The History of the Heralds
In the early middle ages, not only the Sovereign but also some of the nobility employed heralds and it was an ancient custom to give them whimsical titles. The career structure for someone wanting to be a herald was first to be employed as a pursuivant of arms (literally a 'candidate' but here used as 'an apprentice') in a noble household. Thereafter, having learned his business he would essay to become a herald proper, if possible a royal herald of arms and then, he would hope to reach the top of the profession, a royal king of heralds of arms, usually called a 'King of Arms.' To avoid the confusion which can be caused by the term 'herald' being both generic as well as particular to the middle rank, the expression 'officer of arms' is often used to describe all three degrees.
Towards the end of the 15th century the nobility ceased to employ private heralds, thus only the royal heralds were left. They acted as a tightly knit group within the Royal Household, and in 1484, King Richard III granted his heralds a Charter of Incorporation and a house in London in which to live and to keep their records in safety and as the property of the corporation, rather than of individual heralds. This corporation was known as the Heralds' College, or the College of Arms, the preferred name today.
Unfortunately, when King Henry VII defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, the heralds lost their house and probably their incorporation as well; however, they continued to act as a corporation until they received a new home and Charter from King Philip and Queen Mary in 1555. The present College of Arms, rebuilt after the Fire of London in 1666, still stands on the land granted to the officers in the 16th century.
The heralds were incorporated by the titles of their offices and the successors to these offices in perpetuity. Thus the present officers of arms hold the same title as those of their predecessors, namely: Bluemantle, Rouge Croix, Rouge Dragon and Portcullis Pursuivants; Cester, Windsor, Lancaster, Somerset, Richmond and York Heralds; and Norroy and Ulster, Clarenceux and Garter Kings of Arms.
The officers form the Chapter of the College, which is the governing body. All officers are members of the Royal Household and are the custodians and interpreters of the official heraldic records; all are in private practice advising on all matters concerning heraldry, genealogy, ceremony, precedence and the like and charge professional fees for their services. The heralds and pursuivants act as agents for the Kings of Arms if approached about a grant of arms, as the kings alone are empowered to grant arms.
As will have been noted, the kings of arms differ from their brethren inasmuch as they actually grant arms. Norroy and Ulster has jurisdiction north of the River Trent and in Northern Ireland, and Clarenceux south of the Trent. Garter has no territorial jurisdiction, but he is the Chairman of the Chapter and the Principal Herald of England. He countersigns all grants of arms.
Heraldic Health Warning
It will be apparent from what has been written that for a person to establish a right to an English coat of arms, he or she must have a direct, legitimate, proven descent in the male line from someone to whom arms have been granted or allowed by the kings of arms. This being so, the commercial firms who contract to sent you 'an authentic copy of your coat of arms', or being more legally devious, 'a coat of arms associated with your surname', not having details of your descent, cannot possible send you a coat of arms which is authentically yours. They simply look through about four well know books listing arms, both genuine and bogus. This process is described in their advertisements as 'carefully researched' and they then send you one at random; usually the simplest to reproduce, or that which has noble connections. Sadly, it is a con, or a trick which has been used on well-meaning, ignorant, or uncritically vainglorious and self-deceptive suckers since the 17th century.
Those who want to know more about heraldry can write to:
The Heraldry Society
44/45 Museum Street
London, England WC1A 1LY
The secretary will be pleased to send details and, on request, a list of books and pamphlets for sale. The Society is an educational charity and much of its work is geared to helping teachers and young students.
Serious inquiries about genealogical research and heraldic matters should be addressed to:
College of Arms
Queen Victoria Street
London, England EC4V 4BT.
Text by John P.B. Brooke-Little, Norroy and Ulster King of Arms
Illustrations: Vicki Wallace
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