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Has anyone found someone armigerous on the tree? Anyone struggling to learn about marks of cadency, quartering shields, and all that? Got any books you'd recommend?
Those stores (and web sites) are indeed a rip-off. There's no such thing as "the Lee family crest" or the "myshelves family coat of arms." Arms are granted to individuals (who don't have to be Lords or Dukes), and under the terms of the grant and the laws of heraldry, may be displayed by their direct descendants. Having the same surname doesn't cut any ice. :-)
(My cousin gave me "the coat of arms" for our (common as dirt) surname. I wouldn't part with it --- I get a good laugh every time I see it. Some day it would be interesting to find out to whom (if anyone) it was granted.)
I'm not entitled to any arms, but some of my ancestors and their relatives were. (I'm always in a female line for these things. Sigh.) Apparently there was even a coat of arms in my Van Keuren line in NN. I've heard that the rules in the Netherlands were less strict, and that people could just adopt arms. Anyone know about that?
Totally agree with what you say - in fact would go further and say that most (in England) armigerous families are not dukes, earls, barons, or otherwise members of the peerage. On the other hand I use the 'Greenhalgh' arms on my website (as a 'home' button) and have a print on my pinboard. My head is still on my shoulders. Perhaps my survival is because it seems fairly certain that that the Greenhalgh line entitled to the arms has died out and aren't in a position to complain.
And another objection to those that sell 'family coats-of-arms' (mounted on an oak plaque etc) is that some family names have several coats to their credit because several individuals with the name have been honoured with a grant of arms (not that the name proves a family relationship).
Living as I do now in Inverness (Scotland) there is an industry in tartans and the clans. Equally bogus but just as profitable.
As you suggest a lot of this is good fun as long as it's not taken too seriously. And although our leader is having problems with his sale of peerages you can quite legally buy a coat-of-arms. And I expect a lot of 'dirty work' was involved in historic grants.
I thought that the Scots were still likely to lop off heads --- or impose fines --- over the use of arms. :-) Tartans and clans are big everywhere. As you say, all this stuff is fun. The bad part is when people are taken in, and spend money to get "their" coat of arms or clan regalia, or for the infamous "Family Book of ____."
As I'm in the USA, I could probably paint arms on the door of my car without breaking any laws. :-) I'd certainly show arms to which an ancestor was entitled on a genealogy site, even if someone else now has the legal right to them by male descent.
According to some things I've read, a lot of dirty work was indeed involved in historical and not-so-historical grants. I have a copy of an 1815 grant, to a distant cousin, in which the Deputy Ulster King at Arms explicitly accepts a "family tradition" of descent from the Earls of Northumberland. And there sits the Northumberland lion, clutching a shamrock! The mind boggles. I wonder how much he paid for that! (I do so want Hotspur as an ancestor; he has my favorite line in Shakespeare. But my standards of proof are a bit more strict than that Herald's! )
As for sales, there seems to have been a mass sale of baronetcies back in the late 17th century. The Crown needed money. Some of my rellies, and at least one ancestor, snagged one while they were on offer. Nothing new in the idea.
You can certainly buy arms today. Supposed to have accomplished something or distinguished yourself to qualify, but having enough money to afford it seems to be enough evidence of accomplishment. :-) I once wrote to the office in Dublin to inquire about some unusual wording in an old grant. My answer was, in effect, "Never mind; you can't display it. But we'll be glad to sell you your very own." No doubt. :-)
Google Books is one of my favorite new sources for genealogy. I've found some amazing things.(See the "Hot off the press" thread.) I have to keep reminding myself to run searches frequently, as they are always adding books.
myshelves: you've mentioned Google Books so many times I finally had to checked it out! Thanks -- great stuff!
There is a lot of decent information on heraldry on the internet if you know where to look. It's not all heraldic bucket shops. www.heraldica.org is always a good place to start.
The general thrust of posting so far has summed things up quite well. There are no arms for the "name". You will for example find plenty of different arms for Smith. Some of the bucket shops have even been known to offer the arms of names that just sound alike so keen are they to make sales.
Traditions on arms vary from country to country. Scotland still has enforcable laws on the books concerning heraldry - there have been recent cases where people have been made to remove arms to which they were not entitled from property (IIRC an ornate gateway). The Irish example mentioned reflects Irish heraldic rules where, due to its turbulent history many records were lost and proof of use for 100 years was generally accepted as creating a right. As for the Percy lion, the very fact that it is holding a shamrock makes it different from the plain Percy lion so heraldically there is no problem with that.
A good place to start for many people is the American Heraldry Society website at www.americanheraldry.org It has a section covering the heraldic traditions of many countries (menu bar on left, "Grants and Registrations" section). The links page is also good.