Armoria familia
Family arms in South Africa

Heraldry, coats of arms and family crests

by Mike Oettle

King João II / Oettle arms

“DO you have a family crest?” is a question often asked out of snobbish pride (or envy). It’s an erroneous question, however, which arises from the abbreviated treatment given to some less prominent branches of families listed in works such as Debrett’s and Burke’s guides to the titled and landed gentry of Britain.
crest of Drummond Drummond in his coat of arms

The crest – or helmet device – is only part of a coat of arms, or heraldic achievement, and it is not essential to have one as part of such an achievement. The essential part is the shield, the charges on it and the colours in which they are represented. The device on the shield was also repeated on the knight’s surcoat – giving rise to the term coat of arms – as well as on his horsecloths and his banner. (For more detail on how the basic elements of a coat of arms hang together, see this page.)

Heraldic devices – that is, emblems of a particular colour and shape used for military and personal identification which were passed on from father to son and were unique to the individual within each realm – can be traced back to a group of families in Flanders and adjacent lands, descendants of Charlemagne, who were using them in a recognisable form by the time of William of Normandy’s invasion of England.[1]
shield of Drummond Drummond in full armour

Some members of these families formed part of William’s army, which although largely Norman also included Flemings, Bretons and other subjects of the King of France. Through the settlement of these “Normans” as great landowners throughout England, and in parts of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and their emergence as a distinct class in what now became feudal England, the use of heraldic devices spread among the lords of Britain. Because these “Norman” families maintained links with their relatives on the Continent, heraldry also spread to other realms: at first to France and to Germany (the Holy Roman Empire), and later to Italy and Spain. By the period between the First and Second Crusades (the early 12th century), coats of arms were almost universally in use among knightly families in these countries and in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

They were displayed in all kinds of ways, but notably in the seal device, which often depicted a knight in armour or became stylised from this representation, essentially showing a helmet with its crest and below it a shield, often hanging at an angle as it would from the arm of a knight riding, not actually fighting.

Having a coat of arms was a mark of belonging to the warrior class and being entitled to knighthood, even if one was so poor that one could barely afford sword, armour and horse, or if going to war as a knight meant drawing support from as many as seven other landholders (in England). In Germany, such poor knights were often counted as unfree. The knight was also an officer, expected (in England at least) to provide his own men-at-arms, and to equip and arm them too.

In later centuries, the countries of Europe adopted widely varying heraldic practices. In the Empire (which included the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Bohemia and the north-eastern parts of modern France, as well as, in its earlier stages, parts of northern Italy and even southern France) the aristocracy became highly exclusive, forbidding marriage between families of royal, princely and ducal rank and the middle aristocracy of margraves, counts and viscounts, or between these and the lower aristocracy of barons and knights. German counts also showed a tendency to arrogate themselves to higher rank, frequently converting their counties into principalities (Fürstentüme) or duchies. (For more detail on how the German nobility is structured, click here.)

Bearing arms became tied to the rarefied and bloody art form of the tournament, where knights wishing to take part in this warrior sport had to display their armour, shields and helmets before the games began, and anyone considered unworthy (either because of lack of breeding or through moral turpitude) was expelled. Crests especially became ornate in the extreme.
arms of the city of Nuremberg

But at the same time cities and towns had begun adopting heraldic devices. Often this was when an overlord granted arms to a city under his lordship, but frequently a city would adopt its own arms.
arms of the city of Lausanne (17th century)

Nuremberg has both: two separate shields, one with a demi-eagle of the Empire, representing the corporation’s status as an imperial free city (subject to the Emperor’s direct authority [Reichsunmittelbar], rather than that of some intervening lord), and one which long appeared with a harpy[2] on it; the two are shown side by side, leaning toward each other (technically called accouchée). In cities which later became part of Switzerland, the city would often display two shields of its own arms, with a third shield of the Empire above (as in the arms of Lausanne at right). Even after they had joined up with Switzerland, they continued to use the imperial arms, but in the 19th century the Swiss cross replaced the imperial eagle (as in the arms of Zürich at left below, where the two shields below are mirror images of each other).
arms of the city of Zürich

The Swiss cross came into heraldry late, becoming first a war flag in the early 19th century, then a national flag, and only after that a national coat of arms.

Getting back to the Middle Ages, burgesses – although at first forbidden to do so – took to using their own family arms. While the aristocrats disapproved, they did not forbid these bürgerliche Wappen, but introduced rules (often petty) to distinguish their own arms from those of citizens.

Even today, aristocratic arms are subject to strict regulation in lands that once belonged to the Empire, while citizen arms are often uncontrolled.
Lord Lyon King of Arms

In Scotland and Ireland a clannish spirit prevailed, and every effort was made by the kings of arms, or chief heralds – Lord Lyon King of Arms for Scotland, Ulster King of Arms for Ireland[3] – to ensure that while each individual armiger, or holder of a coat of arms, had a device identifiably different from any other in the realm, gentlemen belonging to the same clan or bearing the same name had similarities in their arms which allowed them to be identified as such.
College of Arms

In fact, it is not even required any longer that one prove oneself a gentleman – mere descent from an armigerous person (if one desires to use arms derived from that ancestor’s) and the ability to pay the heralds’ fees (and the fact that the applicant is an honourable person) is sufficient. (The fees payable to Lord Lyon are cheaper than those charged by the College of Arms in London, since Lord Lyon is a civil servant but the officers of the College are members of the royal household, not paid full salaries.)

But in England or Wales having the same name as an armiger is no guarantee of heraldic bearings even remotely like his. The heralds go to great pains to ensure that each new grant is unique, and anyone wishing to use the arms of a famous relative is first obliged to prove common descent in the male line from the original grantee or (in the case of very old arms) earliest bearer. And again, unless one can prove heirship, the arms are then differenced for the new bearer.

However, it is not always made clear in the commonly used guides (the aforementioned Debrett’s and Burke’s) that differencing is either practised or necessary, and minor branches of important families are often listed with only an illustration of a crest – giving rise to the totally erroneous belief that a family can have a crest without a shield. In fact, even though the grant or adoption of a new crest is used in both British and Continental heraldry to indicate a new branch of a family, almost all crests are used (often without difference marks) by several members of the same family – something that cannot be said of shields.

English heraldry especially has been associated with snobbery, because in former times the heralds would examine armigerous persons' households to determine whether they were in fact gentlemen – the possession or lack of silverware was counted as decisive – but within the ranks of those bearing arms there is almost a classlessness, largely arising from the idea that only those actually holding titles which entail a seat in the House of Lords are peers of the realm, and all other persons are commoners. (A narrower definition of “commoner” has it that all non-members of the royal family are commoners: this applies even to people of the highest rank of society, such as [non-royal] dukes and duchesses.)

On the Continent, merely belonging to a titled family often allows one to assume a title, and in certain countries princely titles belong to members of non-royal families.

It is a mark of German heraldry that the branches of a family are often indicated by the use of different crests in different regions, or by the use of otherwise identical bearings in different colours.

France has a multiplicity of near-identical arms belonging to unrelated families, because the later kings of ancien régime France had imposed a tax on armigerous persons and, in order to collect it from as many people as possible, had forced the adoption of coat-armour by almost anyone able to pay the tax. French heraldry does not include any tradition of arms being granted – all arms are assumed by prescription. It often also ignores the crest altogether, whether or not one was used in earlier times. This is partly because individuals not holding titles of nobility were prohibited from displaying anything more than the shield.
arms of King João II of Portugal A typical padrão

Heraldry first arrived on Southern African shores with the erection by Portuguese explorers of padrões,[4] or marker stones, to indicate that a given coast had been visited by ships in service of the King of Portugal. These took the form of a pillar topped by a cross and, just below it, a tablet bearing the Portuguese royal arms.

Heraldry came into frequent use at the Cape of Good Hope in the period of Dutch rule, although largely as a form of display in private homes or (in the form of hatchments)[5] in Cape Town’s Groote Kerk and to a lesser extent among Boland families. But it was not until the period under the Batavian Republic (1803-06) that grants of arms were made, and then only to local government bodies. Under British rule, and while the Union of South Africa remained a British dominion, the College of Arms exercised some form of control over heraldic usage, but usually only on appeal.

Since 1963, South Africa has had its own State Herald (now styled the National Herald), who heads the Bureau of Heraldry.

Anyone who has confirmed his right to use a coat of arms may use it – as a complete achievement, as a shield alone, the crest alone or using any authorised badge emblem – to identify himself, his property, to decorate his home or business . . . even his yacht or aircraft. It can be translated into a flag for any of these purposes.
Bureau of Heraldry, Pretoria

And women are not excluded from this. Go to this article to see how the status of women has changed with regard to heraldry.

A most attractive use of arms could be on personal clothing, either in the form of a jersey or on a long skirt, the design being repeated fore and aft.

But what does all this mean to me?
So how does all this affect me, you might ask. For a start, if you have no wish to use a coat of arms, it doesn’t affect you in the slightest – unless, of course, your children would like to and demand to know why you did nothing about it.

Okay, what coat of arms am I entitled to? It depends on your surname – for, being a product of the Middle Ages, the system depends on who your father was, and who his father was . . . and the rules that apply may depend on the family’s country of origin.
Oettel, Franconia

Let’s start with the Oettle family, which has for centuries displayed the arms of the Oettel family of Franconia (northern Bavaria):

Tierced in pile inverted and embowed: 1 & 2 azure, three stars 2 and 1 or; 3 gules, a unicorn rampant argent.

In ordinary English this means that the shield is divided into three parts by two lines (bent inwards) emerging from the top middle and passing down to the lower right and left sides. The first and second sections (top right and top left) are blue, each with three six-pointed stars in gold, arranged two side by side and one below. The third section is red with a silver unicorn.

Erich Oettle carved at least two copies of it in wood, one a simple escutcheon and the other a large shield bearing the full achievement, including tastefully florid mantling and a highly decorated closed helm (signifying citizen arms) with a necklace around the neckpieces. Erich’s nephew Andrew Max Theodore Oettle (Theo senior) had a copy carved, as did Erich’s grandson Theodore John Oettle (Theo junior), whose shield includes conjoined annulets, one of the conventional difference marks of an adopted son.
Michael Eric Oettle

However, it has not been established at this stage whether the Oettles of Württemberg are a branch of the Franconian family – there are branches in both Urbach and Tübingen that use these arms. The writer of this article has now adopted his own version of the arms, incorporating a kudu, rather than a unicorn, for a crest. For more about it, see here.
kudu crest in Oettle arms

The Oettle family also includes a number of adopted children. An adopted child is entitled to choose whether he bears the arms of his natural father’s family or his adoptive father’s. If the Rubin family has arms (Jewish families occasionally do), Jason Oettle can choose whether he uses these or a version of the Oettle device, and Tabitha would use the same.

The Massey family of Salford and Cape Town clearly belongs to the Irish Anglo-Norman clan, and as such is entitled to a differenced version of the clan chief’s arms – perhaps similar to those of Charles Vincent Massey, Governor-General of Canada. But such a coat would have to be matriculated with Ulster King of Arms, possibly only after attempts have been made to show descent from earlier Masseys. This could prove problematic, since the parish records of the Church of Ireland (the Anglican former State church) were consolidated in Dublin and subsequently destroyed by fire. However, proof of baptisms and marriages might perhaps be found in duplicate registers kept in Larne.

Andrew Oettle, as heir to Charles William Massey, would be entitled to quarter the Massey coat with the Oettle arms. Judith would use the same quartering.

The Malan family in South Africa has long laid claim to arms used by the French and Swiss Malans. However, the State Herald is of the opinion that the common South African practice of using the same arms as a family of the same name in Europe is unjustified and irregular, especially when all South African members of that family use the identical arms, undifferenced.

All this might seem to put a coat of arms out of reach . . . but it ain’t necessarily so. South Africa’s Heraldry Act confirms the right of all citizens to heraldic devices, and since they’re so colourful and hold such strong symbolism of family and all it stands for, why not?

[1] This account of the origin of heraldry has been uncovered by quite recent research, and is given in The Oxford Guide to Heraldry by Thomas Woodcock, Somerset Herald, and John Martin Robinson, Maltravers Herald Extraordinary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[2] harpy: mythical creature, half vulture, half woman; in German a Jungfrauenadler. The female head is intended to be hideous, but artists have often given in to the temptation of making it beautiful. It is often crowned. The face and naked female breasts can be either flesh-coloured, or the colour of the feathers. Read more about it here.

Phriomh Aralt na hÉirann / Chief Herald of Éire (arms of the National Library of Ireland)

[3] Since 1948, the office of Ulster King of Arms has been joined with the English office of Norroy King of Arms, and as far as Ireland is concerned, is chiefly responsible for Northern Ireland. The office is now joined with the English office of Norroy King of Arms, an officer of arms largely responsible for the interests of armigers in the north of England. In both capacities he is also responsible for applications from members of families of Irish origin (as Ulster) or English (especially north of England) origin (as Norroy), regardless of what part of the world they live in.

Also since 1948, Éire has had its own Chief Herald, or Phriomh Aralt na hÉirann, long based in Dublin Castle, previously the base of Ulster King of Arms.

[4] Padrões is the plural form of this word. The singular is padrão – the tilde [~] indicates nasalisation. Portuguese tends not only to nasalise, but to turn s-sounds into sh-sounds, so the final sound in the plural is sh.

[5] The word hatchment is a debased form of “achievement”. Hatchments are a valuable source of information on past heraldic usage, especially since they usually display the arms of a marital union or unions. See here for more about them.


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  • An earlier version of this article was published in Arma, journal of the Heraldry Society of Southern Africa, in Spring, 1999 (Vol 5 No 1).

  • Drawings of the arms of Drummond by Don Pottinger and come from Simple Heraldry by Sir Iain Moncreiffe of Moncreiffe and Don Pottinger (Thomas Nelson and Sons). Arms of Nuremberg and of Lausanne from Heraldry of the World by Carl Alexander von Volborth (Blandford). Arms of Zürich from a Swiss postage stamp (colours adjusted using MS Picture It!). Arms of the College of Arms from a grant of arms by the College. Arms of King João II from Lions and Virgins by C Pama (Human & Rousseau). Padrão from Postmarks of the Cape of Good Hope by Robert Goldblatt (Reijger). Illustration of Oettel arms provided by the Heraldische Gemeinschaft Westfalen. Arms of Mike Oettle by Barrie Burr. Most of the scans are by Howard Lancaster.

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