Personal heraldry
November 2006 / November 2013

Personal arms

PERSONAL heraldry has flourished in South Africa since 1652. Countless South Africans bear coats of arms, some of them handed down over many generations. Several dozen family associations, too, have assumed arms.

Some 17th- and 18th-century South African personal arms 17th and 18th centuries : Olof Bergh (1685) - Pieter v Reede v Oudtshoorn - Adriaan v Schoor (1746) - Jacobus Möller (1747) - Johann Beyers (1757) - Johann Kirsten (1767).

Some 18th-century South African personal arms 18th century : Abraham Faure (1771) - Christoffel Brand (1772) - De Villiers of Drakenstein (1776) - Olof de Wet (1781).

Some 18th-century South African personal arms Jan Cruywagen (1782) - Willem v Ryneveld (1788) - François Duminy (c1792) - Johannes Fischer (1795).

Some 19th-century South African personal arms 19th century : Willem Versfeld (1810) - Michiel Smuts (1817) - J.G., Daniel, and Hendrik Cloete (1825) - John Molteno - Philippus Myburgh (1834) - P.G. v d Byl.

Some 19th-century South African personal arms Sir Jan Truter (CoA 1837) - Sir Andries Stockenstrom (CoA 1840) - Cecil Rhodes - Joseph Robinson (CoA 1873) - Sir Theophilus Shepstone (CoA 1879) - Coenraad v Hoogstraaten.

Some 20th-century South African personal arms 20th century : Sir John Buchanan (CoA c1901) - Johannes Malan (1902) - Hendrik Cloete - Sir George Albu (CoA 1912) - Sir David Graaff (CoA 1912) - Sir Ernest Oppenheimer (CoA 1921).

Some 20th-century South African personal arms Bp Pius Dlamini (c1954) - Jacob Venter (BoH 1968) - Carl v d Merwe (BoH 1972) - King Goodwill Zwelithini (BoH 1975) - Gideon v d Berg (BoH 1979) - Lourens du Toit (BoH 1981).

Some 20th-century South African personal arms Ebrahim Abramjee (1984) - Joseph Brooks (BoH 1991) - F.W. de Klerk (BoH 1992) - Stanley le Roux (BoH 1994) - Bp Mvume Dandala (BoH 1999) - Blanche Taylor (BoH 1999).

Some 21st-century South African personal arms 21st century : Johannes v d Merwe (BoH 2001) - Chelezane Mahlangu (BoH 2002) - David de Villiers (BoH 2004) - Caroline Clark (BoH 2012).

Aspects of personal heraldry covered on this page are : the right to arms, the components of personal arms, funeral heraldry, and legal protection. Other aspects, namely marital arms, inheritance of arms, cadency, and family association arms, are covered here.

Right to arms

Under South Africa's Roman-Dutch law, everyone has the right to bear a personal coat of arms. This is in contrast to English and Scottish laws, which restrict arms to 'eminent' or 'virtuous and well-deserving' ladies and gentlemen, and require arms to be officially granted or recognised. However, not everyone exercises the right.

As in many other countries, personal coats of arms are often referred to as 'family arms' or 'family crests' (sic), as if they were owned collectively by a family. This is incorrect. Because they are hereditary, the arms are shared within a family, but each member owns them individually.

The Heraldry Act defines a 'family coat of arms' as one that is owned by a natural person (note the singular).

A new coat of arms may be established by assumption or by grant. An existing coat of arms can be inherited.

Most South African personal arms are self-assumed. Anyone may design a coat of arms for him / herself and take it into use. It should not resemble any existing coat of arms.

South Africans have always been free to obtain grants of arms from heraldry authorities in other countries. In 1767, for instance, Johann Kirsten obtained a grant of arms from the Holy Roman Empire.

Between 1837 and 1961 (when the country became a republic), at least 52 South Africans (including some Afrikaners) obtained grants from the English, Scottish, and Irish heraldry authorities. Since 1961, at least a dozen more have done so. You'll find a list of grantees here.

Components of personal arms

Most personal arms consist of a shield, crest and motto. Supporters are rare ; so are personal badges and standards.

Shield — Traditionally, men display their arms on escutcheons, and women theirs on lozenges or ovals, but this is not a hard and fast practice in South Africa. Nowadays, women may display their arms in the same way as men, if they wish. Some Black armigers display their arms on traditional African shields.

Crest — Most men's arms have crests, but they are less frequent among women's arms. English practice does not allow women to have crests, but South Africa allows it.

Helmet — Various patterns of helmet are used with personal arms. During the Dutch colonial period, the norm was a barred helmet facing front. British-style helmets were introduced in the 19th century : a barred helmet for peers, an open-visored steel helmet for baronets and knights, and a closed helmet for 'commoners'.

Today, the closed tournament helmet is probably the most popular, but barred helmets and, occasionally barrel helms, are also used. No status is attached to any particular pattern of helmet in South Africa.

Alternatives to helmet and crest — A number of 18th- and 19th-century seals show coronets above shields in place of helmets and crests. They did not indicate nobility, but were simply embellishments. This was a popular practice in the Netherlands at that time.

In the Anglican and Roman Catholic, and some other churches, clergymen place mitres or clerical hats above their shields instead of helmets and crests.

Supporters — In the long-established European and British tradition, supporters are largely confined to royalty, the aristocracy, baronets, and high-ranking knights. There are a few examples from the Dutch colonial period (17th-18th centuries), including some arms with only a single supporter each.

The Bureau of Heraldry registered several personal supporters in the 1960s and '70s, but since the 1980s they have registered them only for African traditional leaders, bailiffs grand cross of the Orders of St John and of St Lazarus, and the holders of European noble titles, Scottish and Irish chiefships, or feudal baronies.

Insignia of office — By tradition, holders of certain offices may display their personal arms with the insignia of those offices.

Clergymen display crosses and croziers with their arms, according to the customs within their individual churches. Anglican and Roman Catholic clergymen impale their personal arms with those of their dioceses or parishes as if they were 'married' to them.

Members of the Heraldry Council display crossed herald's batons behind their arms. At least two State Heralds impaled their arms with the Bureau of Heraldry's. At least one chairman of the Genealogical Society has impaled his arms with those of the society during his term of office.

Traditional weapons (a plumed staff, assegais, knobkieries) are placed behind the arms of King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulus (BoH 1975).

Orders and decorations — By long-standing international custom, recipients of orders and decorations may depict their insignia with their personal arms. There don't seem to be any official regulations concerning the display of South African honours, but it would be in line with world practice to display orders and decorations which entitle their recipients to use post-nominal letters.

A neck decoration would be depicted with the ribbon draped around the lower part of the shield, and a chest decoration would be placed below the shield, with the ribbon vertical.

Funeral heraldry

During the Dutch colonial period (17th-18th centuries), heraldry played a part in the funerals of high-ranking civil and military officials. The deceased's coat of arms, painted on a board, was carried in the procession. In many cases, a memorial board ('rouwbord') displaying the arms was hung in the Dutch Reformed church in Cape Town afterwards. Twenty-five of them still survive.

There are also 17th-century examples of armorial medallions that were struck to commemorate deaths.

Sometimes, the deceased's arms were carved on his gravestone, and this is occasionally still done today. Some 17th- and 18th-century examples (Jan van Riebeeck, Maria de la Queillerie, and Joan Blesius) can be seen here.

Legal protection

Common law — Under South African common law (according to Dr Willem Joubert's Die Grondslae van die Persoonlikheidsreg (1953)), a person's coat of arms and seal form part of his legal 'dignitas'. If someone misuses his arms, he can take 'actio injuriarum' and sue for an interdict and / or damages.

Statutory — Since 1963, it has been possible to register personal arms voluntarily at the Bureau of Heraldry. If someone misuses registered arms, the lawful owner can take action under the Heraldry Act, to obtain an interdict and / or damages and legal costs.

From 1963 to 1969, arms could be registered in the name of a family. While they were the "inalienable property" of the person who had registered them, anyone else with the same family name, who could prove that he was a member of the family by lawful blood relationship, descent, marriage, or adoption, could also use them.

This soon proved problematic, and in 1966 the Heraldry Council ruled that anyone registering 'historical' family arms would have to difference them.

Since 1969, arms have been registered only in the names of individuals. A proven descendant or lawfully adopted child of an armiger, who has the same family name as that armiger, may also register ('matriculate') the arms in his own name. Differencing may be required.

In addition, since 1980, the owner of a registered coat of arms can apply for the arms to be matriculated, after his death, in the name of any descendant or anyone else bearing the same family name. Again, differencing may be required.

The first matriculation was recorded in 1978, and more than three dozen coats of arms have been matriculated since then. In some families, matriculation has already reached great-grandchildren.

Family association arms are registered as corporate arms.

References :
  • Bureau of Heraldry Database.
  • Botha, C.G. ('MM'); 'Familiewapens' in Huisgenoot (12.04.1946).
  • Brownell, F.G.; 'Finnish Influence on South African Heraldic Design' in Arma 116 (1986).
  • Bureau of Heraldry; General Information and Instructions to Applicants (n.d.), South African Personal ('Family') Coats of Arms (n.d.), and Suid-Afrikaanse Familiewapens (n.d.).
  • Fox-Davies, A.C.; Armorial Families (1899, 1905, 1929) (includes many South African residents).
  • Groote Kerk (Cape Town) : Jacobus Möller and Johannes Fischer memorial boards.
  • Heraldry Act 1962 (as amended up to 2001).
  • Hiemstra, V.G.; 'Heraldiek en Registrasie van Familiewapens' in Familia Vol 14 No 2/3 (1977).
  • Joubert, W.A.; Die Grondslae van die Persoonlikheidsreg (1953).
  • Kannemeyer, A.J.; Die Hugenote-Familieboek (1940).
  • Laing, R.A.; A Catalogue of Seals in the Cape Town Archives Repository (1998), 'SA Heraldic Writers of the 20th Century' in SA Journal of Cultural History (Nov 1999), 'Commemorative Family Medals during the DEIC Period' in Historia (Nov 2000), 'Het Behoorlijk Zegel' in SA Journal of Cultural History (Jun 2003), 'Our SA (Afrikaner) Heraldic Heritage - A Mythical Creation?' in Historia (May 2004), Het Behoorlijk Zegel (2006).
  • Loxton, A.G.; Die Afrikaner-Voorgeslag met Familiewapens (1933).
  • Mitford-Barberton, I. & White, V.M.; Some Frontier Families (1968).
  • National Library of SA (Cape Town) : Bell-Krynauw Collection (MSB 69).
  • Oudschanz Dentz, F.; 'Een Verzameling Wapenborden uit de Tijd van de Oost Indische Compagnie aan de Kaap de Goede Hoop' in Hertzog-Annale (Dec 1955, Dec 1956, Dec 1959, Jan 1960).
  • Pama, C.; Die Wapens van die Ou Afrikaanse Families (1959), 'Die Brandwag se Familiewapens' series in Die Brandwag (1964-65), Heraldry of South African Families (1972), Die Groot Afrikaanse Familienaamboek (1983), British Families in SA (1992).
  • Smith, C. de J.; Persoonlike Wapens in Suid-Afrika (1995).
  • SA Catholic Bishops Conference; Catholic Directory of Southern Africa. (1960).
  • Theunissen, N.H.; 'Afrikaner, Ken Uself' in Die Brandwag (1944-47) (note : the Heraldry Council has ruled that the arms published in this series of articles are "worthless").
  • Van Epen, D.G.; Nederland's Patriciaat (1914).
  • Western Cape Archives & Records Service : Seal Collection (Objects 58-60).

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