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Acquiring a REAL Coat of Arms: Part II

Halvor Moorshead explains the process of obtaining legitimate armorial bearings.

In the previous issue, we explained that heraldry is very much alive today. If you have English, Scottish or Irish ancestors in your line or if you are a Canadian citizen, it is possible for you to apply for your own coat-of-arms just as your ancestors were able to do.

The Cornish Flag

The English county of Cornwall has its own flag. This is black with a white cross and was originally the banner of Saint Piran, the patron saint of tin-miners. The author's ancestors came from Cornwall and were tin miners for several generations until the mid-1800s. The inclusion of this flag, or the colors, in the armorial bearings was considered in the early stages of the design. Instead, the Cornish language motto was chosen as the link to the county.
The heraldic authorities for these four jurisdictions operate independently and each of them has their own rules and procedures for applying. I applied to the Canadian Heraldic Authority as I am a Canadian citizen but I would also be eligible to apply to the College of Arms in London (as I was born in the UK and have English ancestors prior to the 1870s).

One of the most prevalent misconceptions related to genealogy is the existence of the “family coat-of-arms”. This myth is nurtured by people who will happily sell you a beautiful scroll depicting these coats-of-arms: it is your money they’re after. All experienced genealogists learn early on that there is no such thing as a family coat-of-arms and that armorial bearings are awarded to individuals, not families. However, not many genealogists know that individuals can still apply for their own, legitimate, properly registered coat-of-arms. It is not cheap and it takes from 12-14 months but many readers may qualify.

The previous article described the first steps of the procedure. There are lots of small steps involved in the application but fortunately none of these were difficult, and I was guided through the process painlessly.

One concern was that, while anyone may apply for a coat-of-arms, not everyone will qualify. In Canada, however, individuals qualify on the basis of service to the community. I understand that a high proportion of those who apply are accepted.

After hearing that I was officially accepted, I had to send a check for $435 Canadian plus taxes (about $340 US). Following this I had a lengthy phone conversation with Robert Watt, Chief Herald of Canada, in which I described various elements that I would like included in my coat-of-arms. There are few, if any, rules, as to what might be considered. Profession, heritage and/or achievements are the most common elements. I was encouraged by Watt to list as many elements as I wanted to. I had no preconceived ideas about how such elements could be incorporated but this is not my job, this is the job of the heralds. Watt’s job is to combine these elements into a simple, pleasing, symmetrical design which must also be unique.

The proposed coat-of-arms for Halvor Moorshead. The motto is in Cornish and means “Honour and Honesty”.

The Concept
Shortly after I finished writing the first part of the article, I received a letter from Watt describing the concept for my armorial bearings, based on the conversation we had had.

Technical Description (in blazon, the language of heraldry):
Arms (shield):
Gules a maple tree eradicated between three mullets Argent;

Crest (above the shield):
On a helmet mantled Gules and Azure doubled Argent within a wreath of these colors, this Crest: A demi lion Azure langued and armed Gules holding in its dexter paw a scroll Argent;

gordhyans ha lendury, meaning “Honour and Honesty”.

Explanation and Symbolism:
Arms (Shield):
The field of the shield is red. The central charge is a white (heraldic silver) maple tree with its roots exposed. In the upper right and left and in the base is a white star.

Heralds aim for simplicity. In the case of the author’s coat-of-arms this was made easier as the four nationalities’ flags represented above used just three colors. The author’s father was American, his mother was Norwegian, he was born and educated in Britain and now lives and works in Canada. Heraldry does not make use of subtle color variations so the red, white and blue fairly represents all these flags.
The colors are the national colors of Canada and represent Mr. Moorshead’s service to his adopted country, as does the maple tree. The colors are also two of the three national colors of the United States and Norway, symbolizing two other aspects of his family heritage. The tree is the tree of life, often a favorite symbol for those deeply involved, as Mr. Moorshead is, in genealogical pursuits; in his case through publishing and research. The stars are a second reference to his American ancestry and can also represent brilliance of effort. [I would like to make it clear that, while I am not a modest person, these references were added by the Heraldic Authority and not by me.]

Crest (above the shield):
This is formed of the upper part of a blue lion with red tongue and claws. The right arm of the lion is raised and the paw holds a white scroll.

The symbolism of the lion is multiple. It refers to Mr. Moorshead’s education in Britain, to his roots in Norway and to the strength of his service to the community. The color in the third tincture is a reference to his varied ancestry on two continents.

The scroll symbolizes his long involvement with publishing, most recently in the area of popularizing genealogical research.

This is one of Mr. Moorshead’s favorite sayings, rendered in Cornish to symbolize another aspect of his heritage.

Heraldry has its own language, blazon, which is largely based on Norman French. This may seem archaic but it describes the arms efficiently. There are lots of rules related to armorial bearings; we won’t go into them here. If you are interested you can easily find out the rules in numerous books and on several websites. Some very good explanations are provided on websites that are selling “family coats-of-arms” but I hesitate to recommend any one of these. A good legitimate site is

I was vaguely familiar with most of the terms though I had not come across the term “mullets” before. An Internet search using “Mullet blazon” told me that this was a five-pointed star.

The final award of the armorial bearings can take two forms, both described as “Letters Patent”. The top version, 22 in. high by 30 in. wide, is prepared with hand calligraphy and shell gold (if applicable). The lower version is two sheets of paper, each 22 in. high by 15 in. wide. The text on the left hand page is computer generated but the coat-of-arms is hand-painted, again with shell gold if applicable.
Designers of armorial bearings (the term is virtually interchangeable with coat-of-arms) are always striving for simplicity: they want to incorporate as many ideas into the simplest possible design. I was very impressed with the concept suggested by Watt.

Heraldry treats colors simply. Today there seem to be almost limitless variations of color and shade. In heraldry, blue is blue and red is red (or rather azure and gules in blazon language).

The Motto
In my discussions with Watt concerning the various elements, I said that I would like my connection with Cornwall to be included. Cornwall, a county in the extreme south-west of England, has its own flag (a simple design of black with a white cross). It also had its own language, closely related to Welsh and Breton (spoken in parts of northern France). My family lived in Lelant, a village in the far west of the county in an area that was the last stronghold of the language. I have no evidence that my ancestors spoke Cornish; the few documents that still exist such as wills and parish registers are all written in English. However the language people spoke at home was not necessarily the same as that they would use in official documents. The last native Cornish speaker died in 1777.

However, there is a movement to revive the language and in 2002 Cornish was granted official protection under the provisions of a European charter on “minority languages”. This allows schoolchildren to be taught the language and speak it. There are now about 100 people who speak Cornish fluently with another 500 or so others with some language skills.

I had chosen “Honour and Honesty” for the motto — two virtues that I admire (the spelling of Honour is the English/Canadian version of course). Watt and I thought that a motto in the Cornish language would recognize that link: of course neither of us had any idea what the Cornish might be. Watt managed to reach Andrew Climo-Thompson, a champion for the revived Cornish language, who kindly translated the motto making it “Gordhyans Ha Lendury”. These words will not mean much to most people which has the advantage that it appears less pompous — and draws attention to the link with Cornwall.

I received the concept — the written description given above — in mid-June. I have already mentioned that I was very impressed and did not want any changes. I had to confirm that I approved of the basic design.

Shortly after this I received a contract where I agreed to pay for an artist to take this concept and prepare artwork. In this I agreed to pay up to a maximum of $450 Canadian plus taxes (about $350 US).

I received the artwork on 3 September — it is illustrated here. To say I was looking forward to this would be an understatement! It was everything I wished for. The design incorporated all the elements that Watt and I had discussed, yet it was very simple.

I was sent two copies of the design with an invoice from the artist for $450 Canadian. One of the copies included color swatches which would be used in the final, official version. I requested one change; the color of the red was rather darker than the red used in the four flags that it represented and I asked for this to be lightened. I signed my approval and returned it, and sent off a check directly to the artist.

This is not the end of the process. Technically the artwork shown in this article is the “proposed armorial bearings”. The draft (used here) is drawn roughly and is colored with art markers; it looks great to me but is apparently crude compared to the final artwork which is to come.

I asked what the difference was: the final will be “more dramatic, use paints, not marker, will have more depth and overall will be more polished”. The final artwork will appear in “letters patent” which is the final presentation and official verification of the award. Letters patent can take two forms: Option 1 is a single sheet about 22 in. x 30 in., hand painted and with specially written calligraphy. The charge for this is between $1,800 and $3,500 Canadian ($1,400 to $2,700 US). The second option (which I chose) is for two sheets, each about 22 in. by 15 in. The first page is a text presentation (computer generated) describing the award, the second is the coat-of-arms, painted in the final form. The cost lies between $900 and $2,400 Canadian ($700 to $1,800 US).

I hope in the next issue of Family Chronicle to be able to show the final presentation and describe the process of “differencing” — the preparation of slightly modified versions of my armorial bearings that could be used by my children.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2003 issue of Family Chronicle.

Return to Part I | See Part III of this series


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