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Acquiring a REAL Coat of Arms: Part I

Heraldry is alive and well, as Halvor Moorshead explains.

The 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.

There 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 family history!

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.

The 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.
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.

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.

Heraldry Today
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 .html.

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

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.

The coat-of-arms of the Canadian Heraldic Authority with the major elements identified.
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 known.

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

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 below.

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.

Coats-of-Arms & Americans

This 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.

England, 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 jurisdiction.

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 dancers.

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 were known.

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: 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.

Robin Blair,
Lord Lyon King of Arms.

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.)

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.

Heraldic Websites
There are many websites covering heraldry. All search engines will offer thousands of sites. Many nations, other than the English-speaking ones mentioned below, have strong traditions of heraldry, but it is not our aim here to cover heraldry in general.
The following sites may be of interest:
Canadian Heraldic Authority
Royal Heraldry Society of Canada
College of Arms (England)
Court of the Lord Lyon, King of Arms (Scottish Heraldry)
Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland
Cyndi’s List

I 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 after all).

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.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2003 issue of Family Chronicle.

See Part II of this series...


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