Heraldry, or Coat of Arms, are one of those forgotten, but very important perks of being to the “manner born” (or is it to the manor born?), so it is obvious why Michael Middleton, Kate’s father applied for one for the family!

Kate Middleton
Kate Middleton

According to the Daily Mail:

Coats of Arms came into being during medieval tournaments like jousting when knights would be recognised by the motifs on their shields or helmets and heralds quickly learnt the different ones in use, taking up responsibility for the control of their use.
Their use declined in competition and battle but they became more widely used in society. The College of Arms, a branch of the Royal household, is the official body in the UK that deals with coats of arms and their team of experts – funded by the fees they charge and not taxpayers money – design and research heraldic or genealogical issues.

The arms are given for free while the money people pay is for the research and design of the coat of arms. However, that doesn’t mean that just anybody can pay the fee and get a coat of arms. The cumulative knowledge of the Earl Marshal gathered over hundreds of years has given them the skill of tactfully suggesting that people don’t proceed with their application. The late Peter Gwynn-Jones, a former Garter King of Arms, once said: ‘In practice, eligibility depends upon holding a civil or military commission, a sound university degree or professional qualification, or having achieved some measure of distinction in a field beneficial to society as a whole.’

Middleton heraldry
Middleton heraldry

Read on for background on Heraldry in the Edwardian era, or visit the Daily Mail article to decipher the meaning of the Middelton family crest!

According to Lady Helen Forbes in the Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia:

Full coat of arms
Full coat of arms
The simpler a coat-of-arms, the older it is. This is tolerably obvious, for the first people to assume arms naturally took all the plainest charges first – a single beast, a simple “ordinary,” as the lines and squares on a shield are called. Later, as more coats-of-arms were granted, they were forced to become more complicated, till at a late date they appear perfect marvels of ingenuity. It may be as well to explain clearly what a coat-of-arms is, for the benefit of those who are in the habit of calling all heraldic objects indiscriminately “crests.” A coat-of-arms consists of a shield, the crest, the motto, the supporters (if any), and sometimes the mantling, or decorations intended to represent a mantle, with which the whole is surrounded in the more elaborate heraldic drawings.

The shield, as is obvious, was that weapon of defence which the knight carried on his arm. The crest was worn upon his helmet. Women are not entitled to the use of a shield or a crest, because they are not supposed to have worn armour. They frequently did so in mediaeval emergencies, as witness Joan of Arc and Black Agnes of Dunbar, but armour was no more a womanly appurtenance in their day than trousers are in ours. The sex is not, however, debarred from bearing arms, but it must wear them on a diamond-shaped object technically called a lozenge. Women are entitled to a motto, which is an even more personal thing than the arms.

Husband of an heiress
Husband of an heiress
The laws of heraldry are slightly different in different countries. Thus, in England all the descendants of an armigerous person are entitled to bear his arms; whereas in Scotland his eldest son alone is presumed to do so, and his younger sons must have a fresh grant, or as it is called, “matriculate their arms,” at the Lyon Office. Comparatively few Scottish families take the trouble to do this, and therefore a great majority of the arms used by Scotsmen must, however, reluctantly be characterised as “bogus.”

A bachelor bears his father’s arms covering the whole shield. A married man divides his shield in half, and bears on one side of the line his own arms, and on the other side the arms of his wife, which is called impaling. If he has had more than one wife, he has to place their arms one above the other on their half of his shield; or, if he chooses, he can use as many shields as he has had wives, each with a separate wife’s arms impaled with his; but this is very cumbersome.

Son of an Heiress
Son of an Heiress
If the wife is an heiress, he bears her arms not impaled in the usual way, but on a small shield, called an escutcheon of pretence, in the middle of his own. An heiress, in the heraldic sense, does not mean a lady possessed of wealth; it merely means an only daughter. A co-heiress is a woman who has sisters, but no brother. The children of an heiress or co-heiress are entitled to quarter her arms – that is to say, they divide their shield or lozenge into four equal portions, on the first and fourth of which they bear their father’s arms, and on the second and third their mother’s.

Married woman's arms
Married woman's arms
A married woman or a widow bears her arms impaled with her husband’s, exactly as he does, only on a lozenge. If a married man is a member of an order of knighthood he uses two shields, one of them bearing his own arms only, decorated with the insignia of the order, whatever it may be, and the other bearing his own arms and his wife’s impaled in the ordinary way. This is because the order is a personal thing, and one in which the wife does not share. Bishops, in the same way, bear the arms of their see on a separate shield.

Further Reading:

A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry

Heraldry in England: The History & Science of Heraldry Concisely Explained

The Handbook to English Heraldry

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Comments

  • Fascinating & timely. Thanks for the article!

  • Baralier

    A little late to the party here but just with reference to your comment about the use of arms by their descendents in England, to the best of my understanding, an achievement of Arms, like most hereditary things, can only be used by the inheritor – usually the eldest son. If a father is granted arms and has two sons, only one is permitted to use the arms of his father, the other may opt for a mark of cadency. They’re not available for use by every descendent of the original person.
    The notion of a “family coat of arms” is a modern misunderstanding exploited by companies willing to sell you a plaque or a book about people with the same surname as you, whether or not they’re related in any way.