Sometimes in our genealogy and family history research, we come across a family crest or coat of arms. It’s a symbol of what the family stood for at one point in time. It’s a piece of the celebration of accomplishments and identification.
John Lehman is the owner of Coadb.com and has spent decades researching and collecting coats of arms to create an online database of surnames from all over the world. In this blog, he provides some great details on the topic.
What is a Coat of Arms?
Why do they exist?
Coat of arms developed as a means of distinguishing oneself on the battlefield during medieval times. They were used to tell the other men on the field of battle who it is they were exactly facing. They enable a person to tell the difference between friend and foe. This was often necessary when men were covered in chain mail or armor, making them hard to identify. Men would paint or embroider their shields and tunics with symbols such as eagles, lions, crosses, roses, etc.
What started the coat of arms?
These arms became even more popular through the medieval institution of tournaments (featuring jousting and other battle simulation events). Heralds, an official title/position that was responsible for listing and proclaiming (orally) the armorial bearings of knights at these medieval tournaments, which were particularly popular in France. Eventually, the arms developed as a status symbol, and during later centuries it was the gentry and “manor-holding” classes who bore coats of arms.
Where did they originate?
Heraldry as an art form surely developed in Europe, particularly Western Europe, and more precisely, England and France.
What countries/continents recognized coats of arms
Today, arms are used across continents, but it is considered almost entirely European art form. Countries throughout Europe have a rich tradition of coats of arms, including, but not limited to: England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Netherlands/Belgium, Germany, France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Poland and several others. Greece is one of the few countries with very little heraldic tradition.
How do they fit into today’s society?
Heraldry is often found on buildings. Its role is much reduced from its former glory, but it still exists on buildings, particularly in Europe. There are also a niche group of people throughout the world who study the topic as professionals or amateur enthusiasts. However, the urge to identify oneself through art, dating back +10,000 BC when prehistoric peoples drew on cave walls, will never dissipate. One could say this act of self- identification through symbols is present on social media today (think avatars).
Components of a Coat of Arms
In heraldry, the technical name for the shield is an escutcheon. There many different types of escutcheons. The ones we are typically familiar with are called the heater style and the modern French style.
The crest is the part of the arms that rests on top of the helm (helmet). They originated as a decorative sculpture worn by knights in tournaments, and sometimes a battle. German heraldry tends to make extensive use of crests, whereas early British arms did not. Some common crests include buffalo horns, wings, Moor’s heads, boars, bucks, and plumes of ostrich feathers.
Supporters, sometimes known as attendants, are figures or objects placed on both sides of the shield, typically depicted as holding the shield up. Supporters were not common in early heraldry, and their use didn’t become more widespread until the end of the 1400s AD. Some common supporters include lions, unicorns, savages or wildmen, miners, and greyhounds.
A blazon is a written description of what a coat of arms looks like. It is a protocol that allows anyone reading the blazon to be able to reconstruct/redraw the entire arms. The word blazon derives from the French word blason, meaning shield. Blazons are essentially written in their own unique heraldic language: it has its own vocabulary (Gules=red, Vert=green) and word order.
Other less well-known components in a coat of arms include the torse or wreath (a twisted roll of fabric above the helmet, on which the crest rests) and compartment (the area below the shield, typically a grassy mount of some sort of landscape).
Coat of Arms vs Family Crest. What is the difference?
This is a very popular question, that invokes strong feelings in many hardline heraldry enthusiasts. The real or technical term is coat of arms. As mentioned earlier in the article, the crest is actually part of the coat of arms. For the most part, coats of arms were granted to individuals, not families. However, since ownership of the arms was typically passed on to the eldest son, generation after generation, as the centuries past, they misnomer “family crest” slipped into the lexicon. Although it is technically an incorrect term, it’s been used so much, it might as well be considered a legitimate term (try convincing people to quit calling tissue Kleenex…). Most in heraldic community abhor the term and its use. I use to fight it and not use it, but the typical visitor to my website does not care much about the distinction between the terms.
How do you research the coats of arms on your website?
I have a library (digital and printed) full of various sources. Two of the more well-known sources I use are The general armory of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales by Sir Bernard Burke, published in 1884, and Johann Baptista Rietstap’s Armorial General, first published in 1861. The former is written in English and focuses on arms from the British Isles, whereas the latter is written in French, and focuses on arms throughout mainland Europe (particularly, Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, and Portugal).
When and why did you start Coadb.com?
It all started when I was five years old. The library in the kindergarten of my elementary school had a book called Flags of the World. I recall how much I loved always going to that book and being infatuated with the various colors, patterns, and symbols contained within flags.
When I was 18, I started selling t-shirts on the internet, first related to music. At some point, I said flags would be cool on t-shirts, so I did that for a few years. From there, I said, coats of arms of countries would be cool on t-shirts, so I did that as well. A few years later, I decided it was time to try family crests. People responded very well and I continued down that path. I had two predecessor websites, which weren’t very good and failed. Coadb.com is the third iteration and I have invested a lot of time and money in it, not too mention blood, sweat, and tears (more literally than one would think).
What is the most interesting coat of arms you’ve come across in your research?
This is a great and tough question. I think the most interesting coat of arms I’ve ever seen was a proposed seal for the United States of America that was rejected.
It was designed by Pierre Eugene du Simitiere (a Swiss American born in Geneva) in 1776. The six symbols depicted on the shield are as follows: the rose for England, thistle for Scotland, lion for the Netherlands, hard for Scotland, eagle for Germany, and fleur-de-lis from France. Most colonists drew their lineage from one of these six locations. The letters around the shield represent each of the 13 colonies.
Why is your coats of arms website different from others?
- We provide the blazon (a written description of what a coat of arms looks like) on the page, sometimes in Italian, German, and French in addition to English!
- Other websites depict only the shield, we depict the crest and supporters (if present)
- Other websites only have one arms per surname, we list multiple arms per surname (ex. we have 54 arms for Allen, and 297 for Smith)
- Coadb.com has paid for genuine research for every page to eventually include a 700 -word article about the surname history and meaning, not just boilerplate:. It’s a slow process, and so far, only about 30% of the articles are complete.
What kind of products do you sell to people when they find their family’s coat of arms in your database?
Our product line of merchandise contains over 90 unique products, including t-shirts, mugs, poster, ties, cuff links, canvas prints, beer pong tables, hats, and temporary tattoos. T-shirts and mugs have been very popular through the years. We also sell high-resolution JPGs of the arms themselves. In the coming weeks, we will be launching a new product line of information based services (mainly genealogy research packages from starting at around $100, and coat of arms meaning reports, hopefully for only $10).
What’s next for Coadb.com?
First and foremost, I am always adding new surnames to the database! My goal is to have over a million arms, but I will likely be pushing daisies before that happens. Nevertheless, we plan to add thousands of arms every year.
As mentioned above, we also plan to roll out a new product line of information-based products. We plan to offer about six different genealogy packages ranging from $100 to $700 in price. This is in response to many customer emails inquiring about genealogical information on their families in general or particular ancestors.
We also plan to offer a custom arms service, where people can submit requests to create their own unique coats of arms for a small fee. These arms are just for fun, and will not be added to the database.
Lastly, we are writing surname articles DAILY. The process is slow, but we try to do a good job.
About John Lehman, Owner
I have a Bachelor of Arts in History and Economics, having graduated Summa Cume Laude from Wayne State University in Detroit Michigan on an academic scholarship. I also have a Master of Arts in Economics from the same university, also on academic scholarship. I have worked 10 years as a Cost/Price Analyst for the United States Department of Defense, helping to audit and negotiate hundreds on contracts, several over a billion dollars. My hobbies include heraldry, websites, business, exercising, and listening to lectures/podcasts on YouTube and other platforms. I am married and have one young son.
I haven’t dabbled much into genealogy yet, but, given my visitor’s interest in said topic, I have a feeling I am going to learn more and more in the coming months and years.
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org