Using On-line Resources to Identify Heraldry

So you are out and about and you find some item of heraldry - how do you find out who it belonged to? Here are a few tips and tricks to find the owners of English heraldry, although obviously they are applicable to any tradition, but using different sources.

Where Are You?

Shield on a building
Shield in Redbourne, Lincs.

First, consider your location. If the coat of arms is on a building, who are the occupants of this building? This may give you a clue as to the owner. Be aware however, that buildings often outlast organisations. “The worshipful Company of Ironmongers” is more likely to to be the owners of coat of arms than “Whizbang Web Designers Ltd”. It may also be worth trying to find out who owns the land - feudal lords and landowners often scattered their arms around the landholdings to remind the peasants who was in charge. If the arms are part of a Memorial, such as a gravestone, tomb slab, or stained-glass window, then the owner's name will often be engraved nearby.

A Possible Name?

If your possible name is that of Royalty or European aristocracy, then Wikipedia is a very good source and often includes high quality illustrations of the relevant arms. I prefer not to cite Wikipedia directly however and try to follow up the references from the Wikipedia article wherever possible.

If you believe that you may have a less illustrious possible name, the next stage is to look it up in an armorial or roll of arms. For English heraldry I use Burke’s general armoury of 1898 and Fox’s armorial families of 1926. Both of these are available through archive.org, and Google books but I prefer to use an off-line PDF version for reasons I will come to later. Remember that a single family name may have many different coats of arms associated with it, so you may have a little reading to do.

No Names, Just a Blazon?

Book image
Burke's General Armory

If you do not have a name and must work just from the image of the shield itself then there is a little more work to do. The first stage is to work out the blazon, looking especially for any unusual features. We can then do a full text search for these features in an armorial, this is why I prefer the off-line PDF versions. I use the search tool in the Foxit reader to display all the matches, including the context, all at the same time. Ideally we need to search for a feature that is not very common, in Burke's Armorial, "a lion rampant" occurs thousands of times, "10 martlets" occurs only a few dozen and it is feasible to check each "hit".

Screenshot extract
Foxit Reader Search

To construct the search term some care is needed to understand how our source document uses abbreviations, spellings and whether numbers are digits or words. Burke's armorial for example shows numbers as words and always abbreviates where possible with a period after the abbreviation (e.g. "az." for "Azure"). An important consideration for these older documents is to understand that they have been scanned using optical character recognition and that this is prone to errors, as many as one in 20 words may be incorrectly identified. This means we might not find them with a simple text search, so it is best to try several different searches before giving up. Also remember that for carved shields, gravestones etc we probably will not have any tinctures so will not be able to search for these.

If the shield really has no unique features or consists of some very simple and common heraldry a different approach is needed. Firstly as a rule of thumb the simpler shield is the older it is likely to be (and the opposite is also true). If all we have to go on is a major ordinary or single charge then I suggest consulting William Berry's 1828 "Encyclopaedia Heraldica". Volume 1 includes a cross-reference of ordinaries charges to family names, so you can for example find all those families which include "a chevron sable" in their arms. All four volumes are available from archive.org, although note the date - any Shields later than this will not be included although as we said above this should not be a problem for the older simpler Shields.

Still No Luck?

If we still have not made an identification then by all means just type what you know into a Google search! Although we can't restrict our search just to heraldic documents simply typing in a fragment of the blazon or even "shield near such-and-such" might give you some clues. Do however try to be aware of the validity and credibility of the source-there is nowhere on earth or on the Internet that constitutes a single definitive source of all armorial bearings. Nevertheless with judicious and intelligent use of the online resources available to others we should be able to identify almost 99% of everything that we can find. Try it out yourself!

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