The Descent of Arms

The descent of arms in England and Wales is determined by the laws of arms, which normally allow transmission only through the male line. The arms of a man pass equally to all his legitimate children, irrespective of their order of birth.

Cadency marks may be used to identify the arms of brothers, in a system said to have been invented by John Writhe, Garter, in about 1500. Small symbols are painted on the shield, usually in a contrasting tincture at the top. The eldest son (during the lifetime of his father) has a label, a horizontal strip with three pendent drops. The second son has a crescent, the third a mullet, the fourth a martlet, the fifth an annulet, the sixth a fleur de lis, the seventh a rose, the eighth a cross moline and the ninth a double quatrefoil.

Heraldic Heiress

Arms are only transmitted through a female line when there is a failure of male heirs. A woman with no surviving brothers, or whose deceased brothers have no surviving issue, is an heraldic heiress. She is not necessarily a monetary heiress. Providing that she marries a man who bears arms, the children of their marriage may include the arms of her father as a quartering in their own shields. This is how elaborate shields of many quarterings come about.

Arms of Women

Arms of Miss Catherine Middleton, before her marriage

A woman may bear arms by inheritance from her father or by grant to herself. She may not use a crest, which is considered a male attribute.  

When unmarried, she displays her arms on a lozenge (a diamond shape) or an oval. A shield has traditionally been seen as a war-like device appropriate to a man.  When married, a woman may unite her arms with those of her husband in what are called marital arms; their arms are impaled, meaning placed side by side in the same shield, with those of the man on the dexter and those of his wife on the sinister. If one spouse belongs to the higher ranks of an order of chivalry, and thereby entitled to surround his or her arms with a circlet of the order, it is usual to depict them on two separate shields tilted towards one another, termed accollĂ©. A married woman may also bear either her own arms or her husband's arms alone on a shield with a small differencing mark to distinguish her from her father or husband.

If the woman is an heraldic heiress, her arms are shown on an inescutcheon of pretence (a small shield) in the centre of her husband's arms.

When widowed, a woman continues to use her marital arms, but placed on a lozenge or oval.

The Control of Arms

Armorial Bearings in England and Wales derive from the Crown as the fount of honour. In 1417, King Henry V commanded the Sheriffs of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Sussex and Dorset not to allow any men to bear arms on the forthcoming expedition to France unless by ancestral right or by grant from a competent authority. Royal control was firmly established by 1530, when the Visitation Commission directed Clarenceux King of Arms to "reform all false armory and arms devised without authority".

Control is delegated to the Kings of Arms, or senior heralds, who are Garter, Clarenceux and Norroy and Ulster. They interpret the laws and conventions of arms, and are empowered to grant arms in the name of The Sovereign. Between 1530 and 1689 the Kings of Arms were given Royal Commissions to visit English and Welsh counties, to establish that arms were borne with proper authority. Anyone found using arms without entitlement was forced to make a public disclaimer. Although this system has been discontinued, the Kings of Arms regulate the devising of new arms by ensuring that each design is unique.

Court of Chivalry

The Court of ChivalryThe Court of Chivalry has had jurisdiction over cases of misuse of arms since the 14th century. It is a civil court, with the Earl Marshal as the sole judge from 1521. The best known medieval action was Scrope v Grosvenor (1385-1390), in which Sir Richard le Scrope was held to have a prior claim to the simple arms azure a bend or. The most recent case was Manchester Corporation v Manchester Palace of Varieties (1954), when a theatre was successfully sued for illegal display of the arms belonging to the corporation.

We use session cookies to improve your experience with our website. If you continue using our website without changing your settings, or accept, we'll assume you are happy to receive the cookies set. To find out more about how we use cookies, please read our privacy policy.
To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

I accept cookies from this site.