Sunday, October 2, 2011

What is the Coat of Arms for my Surname?

“What is the Coat of Arms for my Surname?”
That is one of the first questions we hear from people interested in their family history and roots. If you are about to buy this coat of arms in a shopping mall or via internet, I would advise you not to do that and save your money.  Please, let me explain you why.

The blazons or coats of arms that you see on-line do not belong to surnames. They only belong to a person that these arms were granted and to his lineage; not to every person with the same surname. You can refer to a previous entry discussing surname and lineage.

How blazons were obtained and transmitted

There were three ways to obtain the right to use a coat of arms:
  • Granted by the King: related to services to the king or heroic behavior during war
  • Obtained by inheritance: family shields are granted to person and his descendants (not to everybody with the same surname)
  • Granted by the King of Arms: Since the XVI century Spanish kings delegated the heraldic office to these royal-appointed individuals that had the right to grant arms and certify genealogies
In Spain and Portugal noble families did not have many descendants. To ensure the family wealth did not get diluted among many sons and daughters the firstborn inherited almost everything through the state planning of the time (“mayorazgo” in Spain, “morgado” in Portugal). The other brothers did not have enough resources to get married and create a new family. The only options they had left were to embrace the military career, that had a high mortality rate, or to enter to the Church as priests.
That is why we see so few descendants from the noble families. Heraldry experts have estimated that in the Iberian Peninsula only 2% of all population has the right to have a coat of arms.

The Kings of Arms (also sometimes known as Main Heralds) kept records of all the grants in their official books known as “minutarios”. These records are still available in the Archives in Spain. It is possible that you belong to that lineage that was granted the family shield, but it unlikely. In order to use a Coat of Arms you need to have documented proof of the ancestors on each generation. That way you should be able to demonstrate the connection between you and the first person that the Arms were granted.

If you start your genealogic investigation with the objective of finding your Coat of Arms, quite likely it will end up in a failure.
While heraldry is an art/science that applies to a very small percentage of the population, genealogy includes 100% of human beings. Everybody has parents and grandparents. I think it is smarter to investigate your own family history. There is a lot to be learned about who our ancestors were. The most important piece of information we can obtain is the understanding of how they lived and what heritage they have passed on.
If during this process you find out you have noble ancestors or you have the right to have a coat of arms that belongs to your lineage it will be just one more interesting detail in your rich family story.