Coats of Arms– A Mark of Identity and Relationship for Your Virginia Ancestors

A Coat of Arms is a symbol of rank and social position.  It provides graphic identification of a man, a woman, or a family/surname:

The arms descend from father to son and all sons of a house are born with the right to bear the father’s arms.  They can also pass the coat on to their heirs.  The sons’ coats will carry marks of difference to show that two or more men share the same arms.
All daughters enjoy the same right although they do not usually pass their arms to their heirs.  A woman’s arms can be marshalled (matched or merged) with those of her husband if she is a noble or royal heiress and he is entitled to bear arms as well.
Over time, the arms become family property associated with a specific surname, and those surnames which are related by blood or marriage. (see Julian Franklin, Shield and Crest (London:  Macgibbon & Kee, 1967), pp. 264-5.

Consider the Carter Family Arms

Colors: Vert and Argent=Emerald Green and Silver.  The vivid color of emerald green became popular in the 15th century.  This green represents springtime and humor (to set it off from the pale grey-green which denotes death).

Crest: A sitting greyhound in profile, right front paw holding a 13th century shield (the kind with a rounded bottom) with a nine-spoke wheel in the center.  The greyhound is a symbol of loyalty and speed.  The repetition of the design of the shield may be a royal reward for a special favor to the Crown or specific distinction of the family.  This differences the coat to set it apart from the father’s coat of arms.  The rounded shield, without a crest or mantling, was often used by daughters.

Wreath or Torce: The hound sits on a wreath of silks twisted into a cord.  The silks or colors, as they are also called, are emerald and silver.  Originally, the knight wore the color of his lady twisted with his own into battle.

Mantling: Leaves, feathers, or wool attached to the wreath and designed to protect the helmut from the hot sun.  Or the cold wind.  Thus protecting the head of the knight.  The colors of emerald green and silver are alternated through the mantle.

Helmut: Made of steel, facing right (dexter) in profile, with double visor hinged on the side of the helmut.  The design is in silver.  The visor is closed and signifies the rank and social status of an esquire=learned in the law and a landed gentleman.  This helmut was used in the 16th century.  The inside of the helmut was padded to reduce shock to the head and face if struck.

Shield: Contains the charge–which is often a pun on the surname of the man and family it represents:

Chevron: An inverted stripe through the middle two-thirds of the shield.  Emerald green, the color of fields and greenery and forestry on a silver background.  The chevron was first used by esquires on their coats.

Cartwheels: Three eight-spoked wheels representing the occupation from which the surname of Carter comes–a carter is an itinerant peddler who brings merchandise to homes or a freighter who hauls supplies and machinery to businesses in towns.  Here the pun is a play on words–Carter carts stuff.

Motto: The motto or slogan is printed on a ribbon under the shield and is not a part of the coat.  It may be derived from a battle cry used in war or a shout of exhultation in a tournament.  The Carter motto:  “I undertake and persevere.”

These same cartwheels appear in coats claimed by Virginia Carter families as well as other parts of America and signify that all of these Carters are related by blood or marriage:

Carter Coats of Arms was used in America:

  1. Colonel John Carter, d. 1669, Corotoman, Virginia
  2. Captain Thomas Carter, fl. 1663, Barford, Virginia
  3. Giles Carter, fl 1656, Henrico County, Virginia
  4. Rev. Thomas Carter, d. 1684, Watertown, Massachusetts
  5. Jeremiah Carter, will proved 1636, Chester County, PA
  6. Oscar Charles Sumner Carter, Esq. of Pennsylvania

See William Armstrong Crozier’s General Armory (1911) and Registry of American Families Entitled to Coat Armor (reprinted, Baltimore:  Southern Book Company, 1957).

Since coats of arms do not have any official, legal status in America, you might conclude that claiming arms is of little consequence to your American lineage.  Take the coat and match its elements in England:

John Robert Carter, Esq. had armorial bearings in England of–

per chevron or and purpure, two taus in chief and a cartwheel of eight spokes in base all counterchanged.  Mantling purpure and or.  Crest:  in a wreath of the colors, in front of a tau purpure, a demi-cartwheel or.

Motto:  “In hoc signo vinces.”  The tau is a Greek Cross (in the form of a T) in purple.  The cartwheels are in gold.  The mantle is purple and gold.  The war helmut is made of steel, trimmed in silver. The helmut is in profile turned to the right with the single visor closed. The motto=”In this sign we conquer.”  (See illustration in Arthur Fox-Davies, The Art of Heraldry (New York:  Arno Press, 1976, reprint of 1904 edition.)

Armorial patterns and colors are also used in badges.

Badges include a single charge from the coat of arms or crest on a wreath of colors from the coat of arms.  In the period from Edward III to the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, the badge was used as a mark of identity for retainers and the colors for liveries of  servants.

Towns and cities today still use their badges for uniformed employees and school bus drivers.  The British Royal family still uses badges as do many of the nobility.  And the badge is still used in heraldry.

Women’s dresses were decorated with their family coat of arms embroidered on the sleeves so they could be identified easily.

From time to time, I will examine for you others marks of identity that can be used to determine relationships by blood or marriage.  Sometimes the evidence you seek is easily found when you examine the culture and world in which your ancestors lived.

You, and they, do not live in a vacuum.  And Virginians, more than any other group of ancestors, were identity driven.  Your favorite Virginia genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS  My next research field trip will be to Virginia and Tennessee, with possibly a dip into North Carolina.  Get your pedigree ready and watch for my announcement of dates.

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