Common Questions About Heraldry


  • The rec.heraldry newsgroup FAQ sheet
  • My Name is <...>: What are my arms?
  • Where can I find my arms on the Web?
  • What is the meaning of a specific coat of arms?
  • What are good books on heraldry?
  • How do I identify a coat of arms?
  • Contents of the FAQ

    The rec.heraldry FAQ will answer basic questions about heraldry. You should consult it. Here is a list of topics it covers:

    1. What is rec.heraldry?
    2. What other newsgroups and mailing lists are there?
    3. How can I find my coat of arms or my family's coat of arms?
    4. What about those outfits in the malls that'll sell me my arms?
    5. What is the difference between a coat of arms and a crest?
    6. How do you blazon a coat of arms?
    7. What's the SCA? How does it relate to rec.heraldry?
    8. What do arms mean?
    9. How inviolable is the rule of tincture?
    10. Is the Court of Chivalry dead?
    11. What heraldic software is available?
    12. How do I unzip Blazons?
    13. Is there a computerised Ordinary available to download?
    14. Where can I find heraldic clip-art on the net?
    15. What are some books I can turn to to learn more?
    16. What tartan should I wear, and other tartan stuff.
    17. Addresses of national heraldic and genealogical associations.
    18. Distribution of the FAQ

    The heraldry FAQ has been downloaded from this site 696 times between April 5, 1996 and February 23, 1997 (twice a day on average). In the year from September 8, 1997 to September 9, 1998 it has been accessed 2087 times (5.7 times per day).

    What are your arms?

    Many people have the same question about heraldry:
    my name is Smith, what is my coat of arms?
    This question is answered in the Most FAQ on rec.heraldry: What are my arms?

    (This MFAQ is posted weekly to rec.heraldry and is available for download at this site. It has been downloaded 442 times between April 5, 1996 and February 23, 1997). In the year from September 8, 1997 to September 9, 1998 it has been accessed 2607 times (7 times per day).

    The short answer is: there are no "Smith arms", and having the same name as some Smith family whose arms you have seen in a book or a mall "heraldry store" does not mean that you can use them. If you want to make sure that those arms are yours, you need to find a genealogical link between you and that family. The problem becomes genealogical, and you should consult the appropriate books and Web resources (including the soc.genealogy.* newsgroups).

    How do I find out if I have arms?

    As I said, it's a genealogical question. The best bet is to look into an armory. Books which list the arms of families are called armories, and there are many armories for many countries. If you want to look for arms borne by families with the same name as yours, you need to go to a library and consult armories. The most general one was compiled by Rietstap in the late 1800s, and it covers all of Europe; for the British Isles, the main armory is Burke's. But both are far from complete, not free of errors, and give no references. Look at the bibliography for more information on armories.

    Once that is done, you need to trace a connection to one of the families whose arms are in the armory. That can be a difficult task. It is one which a professional genealogist or heraldist will do for you. I can't do it for you.

    Please do not e-mail me genealogical questions.

    Of course, you can always assume arms of your choice, or get a grant of arms from a heraldic authority, depending on where you live. There are official heraldic authorities in England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada who will grant arms.

    Where to find arms on the Web?

    The next most-popular question is:
    Is there a Web site of FTP site where I can look for my arms?
    The answer is: No (in general: see below). No one has compiled all or even the main armories into a scholarly database; and if anyone had, it is understandable that they would be reluctant to provide the fruits of so much effort at no charge. If you want to look for arms borne by families with the same name as yours, you need to go to a library and consult armories.

    On the French Minitel (36 17), there is an armory look-up which will return the coat of arms when supplied with a last name, and also provide references. This service is not accessible through the Web, it is in French, and it is not free. There are other services on the Web which will look up a name and return a coat of arms for a fee, though they usually do not provide references. Look for them with the usual search engines.


    The most general one was compiled by Rietstap in the late 1800s, and it covers all of Europe, over 100,000 arms.

    The Rietstap is far from complete, it is not free of errors (though it is on the whole reliable). The biggest problem is that it usually gives no references. The information is limited to name, origin (country or province) and arms (often with supporters, crest and motto). The Rollands added several volumes of supplement, and also illustrated all the arms in the Rietstap (the illustrated general armorial listed above).

    For Britain, the most convenient source is John Burke and John Bernard Burke: General Armory [...], which went through several editions in the 19th century:

    There is a lot more information and references in my annotated bibliography. Be aware, however, that many books and sources are not readily available, except in research and university libraries. You may be able to get a hold of them through Interlibrary Loan: imnquire with your local public library.

    Look at the FAQ and the Library of Congress bibliography for more references on armories.

    A Few Armories on the Web

    Armories are beginning to appear on the Web. Here are a few early examples (see also this directory of online armories:

    What about clip-art?

    A related question is:
    Where can I find heraldic clip-art?
    I am told that CorelDraw versions 4 through 7 has heraldic clipart, with an extensive collection in version 7.

    There are some links to clip-art here, though some are broken.

    What is the meaning of a specific coat of arms?

    This question also takes the form: there is a widget azure on my coat of arms, what does it mean?. The general answer is either "nothing" or "we can't tell". There are a number of exceptions; and it is also the case that some symbolism was attached to various charges at different times; but it is often impossible to say if the person who originally composed the arms had such symbolism in mind. This question is answered in greater detail in the MFAQ. It is also explored in greater depth on a separate page, where I give some examples of possible symbolisms and meanings.

    How do I identify a coat of arms?

    You have found an object with a coat of arms on it and you would like to identify it. This is a difficult task. The first thing to do is to get as much information as possible about the date and, most important, the geographical origin of the object. Next, you need to describe or depict the coat of arms: that is, translate the picture into a verbal description (a blazon) following the rules of heraldry, or else have it done by someone who knows (you will need the depiction, like a drawing or photograph).

    Once that is done, you (or the researcher) must go to an ordinary. An ordinary is the reverse of an armory: whereas an armory goes from names to arms (give it a name and it will give you a coat of arms), an ordinary goes from arms to name.


    Just as there is no complete armory, there is no complete ordinary. The following resources are useful:

    In addition, many of the publications of medieval rolls of arms will include an ordinary at the end, but these will be difficult to use, since they are dispersed in many publications and only concern medieval heraldry anyway.

    Heraldica Main Page | Search Heraldica | Heraldic Glossary | Contact

    François Velde

    Last modified: Feb 19, 2013