Sunday, 2 September 2012

A Panorama-style investigation into bucket-shop heraldry

It is a popular misconception that a coat of arms belongs to a surname.  However, this is not the case as coats of arms belong to individual families, not to surnames.   For any person to have the right to a coat of arms they must have it granted to them, or be descended from the original grantee in the legitimate male line.
Nevertheless, commercial firms spread the misconception that coats of arms belong to surnames in order to generate a profit from the ignorant who wish to display their coat of arms on their letterheads, bookplates and silver.  Such firms frequently run adverts in newspapers, magazines and mail-order catalogues, in which they ask for the original old spelling of your name and your ancestral county, in order to provide “family coats of arms”.  Furthermore, the two works that these firms use to conduct their research, Burke’s General Armory (1885) and Fairbairn’s Book of Crests (1905), are renowned for their inaccuracy and incompleteness.

What generally happens is that a customer responds to such an advert, mentions his surname and enquires about his coat of arms.  The salesman looks up the surname in one of the textbooks mentioned above.  If he finds that there are no coats of arms for the customer’s surname he simply finds a similar surname and flogs that family’s coat of arms to the customer.  This is all done with no consideration as to whether the customer is in any way connected with the family whose coats of arms are being sold.
Fortunately, the College of Arms have now insisted that adverts are carefully phrased so as to point out that the coats of arms advertised are only those associated with a particular surname.  Those merchants who do not disclose the fact that they are only selling coats of arms associated with one’s surname are in breach of Section 3 of the Fraud Act 2006 as they are failing to disclose information, in order to gain a profit.  You can imagine the anger of customers when they realise that their ignorance has been used to the pecuniary advantage of salesmen.  However, many complaints won’t surface due to the reluctance of many customers to take legal action, thus perpetuating the situation.  Although we don’t have any clear statistics to substantiate the notion, the continued appearance of adverts selling coats of arms would suggest that the deceitful practice is on-going and healthy.
The bottom line is that it is illegal for these heraldic bucket-shops to feed on the heraldic ignorance of the public and to abuse the rights of those who are properly entitled to a coat of arms.  Any such enterprise should expect to face legal action and a hefty fine.


  1. Everyone had to start somewhere, however. One must bear in mind that all the barons of the medieval period were simply nouves who got cuddly with the King. Is it not arguable that the creation of new coats of arms (even on a commercial basis) is simply a reflection of the increased creation of wealth?

    1. I agree with you, but up to a point. Coats of arms started as a feudal insignia used by knights, bishops and barons for identification purposes during battles and tournaments; they were not granted by the College of Arms on the Crown's behalf(as they are today). However, if a knight decided to adopt another knight's coat of arms he could find himself in court; it would be akin to a company using another company's trademark.

      In 1530 King Henry VIII commissioned a visitation of the provinces to stamp out such activity and register all lawfully used coats of arms (at the College of Arms). This continued on a periodical basis until 1688. From this point onwards the College of Arms still issued new grants, but the use of existing arms was no longer regulated and bucket-shop heraldry sprang into existence as a result.

      The question is not whether one can devise a coat of arms of their own creation (another debate entirely), but whether it is lawful to use somebody else's coat of arms.

  2. Utter garbage - you dont know what you are talking about.
    There ARE 'family coats of arms' in existence.
    You maybe unaware that record books such as Burkes Armory DO IN FACT list records of FAMILY COATS OF ARMS - for example the surname O'Horan (of Irish origin) is listed thus:
    A Sept settled in County Galway: Vert 3 lions rampant, two and one (a sept is a kind of Irish clan).

    This record refers to ALL bearers of the name O'Horan of Irish origin and the Chief Herald of Ireland previously stated that any such person is entitled to use those arms. Furthermore this tradition is not just confined to Ireland

    While it is certainly true that any huge record book such as Burkes Armory would contain errors at lest those errors are made in good faith -the book contains tens of thousands of records from thousands of different sources!

    The Colege of Arms has no legal standing over the ancient history connected with this subject - especially in a different country.

    Describing people who buy heraldic products from legitimate companies as 'ignorant' is very offensive. Try getting your facts right and not being so ignorant yourself

    Don McFeeley

  3. Yes, well that is why when I saw the surname Cohen, supposed to be a family featuring on a German Coat of Arms, I immediately smelt a rat. Was just not logical! That is why I joined to find out my correct Coat of Arms granted to my family. You are the experts, and that is why joined, where everything is above board and correct. That is the way I like it.