Can you find a family name just from the coat of arms?

If I have a copy of a family’s coat of arms (sans the family motto), is there any way that I can find the family or families to which it belongs?

Assume that the COA is genuine and not from one of those ads you see in the back of tabloids (or wherever it is they advertise these days).

As an example of what I’m looking for, there is a plugin for firefox called tineye that will compare a picture to it’s database and tell you where else on the web that picture can be found. So if someone posts a picture with no real explanation of what it is or where it comes from, you can invoke Tineye to search for it. Once you find the source, you have a better chance of sussing out what the picture is about.

So, also assume that I’ve tried this and gotten no hits.

At this point, this is mainly an idle musing, but I am still very interested in the answer.

Thank you.

Yes, a specialist in heraldry should be able to find it for you. It would be better if you could provide some context (geographical origin, where did you encounter it, etc.), and it will be easier if you have the arms in color.

Some of the items in a coat of arms provide direct information about their origin (bastard bands, symbols like the white rose and red rose which are linked to very specific houses, complexity, is there a motto or not), but it isn’t impossible for two families in distant countries to have come up with identical coats (specially if you’re looking at a color-less version, such as one carved on stone): the more information you can provide, the better. Some coats of arms are not for a family but for an individual and represent several family names: my grandmother used to have in her house a window which showed the arms of her grandmother, all four coats of arms put together into one - it was almost as complicated as the coat of arms of Spain; sometimes, a coat of arms belongs to an individual but does not get passed down.

I find it interesting that you say “sans the family motto”: mottoes, and their inclusion in the coat or not, are one of those details which vary by country and moment in time. The immense majority of Spanish coats of arms don’t include one, for example.

Thanks Nava.

I was thinking about using my family’s coat as a business logo and was curious as to how easy it would be to back trace from the coat to the family name.

I use aliases for everything that I do online and wanted to make sure that ability wouldn’t be impaired. That probably makes no sense, but I do have my reasons.

Do you know of any good hearldry databases that show full color coats of arms for a large number of families? I tried this about a year ago and could not find mine in any free database. Plus the one’s I found by looking up the original English/Saxon spelling of the name were mostly bogus.

Sorry, my experience is similar; a few times someone has insisted in “showing me my coat of arms” and the crap they come up with has managed to be quite amazing; among other things, they seem to think that “more stuff is better”. Contacting the Heraldry Society or others recommended by our members who are more knowledgeable of British heraldry than I am is probably your best bet.

Someone “off the street” would not be able to link coat to name, it takes a certain nerdiness. I can recognize coats I’ve encountered before, but sometimes the link is not obvious, it is obvious in one language but not in another (why is the coat of arms of the Ochoa two wolves? Why, because Ochoa/Otxoa/Otsoa is wolf in Basque - not very obvious if you encounter it in Sweden), or comes from some personal history (the four bars of Aragon) or a whim of whomever had it made (“Pratchett” and “Ankh” don’t have a direct link unless you happen to be familiar with PTerry’s work).

I’ve seen, in public libraries in Europe, heraldic encyclopedias which you could use both ways: Search for a family name in an alphabteic list, or search for a coat of arms and get the corresponding name. The way it works is this: At a first stage, coats of arms are distinguished according to the general layout - whether they’re split vertically, or horizontally or checkered, etc. Then you go to the section of the appropriate design, where you find further sub-distinctions into more detailed graphical elements. You keep going with this process for a couple of steps, until you find the numbered coat of arms in the encyclopedia, together with the name(s) of the family/ies using it.

I don’t remember how they called these encyclopedias - could have been something like Gotha (for Germany), since the “Gotha” is the most widely used almanac of aristocratic families, and heraldry is a closely related area most likely worked by the same publishers. I’d recommend just going to a good public or university library and ask a librarian, I’m pretty sure they can help you find the appropriate reference books.

I’d imagine if you could get the terminology right to describe the arms - e.g. Argent on a fess sable three bezants between three fleur-de-lys gules, you could narrow the search down somewhat.

What you have is an individual’s coat of arms. The whole point of a coat of arms was to identify the person displaying it when he was concealed by armour; that doesn’t work if more than one person is entitled to carry the same arms.

Suppose a coat of arms is granted to Joe; Joe is the only person entitled to use those arms. Joe’s children, if they want to use arms, will usually use what are called “differenced” arms. Strictly speaking, they should apply to the appropriate heraldic authority for a grant of arms of their own, and normally they will be given their father’s arms, “differenced” by the addition of extra elements (“marks of cadence”), though there is no fundamental reason why they wouldn’t get radically or completely different arms. In practice, though, it wasn’t uncommon for people simply to adopt their own “differenced” arms by adding the conventional marks of cadence.

When Joe dies, his arms pass to his heir – his eldest son, if he has one – and he can use them without a grant from the heraldic authorities. All Joe’s other relatives need their own grants, and they will not be granted Joe’s arms, but something different.

In theory, arms which have been “differenced” with marks of cadence, and which have been granted by heraldic authorities, are also heritable, and the process can be repeated from generation to generation. But this means marks of cadence superimposed on marks of cadence, and makes for very cluttered arms. In practice, if a few generations of younger sons were important enough in their own right to bother using arms, they would apply for their own arms, not their father’s or grandfather’s arms differenced by marks of cadence.

In 1390, William Grosvenor was granted arms consisting of a sheaf of white on a blue field. Those are now the arms of his heir, Gerald Grosvenor, the current Duke of Westminster. He is the only person entitled to use those arms. All of William Grosvenor’s other descendants – and there are many – either use slightly different arms, completely different arms or – in most cases – no arms at all.

The arms of the head of a (significant) family tend to be identified as “the family arms” but, strictly speaking, only one person is entitled to use them at any time.

Can arms be identified? Well, that’s the whole idea so, generally, yes. But of course the more significant the person entitled to bear the arms, the easier they are to identify. The heraldic authority which granted the arms should be able to identify them but, depending on the country concerned, it may no longer exist. If you only have partial arms – no motto, possibly other elements also missing (supporters? helm?) and perhaps no indication of colouring – definitive identification may not be possible. On the other hand, if you know the provenance of the article on which you found the arms, that could narrow down the possibilities.

The technical English term for such works is an ‘ordinary of arms’, so called because the entries are arranged according the ordinaries. But, as others have said, it helps to narrow likely location down first and you need to know the jargon.

Another one of those things which change by location and through time; just sayin’.

With enough time and research you would be able to find that information, but I doubt that anyone would bother. This also assumes that the person looking would realise the coat of arms/logo actually represented anything other than the business you’re setting up. It’s hiding in plain sight.

UDS however does have a point. Within the United Kingdom, armorial bearings are actually a form of entailed intangible property, belonging to only one person at a time. Only he (or those whom he authorizes) may display a given ‘achievement’ (“coat of arms”, which technically means a sleeveless shift the color of the field and imprinted with the charge(s) on the arms, worn in certain ceremonial occasions, not the actual arms themselves). The president-and-majority-stockholder of a company bearing his name, for example, might authorize his personal arms to be used as a corporate logo, or the corporation itself may have been granted arms, as many cities (as municipal corporations) have. That this is current law, not mere tradition, was established in the 1950s when the City of Manchester sued a local theater to prevent its using the municipal arms without permission. Technically you as an individual have no more right to use your ‘family arms’ without permission than you have to use your rich great-uncle’s beachfront condo in Barbados without his permission. He may well like you as family and let you use it, in either case, but in both cases it’s his property, to let or hinder at his sole discretion.

Since arms are granted by the College of Heralds at the command of the Queen, not a function of HMG, this may be binding where not superseded by statute throughout the Commonwealth. I know Canada does have laws essentially barring titles of nobility and knighthoods to Canadian citizens, but what the relevance to armorial bearings might be is something a Canadian lawyer would have to check out. There may be relevant precedent on non-UK Commonwealth realms from the 25 years when Ireland was legally a self-governing dominion rather than a republic, as I know they did set up a separate College of Arms in Dublin during that period, which remains in existence.

Arms from European nations are, as Nava notes, governed by quite separate policies. There is at least one nation – I forget which – in which any descendant of the current heir of a given set of arms may use them, undifferenced, to betoken his family connection.

In the U.S., the situation is quite different. First, let’s note the idea of trademarks. There are companies, from grocery chains to auto marques, which have registered something looking like a shield of arms as a corporate trademark. This in fact their intangible property, with legal protection.

However, the whole idea of sovereignty comes into play otherwise. Unlike a monarchy, where sovereignty resides in the Crown, in the US sovereignty resides in “we the people.” Accordingly, any American citizen may design and use for himself an set of arms, or assume, without anyone’s needing to consent, the British set which he inherits – provided, of course, he doesn’t infringe on a registered trademark. I believe a previous Garter King of Arms is on record that this right of Americans is recognized by the UK College of Arms, though few people realize they have that right.

In the US, where there is no separate formal heraldry registration system recognized by the government, arms are basically trademarks. There are a LOT of arms or armslike logos over here, some quite basic, used as corporate trademarks, and my understanding is that they are legally just that, trademarks. Arms used to recognize individuals and families just isn’t normal here.

One thing that is quite likely a holdover from old British practices is the fact that many state and local governments have their own arms, so you might speak of the arms of New York State or some county or city, and these arms may be worn by police officers and other civil servants, in homage to the practice of personal servants wearing the arms of their lord. In the US, the local lord would be the people as represented through the jurisdictional government.

In the real world, it’s extremely unlikely that unless you have some information about the arms you’re looking at that you will be able to find its owner simply based on its description.

This is what I was going to say. In the British system, arms belong to a person, not to a family name.

Even in countries where all members of a family have the right to display the arms in question, the family is important, but not necessarily the family name.

I very much appreciate the detailed information provided. I’m very new to the terminology, but I think I got the most important points.

As an side note that may be of interest, I hired a pursuivant to research if my family line had descended directly from the ancestor to whom the arms had been granted. It appears that it does not. However a distant relative who was a genealogist had determined that the arms published in our family’s official genealogy (which he had compiled over many years and published in 3 editions) were those of the entire family.

I provided the pursuivant with my paternal lineage going back to 1295 and therefore even before the founding of the College of Heralds so I was very disappointed at his findings. However he had a few other things to say which were not consistent with the genealogy so I have some reason to suspect their accuracy. I will pursue it again one day but for the moment, I’m content to use the arms with a certain amount of pride.