Reference Centre, Genealogy 101

Answers to Genealogy FAQs - Coats of Arms


Thank you for your enquiry concerning armorial bearings.  I would be terribly remiss in my duties as a professional genealogist if I led you down the path and provided you with any arms pertaining to any family for which those arms had not been matriculated.

Most members of the public at large are not aware of the fact that arms are granted to one particular individual.  They are not granted to all individuals who happen to bear a particular surname.  In short, unless one of your direct-line ancestors had been given a grant of arms (with or without crest and/or motto) AND that grant stipulated in its terms that the right to bear arms was heritable in perpetuity, i.e. to be passed through to each descendant in each line of the original grantee's children, then, unfortunately, there would be no entitlement afforded to you to display an achievement of arms.

Moreover, arms are granted by different bodies in different countries.  Accordingly, one would also have to know in which country the arms had been matriculated:  in Scotland it is the responsibility of the Lord Lyon;  the King of Arms at the College of Arms is the official heraldic authority for England, Wales, Northern Ireland (by Norroy and Ulster King of Arms) and much of the Commonwealth including Australia and New Zealand.  Since 1 April 1943 the matriculation of arms has been regulated in the Republic of Ireland by the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland.  Contact with any one of these offices would result, first, in a search of their files for a grant.  Be warned: the fees for searches are very steep.  For example, a recent search on behalf of one of my clients started at £200.00 - approximately CAN500.00.  The process is complicated, protracted, and the results may be far less than anticipated.

If your interest is to determine how many families bearing your surname have been granted arms with a view to researching the descendants of those families in an effort to possibly overcome a lineage roadblock in your own research, then there are quite a few sources in which you might wish to look.  Most of the following books can be found at a good reference library, i.e. university libraries, Toronto Reference Library (Yonge Street), St. Catharines Centennial Library, et cetera:

  • The General Armoury

  • Fairbairn's Crests

  • The Genealogists' Guide, by Marshall - a bibliography that will point you to other sources that may contain pedigrees and arms. The 1903 edition is now available online for Society of Genealogists members.

  • An index to the Pedigrees and Arms contained in the Herald's Visitations and other genealogical transcripts in the British Museum, by R. Sims. England, London:  J. R. Smith, 1849.  This, too, is a bibliography that will point you to other sources that may contain pedigrees and arms.

  • Pedigrees and Arms are also searchable on-line at the British Library.

  • Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, a serial publication also now searchable on-line usually includes a drawing of the grant, which may or may not be included on-line.

  • A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain, serial publication, first issue 1849, by John Burke, Sir Bernard Burke.  This work usually includes a drawing of the arms and can be read on Google Books.

  • Burke's Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry, in two volumes, fifth edition printed 1875, can be read on Google Books.

  • A Genealogical History of the Dormant: Abeyant, Forfeited, and Extinct Peerages of the British Empire, 1866 by Sir Bernard Burke and issued occasionally also usually includes a drawing of the arms. The 1866 edition can be read on Google Books..

  • Herald's Visitations  Some of the 1619 visitation of England is searchable on-line at

  • The Society of Genealogists has a substantial collection of catalogued privately printed family histories.

  • Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, 1808 and 1812, in numerous volumes, some of which can be read on Google Books.

A number of Burke's works can be read online or downloaded from the Internet Archive.

Many websites - some more accurate than others - now reproduce pedigrees of peers and artistocratic ancestors. As most of those sites are based on earlier printed pedigree material it is wise to retrace the earlier printed sources. is largely based upon Burke's pedigrees and is helpful in that it links wives and children to their own unique family trees within the site.

European sources also found in larger public libraries should also be looked at such as J. B. Rietstap's Armorial Général (1884, repr. 1965) with eight supplementary volumes indexed in a ninth one.  Do not confuse this book with The General Armoury.  The General Armoury is a narrative book.  The Armourial Generale is a very large format book with plates of the arms that have been granted throughout Europe. Also useful is J. Siebmacher's Wappenbüchern 1605-1961, indexed in Hans Jäger-Sunstenau's General-index zu den Siebmacher's Wappenbüchern 1605-1961 (1964), an almost full set of which can be consulted at the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, Canterbury.

Although I can appreciate that this response is not the one you were hoping for, I do hope that I have been able to enlighten you on the subject of heraldry, even if in a small way.

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