July 21st, 2010

The Top 10 Coat of Arms Websites with FREE Resources

Often when genealogists are researching their family history they become interested in their family’s Coat of Arms. We’ve all seen the gorgeously varnished plaques emblazoned with colourful crests featuring lions, weapons and other medieval type decorations, and one can’t help but be drawn by their romantic allure. Coats of Arms are a means of identification used to verify official documents and ascertain ownership of property. The unique design painted on a family’s Coat of Arms identifies a particular family or individual, and can be very useful to genealogists researching their family history. Finding your family Coat of Arms on a document can lead you to as yet unidentified ancestors.

What are Coats of Arms?

Coats of arms were initially used to identify individuals who had a right to bear arms. Eventually these rights were transferred from generation to generation and finally became a means of identifying a family or clan, depending on the geographical location. Original designs were sometimes altered slightly to distinguish particular branches of a family, consequently increasing its genealogical worth.

What is Heraldry?

The study and identification of Coats of Arms is known as Heraldry. Family historians are often mesmerized by its splendour and charm, and possibly a bit by the promise of being part of an aristocratic blood line. The particular design of each heraldic symbol tells a story in itself, and can lead you to a deeper understanding and knowledge of your genealogical roots.

FREE Coats of Arms and Heraldry Resources

Following is a list of FREE Heraldry resources for the genealogist who wants to dig a little deeper into their family history. As with our list of the Top 40+ FREE Online Genealogy Websites, the same care has been taken to ensure these resources are absolutely free. If you want to order a plaque or other item decorated with your family crest, you will have to purchase it and pay a shipping fee, but the research oriented info and searches on these sites are absolutely FREE. Some even offer free downloads so that you can print off your family tree at home. Whether you’re interested in your Coat of Arms for genealogical or aesthetic reasons, here are our selected sites containing FREE Heraldry and Coats of Arms resources.

1. The College of Arms

It’s appropriate to begin our listing with a site originating from one of the homes of Heraldry, the United Kingdom. If your ancestors are of English, Welsh, Northern Ireland, or any other country in the British Commonwealth, you should find information on your family Coat of Arms here. The repository at the College of Arms includes both registers of grants of arms and funeral certificates, an added bonus to the genealogist. The official collection also includes a register of name changes which can be of value to family historians, as well as an extensive library of genealogical works.

This is a site for serious genealogists. If you’re looking for a free family crest search, you won’t find it here. The website is full of information designed to assist genealogists in identifying and understanding the history of their family Coat of Arms. If you find a Coat of Arms on a document while conducting your family search, you are encouraged to photograph it and send it on to the college. They do however charge a small fee for identification, but the true value of this site is in the FREE heraldic and genealogical education they offer.

2. Heraldica

Heraldica answers common questions about Heraldry and contains a pictorial glossary of over five hundred coats of arms ant heraldic emblems. Browsing through the pictures you are introduced to the many emblems used in decorating Coats of Arms and their names. The site also offers over two hundred articles on Heraldry and boasts a section specific to American, British and French heraldry. A must see site for budding heraldry enthusiasts and genealogists alike.

3. Heraldsnet

An explanation of every imaginable heraldic term imaginable is contained in the online glossary compiled and maintained by Jim Trigg. The glossary is based on the original book by James Parker published in 1894. The website also contains over 1,000 illustrations of Coats of arms, family crests and every conceivable symbol with they can be decorated. FREE to use, and full of valuable information.

4. The Court of the Lord Lyon

If you are of Scottish ancestry you’ll find information on Tartans, Flags, Crests, Clans, and coats of arms on this website. At the moment of writing the website is under review pending the establishment of an official Registrar of Tartans, but you can still find useful FREE genealogical and heraldic information here.

5. Scottish Clans

This is another site that although commercial in nature offers free no-strings-attached heraldic and genealogical resources. If you want to order your family tartan after finding out what it is, you can, but you’re not forced to sign-up, register or pay to research it. The link I’ve provided will take you directly to their What’s My Clan page where you simply type in your surname to reveal what clan you’re a part of. I typed in my last name, Walters, and found out that I’m a member of the Forbes clan from Aberdeenshire. This could be important information that could help me to trace my family history back farther than I ever imagined. Rather than searching for the name Walters, I could search the surname Forbes to uncover further leads.

6. Burke’s General Armory

This site has the largest assortment of Arms, which arranged alphabetically under surnames. The register contains Armorial Bearings for England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales registered up to 1884. The 1500 blazons (the design on a coat of arms) are available completely fro FREE, and the site offers Coat of Arms design for those whose family doesn’t already have one. Be the first of your clan to register your family Coat of Arms and go down in history!

7. Heraldry Symbolism

Heraldry Symbolism is home to the most extensive heraldry symbolism and heraldry dictionary on the internet, and it’s FREE! On the right side of their homepage you will see a menu. Clicking on the Heraldry Dictionary option will take you to the heraldry dictionary which is based on the works of Charles Elvin. Elvin’s works have been corrected and updated, and additional information has been added. The dictionary is offered as a free reference tool, with no strings attached!

8. Peerage

Peerage is, in its own words, “A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain as well as the royal families of Europe.” This translates to being an index of European surnames, but it’s no ordinary index. I can only encourage you to experience this website. Clicking on the link provided will take you to the front page of the surname index. The names are indexed alphabetically, so click n the appropriate letter, and you will see what I mean. This index is massive, and if you think the list of surnames is huge, click on your surname to view the vast array first names sub-categorized. This is an incredible genealogical resource that contains a lot of historical data.

9. Heraldry of the World

If you want a time out from your research and just want to have a little fun, this site will give you an escape. Coats of Arms from practically, if not every, country in the world are displayed here. The arms are categorized by country, so if you want to view German Coats of Arms you simply click on Germany. The author of the site provides as much information as he can find on each Coat of Arms and all of his information is sourced always credited. The site is quite large, and addition to being a pleasant distraction, it also provides useful family and historical info about many of the Coats of Arms displayed.

10. The American College of Heraldry

As well as its free resources, the American College of Heraldry offers you the opportunity to commit to the study of Heraldry by becoming a member. Annual membership at the time of writing was $39.95, but you’re not forced to join to make use of their many resources. They are in fact, a non-profit organization simply dedicated to the perpetuation of Heraldry. There is tons of FREE information on this website. If you want to know the significance of the Heraldic Eagle, you’ll find it here. Common questions about heraldry are addressed and competently answered here, and the website, whose purpose is to “educate the public regarding the history and meaning of heraldry”, does a fine job of it indeed.

I hope you find these links to Heraldry resources entertaining, educational, and fun, after all, that’s what family history research is meant to be!

If you know a really good website out there that didn’t make it on this list, email me (melanie at obituarieshelp.org) so I can include it, but make sure it is completely free – for this post, I’m not interested in sites that have lists of links to subscriptions sites or lists of indexes that you have to pay to see the document. I want free information available online.

Leave your comments below to let me and others know what you think of these resources.