McCartney's Journeys

What is Heraldry?

Everyone has seen pictures of medieval knights with stylized painting on their shields. Those were heraldic symbols used to identify the knight and his family.

Introduction to Heraldry

Many people researching their family history will come across a Coat of Arms issued to someone with the same surname and mistakenly assume that it is their own Arms. This could not be farther from the truth. Most of us come from peasant or working class ancestry and are not direct descendants of the person to whom the Arms were issued.

The bearing of arms is an inherited right. Even so, there are rigid rules which apply. To legitimately claim the right to a particular coat of arms one must have documented proof of being a direct descendant from the person to whom the arms were originally granted.

There may be many representations of arms for a particular family name. There would be an original granting with many variations granted to relatives of the original recipient. Arms granted to relatives were usually similar to the original but with differences to indicate the relationship.

Dr. Hugh Macartney of Canada has done extensive research in the origin of the Macartney/McCartney name. In his studies, he has encountered only two coats of arms that were issued to McCartneys. One was issued to George McCartney (no relation that I know of, honest) who was Lord Mayor of Belfast in the early eighteenth century. Hugh sent me some excellent literature in a series of emails. I have put the data together in what I hope is a logical and readable format.

Before delving into the details of heraldry, a brief quote from Dr. Hugh Macartney:

"First, let's set a distinction between a Crest and a Coat of Arms: a Crest is the sort of thing you have on your blazer pocket, much like a golf association has; a Coat of Arms is the complicated picture which once adorned a shield and later was embellished by artists working for the various Colleges of Arms in different countries.

Heraldry's History

by: Dr. Hugh Macartney    ©2005

Coats of arms had their origin about the first half of the 12th century when knights in continental Europe began using distinctive markings on their shields to identify themselves in battles and tournaments. When whole body armour replaced chain and link mail the entire body was covered so a person could not be recognized under the helmet.

It was then that distinctive symbols were painted onto shields and, for quick recognition in battle, the pictures were drawn in separate compartments. Later symbolic animals became popular since they could be identified at a glance. Often the drawing of the animals was rather stylized and bore little resemblance to the real thing.

During the crusades shields usually had some Christian symbols with crosses and fleur-de-lis.

Heraldry would have died out when no longer needed for military purposes if it were not for the fact that these pictures began to be used for social reasons and denoted the position, rank and family of the individual. Soon everybody who was anybody had a coat of arms drawn up to the point where the whole business had to be regulated and the description of the arms came to be written in a highly stylized form using a mixture of French, Latin and English.

Before the Normans came, heraldry, in the true sense, did not exist in Ireland. The Normans used simple devices which were easy to recognize in military situations and these are referred to as "ordinaries". Many old Anglo-Irish (the Normans who stayed on in Ireland and founded well known families) still use these.

A separate heraldic tradition, found in the arms of the Anglo-Irish, began in the mid-16th century when the Tudor kings thought seriously of taking possession of Ireland. Then the individual shields became extremely elaborate reflecting the preoccupation of Anglo-Irish with family relationships and status.

The Office of the Ulster King of Arms was set up in 1552 with authority over all arms in Ireland and was part of the household of the Vice-Regal Court. Whereas the arms of the Normans are clearly military, those of the Anglo-Irish reflected their preoccupation with status and family relationships. The native Gaelic people copied the idea of arms and crests but theirs were based more on ancient myths and very complicated family genealogy in which fact and fiction are difficult to sort out.

The third tradition of heraldry relates to the Gaelic Irish who’s important families now wanted the same sort of recognition. Their shields were different in that they tended to be related to mythical origins of families and myths themselves. These were usually related to pre-Christian myths as opposed to those of the Anglo-Irish. The stag, bear and red hand are obvious examples.

Another source was the pseudo-mythical assertion that various clans and families were descended from a particular (but mythical) person. Although these myths were widely believed, they originated long before there was written language and we should not take them literally.

You will read a lot of rubbish about the coats of arms of Gaelic families so discount much of what is written.

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