The Definitive Guide to Heraldry, Surnames, and Nobility
What do heraldic symbols mean?
Heraldry is a visual language. Each coat of arms, family crest or seal is carefully composed of traditional elements and hereditary symbols, all of which are rich with symbolic meaning. Since heraldic achievements were originally meant to identify and celebrate individuals, the symbols of heraldry also communicate a message, although that message isn’t always immediately clear to us. In fact, although we believe that all heraldic symbols have specific meanings, many of these meanings have been lost over the centuries.
Although the tradition of heraldry as we generally understand it today originated in medieval Europe, many of its symbols were inherited from the melting pot of cultures that made up the Roman Empire. While some symbols, such as the anchor and various forms of the cross were of Christian origin, others (like the unicorn, griffin, or other fantastical beasts) were inspired by popular folklore and folk magic. Heraldry drew on a wealth of religious, mythical, legendary, and folkloric stories and fables dispersed throughout the Mediterranean and European world.
The meanings of some heraldic symbols are clearer than others. The lion, for instance, has a long-standing association with the biblical tribe of Judah because of the story in Genesis wherein Jacob blesses his son Judah with the name “Young Lion”.29 Various biblical stories refer to the Tribe of Judah as the rulers of Jerusalem. This story accounts for much of the widespread usage of the lion as a heraldic symbol of royalty. The six lions depicted on a shield in the tomb of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou (1113-1151), founder of the House of Plantagenet, for example, are one of the earliest known usages of this symbol.30 Plantagenet’s adoption of the lion as a charge could be a reference to one of several mythic tales about lions, but experts believe it is also a reference to the biblical Lion of Judah. Geoffrey Plantagenet’s father, Fulk V of Anjou (1089-1143), had been King of Jerusalem after the First Crusade, and the lions were intended to celebrate this connection to the biblical land of Judah.
Of course, not every heraldic lion was chosen for its symbolic relationship to Jerusalem. The royal German families Staufen and Wittelsbach also had Lions as charges on their arms. These lions, however, referred instead to a legend about their ancestor Henry the Lion’s (1129-1195) friendship with a lion. Not only can heraldic symbols have inscrutable meanings—they can also have multiple meanings!
As we have seen, the original heraldic symbols were attached to an individual’s arms borne in combat—shield, helm, and so forth. These arms, and the bearing of them, became, over time, more a metaphor than a reality—a visual reference. Today, armorial bearings are collections of hereditary symbols passed down from one generation to the next. Each successive generation altered and developed their heraldry to express their identity and distinguish themselves from their forefathers and other family branches. As centuries passed, fairly simple coats of arms evolved into more elaborate variations: new symbols were added and old ones were changed. By tracing this evolution through your family’s history, it’s possible to tease out the meanings of these symbols and how they changed over time, and in the process to learn a great deal about your family.
Take for example the armorial bearings of the Seton family. COADB.com currently has twenty-nine different variations of this old Scottish family’s coat of arms in our database. Each of these represents a different family member or branch. Say you’ve traced your genealogy back to the Barns branch of the Seton family and you want to know more about what the symbols in this branch’s coat of arms stood for.
The blazon for this particular coat of arms (Fig. 1) is “or, a sword in pale azure, hiked and pommeled of the first, supporting an imperial crown between three crescents gules, all within a double treasure”. The most important symbols are therefore the sword with the crown, the three crescents, and the treasure with fleur-de-lis. By referring to COADB.com’s Heraldry Symbol Meaning Glossary with Images, you will learn that the crown may have been added to an existing coat of arms as an augmentation in recognition of some service to a King,31 that the sword may represent government and justice,32 that the crescents may stand for “honor by the sovereign” and “hope of greater glory”,33 that the treasure is considered to be an emblem of “preservation and protection”,34 and that the fleur-de-lis is associated with royalty.35 This is all interesting information. However, we’ll discover much more about the intended meaning of these symbols, by delving into the Seton family’s well-documented history.
The early version of the Seton coat of arms from the 13th century was simply an escutcheon of or, with three crescents of gules.36 Most of the Seton family historians agree that the three crescents are actually a reference to the three half-moon shaped bays that shaped their original lands in East Lothian.37 In the specific case of this family, the meaning of the crescent symbol therefore deviates from the assumed standard symbolic meaning. The sword, the crown and the treasure with fleur-de-lis also have a specific historical background. In the case of these, however, the meanings given in our glossary are relevant hints. The treasure with fleur-de-lis and the upright sword with the imperial crown and were both added to Sir Alexander de Seton arms by King Robert Bruce in the early 14th century. The former was granted as an ordinary in recognition of his royal maternal decent,38 and the latter, was granted as an augmentation in recognition of his services protecting the crown.39
The treasure that King Robert Bruce granted to Sir Alexander de Seton was passed on to succeeding generations as an ordinary. However, as an augmentation, the sword with the crown was not. The main branch of the Seton family’s coat of arms was simply the three crescents and with the treasure. So why did the Setons of Barns carry this particular symbol as an addition on their coat of arms? The answer to this question becomes apparent once we refer back to Sir Alexander’s history. On the occasion that Sir Alexander was granted this emblem he was also granted title over the lands of Barns.40 This is why the symbol is particularly relevant to the Setons of Barns and therefore incorporated in their coat of arms.
As the Seton family’s heraldry has shown us, the meanings of heraldry symbols can be very complicated. There are countless meanings that can be attributed to every symbol. Digging a little deeper into your family history can help you discover the intended meanings of these symbols. If you are curious about a particular symbol in a coat of arms, the best starting point is to research the evolution of the family heraldry. Focus on the family’s history around the time that symbol first came into use and you may uncover meanings that have been hidden for generations.
The development of heraldry as a rich and varied visual language means that the meanings attached to heraldic symbols aren’t always clear. In your own genealogical research, even if you are connected to an authentic coat of arms or heraldic achievement, it can be challenging to pin down specific meanings. However, given what we know about how heraldic symbols have changed and been transformed throughout history, this should not stop you from making educated guesses! Especially in an era when family crests are often created anew, the symbolism of traditional heraldic symbols can be a fun, ever-changing exercise in creating meaning.
1. See for example Grame Barker, The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why Did Foragers Become Farmers? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 177.
2. Jeremy Black, Eighteenth-Century Europe: 1700-89 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 99-100.
3. In Britain, this referred specifically to the Welsh and Scottish borders.
4. The word derives from the Anglo-Saxon “ealdorman.”
5. The descriptions of Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, and Baron are adapted from Debretts, the publisher of Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage; see debretts.com, accessed September 12, 2019.
6. See for example Frances Gies, The Knight in History (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011, reprint).
7. Patrick Hanks, Richard Coates, Peter McClure, The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), xii.
8. Patrick Hanks, Richard Coates, Peter McClure, The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), xvi.
9. Robert McKinley, A History of British Surnames (New York: Routledge, 1990, 2013), 8.
10. Joslin Fiennes, The Origins of English Surnames (Ramsbury: Crowood Press, 2015), chaps. 6-7.
11. McKinley, 73-75.
12. McKinley, 155-57.
13. “Heraldry and Vexillology,” Micheline’s Blog, https://michelinewalker.com/tag/the-bayeux-tapestry/, accessed on August 23, 2019.
14. A.C. Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry, 2007 edition (Skyhorse Publishing, 2007), 57.
15. “The Use and Abuse of the Coat of Arms and Crest,” GeneologyMagazine.com, https://www.genealogymagazine.com/the-use-and-abuse-of-the-coat-of-arms-and-crest/, accessed on September 1, 2019.
16. William Berry, County Geneologies: Pedigrees of the Families in the County of Sussex (London, 1830), 1; see also Charles Beauclerk, Nell Gwynn: Mistress to a King (Grove Press, 2006).
17. “The Law of Arms,” College of Arms, https://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/resources/the-law-of-arms, accessed September 2, 2019.
18. “The College of Arms in England,” Heraldry and Crests, https://www.heraldryandcrests.com/blogs/news/the-college-of-arms-in-england; see also https://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/.
19. Fox-Davies, A Complete Guard to Heraldry, 57-106; “Parts of a Coat of Arms,” Heraldry and Crests, https://www.heraldryandcrests.com/blogs/news/parts-of-a-coat-of-arms, accessed on August 25, 2019.
20. See “What is a coat of arms and what was it for?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zexpH6GCOh8; this excellent video provides a succinct breakdown of the history and elements of heraldry.
21. “The top 10 most common Irish family crests and what their mottos mean,” Irish Post, https://www.irishpost.com/life-style/top-10-common-irish-family-crests-mottos-mean-114640, accessed on August 25, 2019.
22. Sir Bernard Burke, A Geneological and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 1, 5th Edition (London, 1875), iii.
23. Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry (1909, 2007), 22.
24. A detailed primer can be found at http://www.internationalheraldry.com/. Modern heraldic systems were largely created in the nineteenth century, and many of these texts are still relevant (Davies Complete Guide to Heraldry is a good example).
25. For an extensive list of family mottos, see https://www.heraldryclipart.com/mottoes.html.
26. For more about the distinction between a “family crest” and a “coat of arms,” see for example “The Real Truth Behind Coats of Arms and Family Crests,” https://ancestralfindings.com/real-truth-behind-coats-arms-family-crests/, accessed on October 18, 2019.
27. Quoted in William Sloane Sloane-Evans, A Grammar of British Heraldry, Consisting of Blazing and Marshalling (London, 1854), 24.
28. “International Heraldry and Heralds,” http://www.internationalheraldry.com/, accessed October 17, 2019.
29. Genesis 49:9
30. Arthur Charles Fox Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry (London: T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1909) 62.
31. J.P. Brooke-Little, Boutell’s Heraldry, revised ed. (London: Warne, 1970) 187.
32. Wade, The symbolisms of heraldry : or, A treatise on the meanings and derivations of armorial bearings 110.
33. Ibid., 106.
34. Ibid., 51.
35. Brooke-Little, Boutell’s Heraldry 3.
36. Bruce Gordon Seton, The House of Seton. A study of lost causes. (Edinburgh, 1939) 53.
37. Alexander Nisbet, A System of Heraldry, Speculative and Practical, with the True Art of Blazon, According to the Most Approved Heralds in Europe: Illustrated with Suitable Examples of Armoria Figures, and Achievements of the Most Considerable Surnames and Families in Scotl (Toronto: Robarts, 1816) 231.
38. Seton, The Law and Practice of Heraldry in Scotland 449.
39. Seton, The House of Seton. A study of lost causes. 94.
What is a blazon?
“Blazon” has very specific meanings in heraldry as both a noun and a verb. A blazon is the official—verbal—description of a coat of arms. To blazon—the verb—means to create such a description. By implication, the formal blazon is the purest description of heraldry, meant to provide enough information verbally that the visual image can be entirely reconstructed. One early authority described the history of blazoning fancifully:
The cause why that these phantasticall blazonnes were invented was this: At the first, Arms were blazed by the plaine and rude termes of colors; but when, as it had growne to some better perfection, blazoners added unto every color…the names of Planets and Precious Gemes, therein following the ancient Chaldees…For other Paynims (cheefly the Greekes) worshipping for their Gods the monthes and seasons of the yeare, the elementes, the twelve signes, numbers, flowers, mettailes, &c, caused some heralds to describe the seven perfect colors by the names of the like things.27
How does a blazon actually read? A recent example is the blazon for the coat of arms of Kate Middleton : “Per pale Azure and Gules a Chevron Or cotised Argent between three Acorns slipped and leaved Or.”28
What is genealogy? Why do it? What is a family tree? What are other terms for a family tree?
As we have seen, genealogy is not the same thing as heraldry. In fact, in an important sense, when strictly defined the two are almost opposites: genealogy is the study of one’s family and ancestry, while heraldry (historically, at least) was much more meant to distinguish the individual. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the two terms met somewhere in the middle, so that heraldic symbols have become objects of fascination for budding genealogists.
But genealogy is much more than heraldry. The motivations for genealogical research are many and varied, and establishing an elite pedigree (as heraldic achievements are partly intended to do) is probably the least important. Certainly, in countries still ruled (in actuality or by custom) by royalty, that pedigree is crucial—the motivation for genealogy in those cases is to claim the right to rule. Much more fundamentally, however, genealogy is about claiming an identity—not a specific royal identity, but an identity that tells the world something unique about a family.
Genealogy can link us as individuals and modern nuclear families to, for example, ethnic identities, like the discovery of roots in a specific Irish county. It can link us to the intense pride associated with escaping bondage, as it does for African-Americans researching the struggle of their enslaved ancestors. It can link us to national identities, as it might for someone who discovers a lineage going back to the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, or to an ancestor who fought in the American Revolution.
The end result of a journey in genealogical research might be a family crest—a link to a historical coat of arms or a newly created family symbol. More often it is a family tree—a graphical representation of ancestry that can highlight family achievements or the antiquity of a family line. “Family tree” is the popular name for an ancestry (or pedigree) chart, which can take many forms. The most familiar has the oldest known ancestors at the top, with the family spreading out towards the bottom of the page, but the chart can also start at the bottom and grow from there. In fact this format, which more closely resembles an actual tree, is common in Germany, where it is called an Ahnentafel (see image). Historical examples of family trees highlight the links between genealogy and heraldry; for example, in the tree of an Ahnentafel surrounded and highlighted by heraldic escutcheons.
What is a family crest? What is the difference between a coat of arms and a family crest?
Fascination with heraldry and coats of arms has exploded in the 21st century along with interest in genealogy. The chance of discovering a connection to an ancient family line, represented by colorful and elaborate coats of arms, is an irresistible lure to many beginning genealogists, and spurious “family crests” with dubious historical roots abound in an often unscrupulous industry.
You should be careful, therefore, to distinguish between the historical coat of arms, with its highly specific meaning rooted in British or continental European history and medieval culture, and the modern term “family crest,” which has a much broader and more expansive meaning. For one thing, the “crest” in family crest is misleading. If you have read this FAQ carefully you know that the “crest” is just one element of a heraldic achievement—specifically, the visual representation of helmet, torse, and mantling that surmounts the escutcheon in a coat of arms.
For another, our modern assumption that a “family crest”—elided with a “coat of arms”—stands for an entire family or branch of a family is a bit of a misnomer. Recognize that, through most of history until recently, a coat of arms was unique to an individual. Originally, as you know, it was a way to recognize that individual—a knight—on the field of battle. Even with the end of the medieval period and its culture of chivalry, the coat of arms remained tied to individuals. But over time, elements of a heraldic achievement began a slow shift as powerful families wished to cement their status, and certain heraldic elements began to be passed down from father to son or daughter—first, under primogeniture, to the eldest son, then more broadly to all of a family’s children. By the 20th century, then, specific coats of arms, or at least elements of them, had become associated with specific family names.26
What does this mean for you, the modern genealogist searching for links to the past? Well, it means that definitions change—and we should celebrate that change! In fact, there is nothing wrong with building a family crest, even if it is assembled entirely anew, as long as we understand the difference between the modern version and historical heraldry. There is no reason for modern families, especially when they are proud of their middle- and working-class roots, to be bound by the ancient and intricate rules of the British peerage. Heraldry can and should be but one landmark in the journey of discovery that is genealogy.
What are the different parts of a coat of arms?
A modern coat of arms is a symbolic assertion of membership in an ancient line of descent. As one commentator has noted, it is “the method, which society has countenanced, of advertising to the world that one is of the upper class or a descendant of some ancestor who performed some glorious deed to which the arms have reference.”23 As such, each element of the coat of arms is laden with meaning; each symbolizes some family achievement, claim, or story.
Moreover, because of the history of the coat of arms itself—descended as it is from the actual armor and other accouterments of medieval knights—each element represents what in the past was a piece of physical equipment. A full coat of arms consists of many such elements. Put together, they represent a heraldic achievement—the historical glory of a renowned family. Technically, the coat of arms itself is just the central element of the heraldic achievement—the shield itself (historically, a knight’s actual, decorated shield during a joust). Today, “coat of arms” usually refers to all or most of the elements of the complete heraldic achievement. From top to bottom, these elements are:24
The slogan is specifically part of the history of Scottish heraldry (the word comes from the Scottish-Gaelic sluagh-ghairm—“army cry”). Heraldic experts consider it a secondary motto (see below), but it is, quite literally, a battle cry. A famous example appears on the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom: “God and my right” (“dieu at mon droit”).
The helm contains the crest, torse, and wreath, along with the shield or escutcheon, the helm is the most obviously tangible, physical element of the heraldic achievement. Originally, it was the actual helmet worn by a knight. The crest developed as a decoration on top of the helmet that could identify the knight in joust or battle, and it made its way into heraldic design. It is often fantastical in design, featuring stylized animals or birds’ wings. The torse was a wreath of cloth worn atop the helm and below the crest (see image); it has also become a decorative element of the coat of arms.
In heraldic achievement, the mantling decorates the area around the helm. It can be intricate, but its twists and curlicues all have a specific intent as a family identifier. The colors, divisions, and lining of the mantling can take many variations, all of them associated with particular families. In history, the mantling was an actual drapery around the helm, intended to shield the wearer from rain, wind, and snow, and help cushion the head from blows in battle.
This is an uncommon element of a heraldic design, restricted to use by royal (crown) or noble (coronet) households. Its purpose is obvious: to identify the bearer as royalty or nobility. Like helms or shields, it was originally a physical crown or circlet that identified the bearer as such during battle.
Supporters of the elements of a heraldic achievement, the supporters are the most symbolic and least historical. They rose to prominence only in the 15th century and didn’t become common until two centuries after that. The supporters are figures supporting the escutcheon; they are usually animals (real or fanciful) or other depictions of real-world objects, often with local significance. For example, in the heraldic device granted to the Cornwall County Council the supporters are a fisherman and a tin miner, representing important industries of that part of England.
This is the device upon which the coat of arms is painted. It is the central and most prominent element of a heraldic achievement. In medieval combats or jousts, it was likely the single most easily identifiable symbol of a particular individual. Coats of arms vary from person to person; they have often historically been collected into armorials—reference guides to coats of arms produced for specific people, places, or events (like a specific jousting tournament, for example).
The motto lies at the bottom of the heraldic achievement; it summarizes a family’s motivation and reason for being. The motto is a succinct expression that encapsulates a family’s history, often stemming from the family’s social origins or hinting at significant events that determined its course. The majority of mottos are written in Latin (where the word has its origin), but some are in languages that hold meaning for the family or organization. Many also have religious significance: for example, the motto of the family Abercromby is “In cruce salus”—“in the cross is salvation.”25
What is a coat of arms? Why was it used? Who owned them? When?
Imagine you’re a warrior in eleventh- or twelfth-century Europe (the High Middle Ages). You have some wealth—perhaps frangible wealth like gold or jewels from local wars and raids, or maybe an estate granted you by a higher noble or monarch—and you might even belong to a noble house. But all around you, the technology of warfare is changing. More and more, you and your fellow warriors are sheathing yourselves in helmets with faceguards, long coats of chainmail, perhaps even plate armor. And you guard yourself with a large shield; an oval or, more likely, a kite-shaped shield. But as an elite warrior, it is critically important that you be able to demonstrate to your fellows your prowess on the battlefield.
This presents a problem. If you are increasingly covered with armor, how will anyone know when you engage in some act of martial valor? The answer is that you identify yourself by emblazoning your shield or other clothing with a distinctive symbol or symbols so that everyone knows who you are. This linkage between the heroic act and the person doing it is a millennium old and still going strong: the colorful uniforms and helmets worn by football players are simply a modern version of this kind of identification—what historians call a coat of arms.
The oldest evidence of coats of arms comes from one of the world’s most famous art objects: the Bayeux Tapestry, commemorating the victorious invasion of England by William the Conqueror and his Norman forces. The tapestry shows figures with distinctive symbols on shields and surcoats—a kind of sleeveless coat worn over armor—that were intended to allow those who wore them to be identified by anyone. Within a couple of generations, and as the culture of knighthood spread across Europe, these rudimentary symbols had blossomed into heraldry, the elaborate system of images, words, and symbols that marked member of the nobility and their houses. Coats of arms live on today, amongst European aristocrats, organizations, businesses, sports teams, and many modern families. You yourself might have a name that has a coat of arms attached to it!
In medieval Europe, an era of illiteracy, it benefited the elite to have an individual “bold, striking, and simple design,” one that distinguished them from their fellows.13 This allowed them to trumpet their own deeds and, if worse came to worse, be identifiable to heralds on a battlefield, searching amongst the casualties. Over time, these designs became complex and intricate, comprising what experts today call a “heraldic achievement”—the entirety of all the heraldic elements that the bearer of a coat of arms is entitled to. The “coat” is likely an ancient reference to the aforementioned surcoat, which came to replicate the heraldic symbols displayed on the shield.14
The first coats of arms were created out of whole cloth: that is, they were claimed and invented by knights and nobles who wanted their distinction and a visual edge. During their medieval heyday, coats of arms were as likely to be invented as to be granted by royal authority. However, as time passed European systems of heraldry were extended, elaborated, and formalized, and the grant of a coat of arms became a key symbolic passing of authority from liege to vassal. Over time, the granting of noble titles and their attendant heraldic achievements became the prerogative of kings and their heralds. In England, the process was fully formalized with the creation of the College of Heralds in 1483.15 Peers (nobles) were created by letters of patent granted by the king; one such grant, for example, occurred in 1683, when a teenager named Charles Beauclerk was created 1st Duke of St. Albans by Charles II. Although Beauclerk had already been titled Earl of Buford, the new patent gave him additional legitimacy—which he needed, since he was the king’s illegitimate son by his famous mistress, Nell Gwynn!16
The English monarchy tightened its grip over the system of heraldry starting in 1417, when, during the Hundred Years’ War, King Henry V ordered his country Sheriffs to forbid men departing on an upcoming expedition to France to bear a coat of arms unless it was by hereditary right. Thus coats of arms became part of the rights of primogeniture, a system by which estates and titles are handed down in the male line via the firstborn son. This system codified the rules of inheritance. If the firstborn son died, the estate (including, perhaps, an individual coat of arms) would pass to a younger son, daughter, or even a brother if there was no surviving child. Today, the College of Arms in London maintains intricate rule based on hereditary inheritance for who can claim a coat of arms and what it can contain. For example, a woman desiring to bear a coat of arms must keep in mind that:
She may not use a crest, which is considered a male attribute.
When unmarried, she displays her arms on a lozenge (a diamond shape) or an oval. A shield has traditionally been seen as a war-like device appropriate to a man. When married, a woman may unite her arms with those of her husband in what are called marital arms; their arms are impaled, meaning placed side by side in the same shield, with those of the man on the dexter and those of his wife on the sinister.17
The coat of arms consists of a number of heraldic elements that were elaborated during the High Middle Ages and applied to aristocratic families all across Europe, with distinctive differences across countries. In most countries, coats of arms survive today as a cultural convention but have no official or legal status. The exception is in The United Kingdom, where a formal noble estate and its elaborate heraldry survive to this day, regulated by the College of Arms headquartered in London.18 It is British heraldry that, thanks to immigration, is the best-known and most applicable to American families.
The central image and focal point of most coats of arms is the shield, called the “escutcheon” in heraldry. The shield, and the field that forms the visual elements on the shield, can have a dizzying array of repeating symbols, images, lines, patterns, and colors. These elements are not there by chance; each has a particular meaning handed down over centuries. For example, something seemingly as simple as the lines that divide the shield into several parts often has an ancient meaning. A chevron (a peaked line—party per chevron) dividing the shield into two sections might originally have referred to an alliance between two families—including potentially an intermarriage—or perhaps the holding of a particular office. Images on the shield, whether singular or repeated, are similarly rich with meaning (think of the fleur de lis, symbol of the royal house of Bourbon in pre-Republican France).19
Prominent on most coats of arms is the crest, above the shield elements and the helm. The crest is historically significant; it is a representation of actual crests on medieval helms, used by knights in tournament jousting as another means of identifying each other.20 Many coats of arms contain either a motto (at the top) or slogan (at the bottom), or both. These mottos provide distinction and color to the heraldic device, and can be meaningful for those wishing to adopt a family coat of arms. For example, the mottos for some common Irish names speak to their original bearers’ loyalty, faith, and bravery: the motto for the Kelly family translates to “God is my tower;” the Byrnes boast that “I have fought and conquered;” while the Ryan family motto insists that “I would rather die than be disgraced.”21 Such thrilling mottos are associated with many common American names today.
Over time, coats of arms spread beyond European nobility, even in countries like England where the use of coats of arms was strictly regulated. The most significant spread was amongst the British landed gentry, an informal designation which in effect described the land-owning class who were not officially members of the peerage (in other words, they were not officially nobles). In plain terms, if you made your living off the proceeds of land you owned (including rents), instead of relying on someone else for your living, you were a member of the landed gentry. You were also, more likely than not, wealthy and at least locally influential, and with influence came the desire for visible marks of that influence.
The increasing power of the landed gentry linked them to the system of heraldry, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, when publishers released popular books, often called “Baronetages,” detailing non-noble lineal descents and even coats of arms. The most famous and influential of these books was familiarly called Burke’s Landed Gentry; first published in 1830, it continued in many editions until 1972 and detailed the arms of Britain’s elite beyond the peerage. As to the official status of the arms he described, Burke simply said, “with respect to the Arms attached to the memoirs of English and Scotch families, it is to be understood that those Arms are the heraldic bearings actually in use; whether or not derived from proper authority, I do not pretend to decide.”22 Eventually, the gentry encompassed the successful, influential, and famous in many fields—in other words, the elite—and titles and coats of arms followed in due course. Thus a scientist like Isaac Newton could be knighted (in 1705, by Queen Anne) and become Sir Isaac Newton. This practice continues today for people of notable achievements in politics, the military, the arts, and more.
The Origins of Surnames
A thousand years ago, if you lived in Europe you probably had just one name—you were John, or Jean, or Johann. However, to tell you apart from the other Johns, you also might have had a byname—or even more than one. A byname identified you as an individual, but didn’t necessarily refer to your family. It was just a way of distinguishing you from other people in you town or village. In this way, you might be called John the Smith, or John who lives by the brook, or John of the red hat, or short John, or any of countless variations.7
After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, English people began to attach second names to their given names in a different way. Interestingly, this practice began with the Anglo-French nobility of the Norman conquerors, as they were granted new lands in England by William the Conqueror. In order to distinguish themselves and their power base, these Norman barons (and some of their followers) began to assume surnames (or family names) based on nicknames, offices of state, ancestors, or—most common—from a place where they held land. Most of these names had a French linguistic antecedent. Thus, Marshall (from “mareschal,” an official in charge of a noble household), or Bertram (from an old French name “Bertran”), or Percy (from several different place names in Normandy).8
Over time, this practice of adding surnames to given names spread downwards from the nobility to all social classes. Along the way, it subsumed the practice of giving bynames and became a way to identify members of a single family and their descendants through generations. This is the origin of today’s common surnames, not just in the United Kingdom but in many countries the world over.
Linguists have organized surname origins into four broad categories: surnames derived from an ancestor or relative’s given name (patronymics), surnames derived from an occupation, surnames derived from local place names (toponymics), and surnames derived from nicknames. The use of common surnames ebbed and flowed in various places over the centuries. Between 1200 and 1350, many common surnames disappeared throughout Europe as the bubonic plague ravaged the continent. At other times, as populations increased through natural increase and immigration sagged, locally-specific surnames proliferated.9 And in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many common European surnames were brought to America—and transformed—through immigration.
The first and most common kind of surname, the patronymic (despite its name) can include surnames based on a father’s name, an old family name, a mother’s name (a matronymic), or even a clan name. The latter is a common Irish and Scottish surname formation: O’Brien, for example, meaning “of the clan O’Brien.” Surnames based on first names are many and various. Anglo-American examples include “Williams” (William), “Jones” (the Welsh version of John), and Jackson (for “son of Jack”). This kind of formation is common in many countries: “Wilhelm” in Germany, for example, is equivalent to the English “Williams.” In Scandinavian countries, especially Iceland, patronymics are so common as to be ubiquitous, giving us familiar formations like “Andersen/Anderson,” “Hansen,” and “Johansen.”
Some names of this sort were derived from feudal relationships or even literary antecedents. Scholars believe many such names were also attempts to maintain ancient linguistic traditions in the face of conquest or decline; as people maintained, for example, names with Anglo-Saxon origins after the Norman conquest. Examples include: “Gerard” (from the literary “Song of Roland”), Duncan (with roots in Old Irish/Gaelic), and many, many saints names in the Romance languages of Southern and Western Europe.10
- Occupational Names
If your last name is Smith, you have an occupational surname; somewhere in your past, your forebears were, well, smiths (that is, blacksmiths). If he was a German blacksmith, you might be a “Schmidt,” instead. If your ancestor’s was hammering out horseshoes in France, you might be a “Lefevre,” while if the smithing happened south of the Alps, you could be a “Ferraro” or a “Fabri.” As medieval people throughout Europe gave themselves bynames as a way to claim a certain identity, they were sowing the seeds of the family names of generations to come.
Occupational names come in many shapes, sizes, and languages. In English, they range from the obvious (“Baker”—from…a baker) to the obscure. Many of our most familiar English (and American) names derive from occupations that are obsolescent or don’t exist at all anymore. Some examples of occupational names include:
⦁ Chandler (a candle maker)
⦁ Dyer (literally, from cloth dying)
⦁ Fletcher (a fletcher made arrows)
⦁ Hawkins (descended from “hawker,” someone engaged in falconry)
⦁ Parker (a gamekeeper)
⦁ Reeve (a reeve was a low-level official who oversaw peasants’ work on a manorial estate)
⦁ Thatcher (someone who thatched roofs)
⦁ Walker (derived from the German for “fuller”—a cloth worker; “Fuller” is also a common surname)
Surnames based on place names sometimes have the most obvious origins, regardless of the language. If your last name is “London,” you have a pretty clear idea where to begin looking for your ancestors: likewise “Bialystok” if you have Polish roots, or “Lisboa” if you ancestors came from Portugal. But toponymics don’t derive just from large population centers. More commonly, they referred to a family’s town or village, or even to a specific hill, stream, farmstead, or other physical feature of the landscape. If you are a: Hill, Brooke, Marsh, Wood or Bywater, or a Fielder, Brookman, or Moorman, one of your ancestors wanted to identify themselves with a feature of the local natural landscape. Likewise, if your family name is Church or Kirk, your ancestor had something to do with the local house of worship, or some other building or business (Stonehouse, Bridgeman, Stabler, and so forth). Toponymic names are less common than they once were, although we can say they are often locally numerous: people in localized areas (especially ones that experienced comparatively little immigration) tended to name themselves after every local landmark, building, or hamlet.11
Less common than the other three categories but more colorful, some surnames are derived from descriptions of physical features, individual characteristics, sometimes even epithets. Some of these are easily understand: Long, Short, Beard, Little, and so on. Others are more obscure. For example, the category of Anglo-Norman (i.e. English words derived from French) surnames includes such choice examples as: Cruikshanks (“crooked shanks”—someone who is bowlegged), Belgian (from, surprisingly, “beljamb,” meaning “fine leg”), Scripps (“curly-haired”), and Giffard (“fat cheeks”).12 Many surnames based on nicknames originally verged on insulting—or were outright insults—but their bearers took ownership of them over the years. European Jews were a notable example: often saddled with condescending or insulting surnames forced on them by anti-Semitic authorities, they transformed their names into new forms or, upon migration to Israel following the Second World War, took Israeli names.
Ranks, Powers, and Privileges of Nobility
The origins of nobility go back to the arrangement of societies from millennia past—those social hierarchies in the ancient world that resulted from the shift from hunting and gathering to agricultural societies. As more and more people were freed from the necessity to forage for food, different social roles and thus ranks sprang up. 1 But our heritage of nobility arose much later in history—in the hierarchies of rank of medieval Europe—and worked in two ways: the idea of nobility inherited by blood, and nobility as a legal privilege. Noble blood has determined the culture of nobility for centuries; the conference of legal privileges based on nobility survives to the present in the highly structured peerage of Britain. The British example forms most people’s popular ideal of what it means to be noble.
Nobility has historically described both elevated social status, transmitted by blood, and, more specifically, special social rank conferred by a monarch. By custom, nobility is hereditary—thus, its elite social status and the social responsibilities attendant on nobility are passed down from generation to generation. In European culture, these responsibilities have been called noblesse oblige (“nobility obliges”). Deriving from the culture of chivalry, noblesse oblige requires nobles to behave honorably, demonstrate generosity, defend those beholden to them, serve their monarch, and act as military or political leaders. At the same time, such responsibilities can act as justifications for the privileges of wealth or status.
Noble status—a noble’s relative rank—depended largely on political influence, the important of the noble title, and, often, how old the title was. As such, wealth—even land ownership—was a secondary determinant of nobility throughout Europe. The continent was full of landless nobles, sometimes called the “slippered nobility,” that had little wealth or influence apart from their membership in elite society. In early modern Europe, especially after the industrial revolution got underway in the mid-18th century, the notion of wealth became an increasingly fraught point of contention between different parts of society, as wealthy commoners increasingly challenged the nobility for status and influence. For example, the English landed gentry, many of whom were commoners, exercised ever more dominance over British policy and society.2
The ranks and titles of nobility multiplied in wild profusion throughout the continent: from Electors, Counts, and Margraves, down to various forms of knights and other lesser nobility. However, throughout most of Europe and the rest of the world, nobility no longer has any specific legal status. The exception is in England, where the peerage retains some of its traditional rights (including a seat in the House of Lords—although this changed in 1999 when an Act of Parliament began the process of removing hereditary peers from their traditional seats in the British Upper House) and responsibilities. The ranks of British titled nobility are roughly equivalent to similar ranks that have existed throughout history, and thus deserve a closer look.
Peers of the Realm
Duke is traditionally the highest rank of the British peerage; some Ducal titles are by tradition bestowed on members of the royal family. “Duke” derives from the Latin “dux” (“leader”). It was originally a sovereign title; that is, a duke did not owe fealty to a monarch (the most well-known example was William the Conqueror, who as Duke of Normandy successfully invaded England in 1066). Traditionally, a new duke was created by a ceremony in which the kind fastened a sword to a ceremonial belt (a cincture); this was replaced in the early 17th century by the conferring of the title through letters patent. Today, dukes—especially the royal dukes (such as the Dukes of Gloucester and Kent)—occupy rarified air at the top of the British noble and social hierarchies.
The title of Marquess originally had a geographical meaning: it was a Norman word (“marchio”) for a noble who was responsible for guarding a border territory—a “march.” This somewhat-archaic usage of the word “march”3 survives today, but the noble title evolved into various forms throughout Europe: Marquess, Margrave, Markgraf. The title of Marquess first appeared in England in 1385, when King Richard II conferred the title of Marquess of Dublin on Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford (a single individual can hold multiple noble titles). The title of Marquess was unpopular in Britain for centuries; it was perceived to challenge the precedence of the English Earls. Today, there are just 34 Marquesses in the British peerage.
“Earl” is a title central to British nobility. Like Marquess, it has a geographical significance; an Earl was tasked with overseeing a specific shire (a state or territory) in fief to the king.4 After the Norman Conquest, Earldoms became hereditary and lost some of their specific land-based responsibilities. Today, there are close to two hundred earls in the British peerage; the preeminent earldom is the Earl of Shrewsbury and Waterford, dating from 1442.
The title of Viscount originated as a specific political role in the Holy Roman Empire (the monarchical forerunner of the German Empire) in the 10th century: the “vice-comes” was the deputy of a count. The first English Viscount was John Lord Beaumont, Viscount Beaumont in both France and England; the title was created by Henry VI in 1440 as part of a project to consolidate power in both countries during the Hundred Years’ War. There are currently over one hundred Viscounts in the British peerage.
Perhaps the most venerable of noble titles, and certainly the most widespread, “baron” derives from the Latin for “man.” It referred simply to a “king’s man’—in other words, a land-holding member of the aristocracy beholden to the king. In medieval England it was customary for the barons to receive a writ from the King summoning them to Parliament; over time, the issuance of these writs became expected from generation to generation and thus the barons became part of the hereditary nobility. The first formal Baron invested through letters patent by the King was John Beauchamp de Holt (Baron Kidderminster) in 1387. There are more than 400 Barons in the British peerage today.5
Lesser Noble Titles
Like titles in the peerage, a baronetcy is an inherited title—just not part of the official peerage. A Baronet (or Baronetess) is awarded his or her title by the British monarch; the first one was created in the 14th century. One way to understand the dividing line between peers and lesser nobles is that the latter, like a baronetcy, has few or no rights, privileges, or responsibilities—it is purely an honorary title. In fact, in 1611 James I famously used the awarding of baronetcies as a fundraising method. There are about 2,000 families in Britain that constitute the Official Role of the Baronetage, and the title has no direct continental equivalent.
The title of “Esquire” can be confusing, especially to Americans. In modern American usage, it sole (and very specific) use is as an honorific for lawyers. In the U.K., it is still sometimes used in a more general formal sense, to identify a man in a formal or professional context. As a title denoting social rank, “Esquire” is defunct. Historically—especially after the rise of the landed gentry in 17th-18th century England—it referred to a specific social rank above the landed gentry and below the rank of knight.
Finally, a word about knights. Often considered a part of the minor nobility, a knight is not officially part of the peerage in Britain. Yet the knight, a rank and title springing from the culture of medieval warfare and chivalry, is perhaps the wellspring of systems of nobility. The knight was not necessarily a landed title, nor a hereditary title, but was instead a status conferred on trusted warriors by a royal personage—a king, duke, emperor, and so forth. Knights were the source of European aristocracy. You may consider, for example, a Baron to be a knightly title that has, in the course of time, become a hereditary title that is part of the peerage.6
- Other European Titles for the Lesser Nobility
The wild profusion of minor noble titles throughout Europe represents the crazy-quilt patchwork of kingdoms that Europe was, historically, divided into before the 19th-century advent of the nation-state. This was especially true of German-speaking kingdoms; before German unification and the coaslescing of a German nation in the 1860s and 1870s, German titles of nobility were too numerous to count. In fact, in most cases the title wasn’t even that important: the most important signifier of German nobility was the ennobling “von” that the person was permitted to add to their name (viz., Otto von Bismarck, architect of German unification).
In German-speaking kingdoms, as in England, nobility was conferred by royalty—the Emperor, Kaiser, Elector, Margrave, Landgrave, Duke, or whoever it was (it depended on which of the many, many German-speaking kings and princes was doing the ennobling). Minor German nobles didn’t have specific titles like English baronets or knights; rather, it was the “von” that was the crucial signifier. There was one other important honorific, however: “Junker” (“Jonkheer” in Dutch), which translated to “young nobleman,” “young lord”).
Throughout Europe, noble titles reflected the needs of royal or imperial rule; the detailed and strict British version was just one way to denote nobility. For example, the French developed titles that reflected the centrality of the Catholic Church to France (the “vidam,” an ecclesiastic title denoting a bishop’s assistant), and the importance of landowning in French aristocracy (the “vavasour” and “seigneur” or “lord of the manor,” both landowners in the feudal hierarchy). There were many such titles of lesser nobility on the Continent were rooted in the landowning—and hereditary—past even into the 19th and 20th century (like the Polish “Skartabel”). Other titles were honorary, like the Italian “Nobile” (loosely equivalent to the British Esquire) or Scottish “Laird,” or reflected bureaucratic or military success, like the Austro-Hungarian “Edler” (usually awarded to soldiers and civil servants by the Habsburg Emperors).
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