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Armigerous Families

Does the use of coat armor indicate gentility? Yeomen were entitled to use arms in England, while in Germany, city officials of a certain class had a perfect right to assume an hereditary coat of arms. The custom in other European countries was nearly the same; the only restriction being, apparently, that one should not encroach on another and that the bearer be of sufficient social or official consequence to display a coat of arms without exciting too much ridicule. Arms are nothing but personal emblems, originally hereditary because the son valued the prestige of the father, and actually in the same classification as business trade marks or Indian totems.

The College of Arms of London was incorporated in 1483, in the reign of Richard III. At that time the entire arms of the British Kingdom were placed under its supervision and control, accurate accounts were taken of all and adjusted so as to avoid duplication, and none were allowed without authority. Heralds were also sent throughout the kingdom every twenty or thirty years, and a complete genealogical record was in this way established and maintained. The term arms is derived from the shield and the devices displayed upon it, which, in the middle ages, served to identify the noble on the field of battle. He bore them just as a soldier nowadays bears his medals of distinction.

Originally helmets on a coat of arms were of the same shape and materials for all ranks ; but in later times (when they had ceased to be generally worn) distinctions were made in depicting them, and the rank of the owner was denoted by their matter, shape, and position. Mene Trier, in 1680, says the helm should be of gold for sovereigns ; of silver for princes and great nobles ; and of polished steel for simple nobles or gentlemen. The open helm was considered the property of one in a position to command. The old French heralds differ as to the number of the grilles, or bars, which should denote the various ranks of nobility, but Planche was of the opinion that, "the various positions of the helmet, and the rules for its being open, closed, or barred, are all of comparatively modern date, and as useless as embarrassing."

For a long time after their introduction surnames were used only by the gentry ; and when they began to be assumed by the lower orders, the clansmen almost invariably took the name of his chief, considering himself a member of his family, at least by adoption, if not by a closer tie the remembrance of which tradition had preserved. In England it was far otherwise. New men emerged, and founded new families ; under the Tudor sovereigns, hundreds of novi homines received grants of arms. It was easier to adopt new arms than (even for those who might possibly have succeeded in doing so had they tried) to trace a connection with families whose importance had passed away.

Hence it comes to pass that, while in England the multitude of entirely distinct coats of arms is enormous, in Scotland the number of original coats is small; but the distinct and well-defined insignia of the chief of the family are differenced by its other members in such a manner as to show forth, more or less clearly, their relation to the head of the house, and to other cadets

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:07:29 ZULU