleagues at the heraldic authorities
in England, Scotland and Ireland so that each could
explain their position. We are grateful to Watt for
having arranged the following explanations.
The short answer is that if you can prove that you have
one ancestor (male or female) who came from England,
Wales, Scotland or Ireland, you probably are eligible
to apply. A very high proportion of Americans qualify
on this basis, including over 70 percent of African-Americans
who have some English ancestry.
Wales and the Commonweath
The Kings of Arms or three senior Heralds at the College
of Arms have heraldic jurisdiction over all those territories
of which Her Majesty The Queen is sovereign with the
exception of Scotland and Canada where Lord Lyon King
of Arms and Chief Herald of Canada respectively have
Beyond those countries of which Her Majesty is Queen,
the principal settlement of English- speaking peoples
occurred in the present-day United States of America.
Since the first colony of Roanoke Island was granted
Armorial Bearings in 1586, numerous American colonists
have looked to the College of Arms for the granting
and confirming of Armorial Bearings.
This English heraldic tradition did not come to an end
with American independence. Today the Federal Government
permits honorary Grants of Armorial Bearings or Coats
of Arms to be made to noteworthy citizens of the United
States who have a proven line of descent from a British
subject. These grants often incorporate ancient medieval
devices, and these are frequently combined with more
specific American charges such as dogwood flowers, moose,
cardinals or Virginian nightingales and Texan longhorns
to name but a few.
It is also possible for American corporate bodies to
have Arms “devised” for them by the Kings
of Arms with the permission of the Governor of the State
in which the corporate body or its headquarters is sited.
American elements can again be introduced. Perhaps the
most notable example is the devisal of Armorial Bearings
to the Mescalero Apache Indians where a round Indian
shield was used supported by Mescalero Apache spirit
Peter Gwynn-Jones, Garter Principal King of Arms,
College of Arms, London.
Ireland’s political disturbances throughout the
17th century caused several waves of emigration which
created an almost immediate demand for heraldic services
from the Irish abroad. After the Siege of Limerick in
1691, one of the officers of arms, James Terry, Athlone
Pursuivant, followed James II to France and Confirmed
and Granted arms to the Wild Geese as the Irish in Europe
In keeping with the heralds’ tradition of neutrality
in disputes between their masters, Terry was constantly
in touch with his colleagues in Dublin, Edinburgh and
London. After his death in 1725 the Irish were obliged
to deal directly with the Office of Ulster King of Arms.
To the credit of the Crown appointees to this post,
they never failed to provide the necessary services.
It is not surprising that since responsibility for heraldic
matters passed to the Irish State, catering to the Irish
diaspora has continued to be regarded as an important
function of the Office of the Chief Herald.
Applications for grants of arms from persons of provable
Irish descent, on either the male or female side, born
and resident abroad, will be examined. Those whose ancestors
left Ireland since the introduction of mandatory civil
registration of births (1864) will find it a simple
matter to produce supporting documentation. Others may
need to call upon church records or official documents
issued in America which name the forebear’s place
of birth as Ireland.
Details of procedures and fees are to be found on the
Chief Herald’s website: www.nli.ie. Application
should be made to Fergus Gillespie, Deputy Chief Herald
of Ireland, 2 Kildare Street, Dublin 2, Ireland.
Micheál Ó Comáin
Herald, Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland.
A US citizen may be able, under certain circumstances,
to Petition the Court of the Lord Lyon for a Scottish
grant of Arms. If the US citizen is able to prove genealogical
descent, by evidence such as birth certificates acceptable
to the Lord Lyon, from an ancestor who lived in Scotland,
a Petition can be submitted to the Lord Lyon for a grant
of Arms in the name of the Scottish ancestor.
The US citizen can then apply for a matriculation which
would enable a version of the ancestor’s Arms
to be recorded in the name of the US citizen, the arms
being differenced in such a way as to show the relationship
of the US citizen to the Scottish ancestor.
Lord Lyon King of Arms.
I also described Family Chronicle, mentioning that we were
the first genealogy magazine to publish in color and achieve
substantial newsstand sales. Although we are based in Canada
about 90 percent of the circulation is in the US.
I was asked for references to back up my submission. I was
able to find two people who had known of my involvement in
publishing for over 20 years. I also had to provide proof
that I was a Canadian citizen (I became one in 1983).
I do not know what the references told the Heraldic Authority
as this is confidential. However it must have been satisfactory
for I received a letter on 14 February 2003 telling me that
“the Deputy Herald Chancellor has approved a warrant
authorizing the Chief Herald to grant a coat-of-arms to you
as an honour from the Canadian Crown.” At this stage
I sent payment for $435 (about $340 US), plus tax of seven
percent, to the Canadian Heraldic Authority. I was going to
get my coat-of-arms!
Designing the Arms
Until you are actually accepted, the process is not particularly
enjoyable. Will your references say good things about you?
Are those good things good enough for you to qualify? What
disqualifies you? For fairly obvious reasons, the heraldic
authority does not want to talk about this.
However, once I was formally accepted, the fun part began.
This started with a long discussion with Watt about what I
wanted incorporated in the coat-of-arms. I had spent some
time thinking about this well before the discussion but I
was concerned that I wanted too many elements included. Watt
had prompted me to only include things that were important
to me and reflected my life and heritage.
Like many people, my heritage is mixed. My father was American
and my mother was Norwegian. I was born, raised and educated
in Britain but emigrated to Canada in 1980. I have never been
able to say to which of these four countries I owe my principal
allegiance: to suggest one seems disloyal to the others. However,
to reflect each of these countries in the coat-of-arms was
not difficult as it turned out. Norway, Britain and the US
all have flags using red, white and blue. Canada’s flag
is, of course, red and white.
I am proud of my mixed ancestry but this has the disadvantage
that I have never been able to answer the question “where
are you from?” without a lengthy, boring answer. On
my paternal side, I have to go to my g-g-g-grandfather before
I have an ancestor who did not emigrate (from one side of
the Atlantic to the other, several times). Before that, my
ancestors lived in Cornwall, a county in south-west England,
for at least 250 years. The name Moorshead (along with the
spelling variations of Morshead and Moreshead) originates
from there or the adjacent county of Devon. As I have no firm
roots elsewhere, I feel an affinity for Cornwall despite the
tenuousness of this link.
Cornwall was always an isolated part of England and it retained
its own language, a dialect of Gaelic, which did not die out
until the 1700s according to most sources. There is currently
a movement to revive this ancient language.
Armorial bearings include a motto, frequently in Latin, a
language that I was taught (I cannot say learned) for many
years in school. I did not enjoy Latin and do not wish to
be reminded of it. I needed a motto — why not have this
in the old Cornish language to reflect this association?
I also wanted to include genealogy in the arms; this is a
genuine personal interest as well as my principle publishing
venture. The obvious symbolism is a tree.
was asked for my favorite heraldic animal. I was not aware
of the choices but when they were listed it included the lion.
I like lions so the choice was easy. This had the advantage
that it also symbolized both Britain (where I was raised and
educated) and, Watt reminded me, Norway (I am half-Norwegian
I had thought that the number of elements that I wished to
include was excessive but apparently my list was shorter than
most. It is not uncommon for an applicant to submit 20 or
more ideas for inclusion.
At the time of writing, I have not yet seen how these ideas
will work out. In the next issue of Family Chronicle I will
report the progress of this application.
article originally appeared in the September/October 2003
issue of Family Chronicle.
See Part II of this