Personal heraldry
December 2013

Arms in the family

ALTHOUGH a coat of arms is personal, its bearer is part of a family. The arms can be, and often are, displayed so as to show the bearer's relationship to other family members.

Traditions and rules have been developed over the centuries for displaying the arms of married couples ; for inheriting arms (around which a number of fallacies have grown) ; and for identifying individuals by means of cadency. South Africa has also established a system of family association arms.

Marital arms

Seal of the Kemper and Haupt arms Marital arms of Christiaan Kemper and Aletta Haupt on a seal (1785)

If a husband and wife are both armigerous, it is customary for them to display their arms jointly. They can place the two shields accollé (side by side), or else marshal their arms on a single shield. The traditional arrangement is to place the husband's arms to dexter and the wife's to sinister.

In English practice, if the wife is an heraldic heiress, her paternal arms are placed on an 'inescutcheon of pretence' in the centre of her husband's arms. She is an heraldic heiress if her father has died, and she has no living brothers or brothers' descendants to continue his arms in her family.

There are at least two examples of a husband and wife quartering, rather than impaling, their arms : Baron Pieter and Baroness Sophia van Reede van Oudtshoorn in the 18th century, and Sir Pieter and Lady Stewart-Bam, whose quartered marital arms were authorised by a royal licence in 1910.

Now that same-sex marriages and civil unions are legal, same-sex couples can also display their arms jointly. It would be up to them to decide whose arms go to dexter and whose to sinister.

Inheriting arms

Personal arms are hereditary, in a direct line from the original owner. There doesn't appear to be any means of heraldically disinheriting a descendant.

Arms can rightfully be inherited only by proven descendants and heirs (including adopted children) of their original owners. They are not available to other people who simply happen to have the same surname. Genealogical research is therefore needed, to (a) identify the original lawful owner of the coat of arms, and (b) prove lawful descent from him/her.

Unfortunately, in South Africa, according to the Bureau of Heraldry, "few people have sufficient proof to lay a claim of inheritance on an existing / historical coat of arms."

If arms are inherited from both parents, they can be quartered on one shield. The arms inherited from the parent whose surname one bears (usually the father's) normally go in the first quarter.


Many people, in South Africa and elsewhere, mistakenly think that coats of arms belong to surnames rather than to people. They believe that if a coat of arms is listed under their surname in a reference work, they are entitled to "inherit" and bear it without having to prove lawful descent from the original owner.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," as the Bureau of Heraldry states in one of its leaflets. "Nobody may usurp someone else's arms as their own." Heraldry authorities in other countries all agree on this point.

At one time, a number of people and businesses in South Africa fraudulently sold prints, plaques, and other items displaying coats of arms with surnames attached to them. They marketed the items on the basis that "these are the arms of the X family, so if your surname is X then this is your coat of arms."

Since 1980, however, it has been illegal in South Africa to 'furnish' anyone with a representation of a purported "family coat of arms" unless the Bureau of Heraldry has certified the arms as authentic. Even if the arms are authentic, failure to obtain the certificate is still an offence, and the penalties are a fine and / or a year in prison.

Some people of Irish ancestry believe that they are entitled to "inherit" and "bear" the arms of the chief of the sept (family group) to which their family belongs. This idea exists in several countries ; in South Africa it was promoted by Cornelis Pama in several books.

However, the Irish heraldry authorities deny that this is correct. According to the Chief Herald of Ireland, "the notion that particular arms can properly be used by any person of a particular name and stock has no foundation in Irish heraldic custom or practice."


'Cadency' is the technical term for personalising an inherited coat of arms to identify individual members of a family. It hasn't always been enforced in South Africa, but current Bureau of Heraldry policy is that when arms are matriculated for younger sons, they must be differenced. They are sometimes differenced for daughters too.

English system : Brownell family

Scottish system : Rains family

Several methods, including the English and Scottish systems, are used in South Africa.

English system — For the past 520 years or so, England has used a system in which sons place marks of cadency (small charges) on the shield, e.g. a label for the eldest son, a crescent for the second, a mullet for the third. It's not a very practical system, and its use in England has been optional for several centuries. Daughters are not provided for.

No doubt, many English South African families have used this system, and there are a few examples of it among the arms matriculated at the Bureau, e.g. those in the Brownell family (BoH 1981-82).

Scottish system — Scotland uses a system of cadency, known as the Stodart System, based on adding bordures to the paternal arms. It's quite complicated, and the Lord Lyon determines the appropriate differencing for each 'cadet', i.e. member of the family. Among the arms matriculated at the Bureau are those of the Rains family (BoH 1978-84) which follow this system.

Change of tincture — A coat of arms can be differenced by changing one or more of the tinctures. Examples are also to be found in the Gast family (see below), where the third and fourth sons' arms have different tinctures to those of their elder brothers and father.

Substitution of charges : Linde family

Substitution of charges — Another method of differencing is to replace a charge in the existing coat of arms with some other charge. For example, two De Klerk brothers have identical arms, except that one has a coronet in the centre and the other has a lymphad.

Perhaps the most extensive use of this method is to be found in a branch of the Linde family (BoH 1983-2002), where the arms have been matriculated through two generations by varying the charges on the chief.

In the Gast family (see below), the third son's son and daughters replace the black botonny cross with other charges (a gryphon, a baobab tree, and an owl respectively), with the result that their arms bear no obvious family resemblance to each other or to their father's, uncles', cousins', or grandfather's arms.

Changing lines — A coat of arms can be differenced by altering lines of partition. This forms part of the Stodart System in Scotland, and also stands alone. The arms of the Hiemstra brothers (BoH 1974), for instance, include an embattled chief, the one brother's chief having six crenellations and the other's five. In the arms of the three BŁtow brothers (BoH 2000), the lower edge of the chief is respectively indented, wavy, and engrailed.

Changing the number of charges — Sometimes, the design of a coat of arms lends itself to differencing by increasing or decreasing the number of repeated charges. The only South African example seems to be the arms of Carl van der Merwe (BoH 1972), derived from those of the Dutch noble family Van der Merwede (which some Van der Merwes use, even though no blood relationship has been proved). The number of bezants in the arms was reduced from fifteen to six.

Multiple methods : Gast family : first generation

Multiple methods — Some families do not confine themselves to a single method. The arms in the Gast family (BoH 2005-07), referred to above, are perhaps the most varied example. The eldest son has a label, his son has a 5-pointed label, and each of his daughters has a small cross as a mark of cadency. The second son adds an eagle as a mark of cadency, and his son has a label as well. The third son changes tinctures and his children replace the cross with other charges. The fourth son also changes tinctures.

Family associations

Some family associations' arms Family associations : Bredenkamp - Scheffer - Van der Walt - Viljoen.

Many families have formed associations to preserve their heritage. Some associations have assumed coats of arms.

While the arms belong to the association as a corporate body, members are allowed to display them, just like the arms of other organisations of which they are members. However, a member who wants to bear the arms, i.e. to use them to identify him- or herself, needs to difference them.

In 1966, the Bureau of Heraldry introduced a standard pattern for family association arms : a shield of the arms with a blank chief across the top. There is no crest, but a motto is optional. Examples shown belong to the Bredenkamp (BoH 2002), Scheffer (BoH 1992), Van der Walt (BoH 1977), and Viljoen (BoH 1974) associations.

The blank chief (a) identifies the arms as those of a family association, and (b) provides a space for individual members to add charges to personalise the arms for themselves. They can also add a crest (and change the motto if they wish), and register the arms in their own names.

Linde Family Association arms Linde : the family association arms (top), personalised for Johannes Linde (left) and Marthinus Linde (right).

The Linde Family Association arms (BoH 1978), for instance, were differenced for Dr Johannes Linde (BoH 1978) by making the chief embattled and adding acorns, and for his cousin Marthinus Linde (BoH 1982), by making the chief firtree-topped and changing it from silver to gold.

The Fourie Family Association arms (BoH 2008) allow for an additional brisure to identify the branch of the family (descended from one of the founding father's eight sons).

A family association itself does not difference its arms.

Forty-four family association arms have been registered to date. Very few people have registered personalised versions of any of them.

References :
  • Bureau of Heraldry Database.
  • Bodel, J.D.; 'Cadency in SA Family Coats of Arms' in Archives News (Jun 1970).
  • 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.).
  • Heraldry Act 1962 (as amended up to 2001).
  • Hiemstra, V.G.; 'Heraldiek en Registrasie van Familiewapens' in Familia Vol 14 No 2/3 (1977).

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