Can I have (or stop someone else having) religious symbols in my heraldry?

A mailing list commenter noticed that someone was trying to register an Order named “Cross of [placename]” and was surprised. Didn’t he know that the College of Arms doesn’t allow religious symbols to be used in official heraldry?

It turns out (only after some research; I wasn’t sure of this myself at first) that there are two errors in this statement.

The first is to do with the concept of “official” heraldry: the College of Arms doesn’t distinguish between branch registrations — kingdom devices and names of baronies and so on — and personal registrations like your name and arms. They have the same rules, and have to work with the same limitations. So: a kingdom device still needs to be significantly different from all other devices, and an award name still needs to be distinct from all other names. There are some rules about laurel wreaths and how placenames are treated inside award names, but that’s the gist of it.

Secondly, the basic assertion turns out to be mistaken. As Giles Leabrook puts it:

The CoA register “heraldic” symbols. There are many crosses, crescents and stars of David registered, and there will continue to be in the future. There are some “offensive” religious symbols that do not get registered, true.

This brings us to the list of reserved and prohibited charges, which is interesting in itself. Some of these, like the swastika and the Ku Klux Klan’s burning cross are obviously banned for being offensive to modern sensibilities. But most are banned for one simple reason: because nobody has ever found evidence that they were used in medieval and renaissance heraldry.

That is, of course, a loophole, and we saw it in action recently: basically, if you can convince the College of Arms that a particular symbol had period usage and isn’t offensive, they’ll change the rules.  We saw this with the Pentacle: in a recent ruling, the Laurel Queen of arms announced that pentacles (more properly a mullet of five points voided and interlaced, optionally inverted, optionally within and conjoined to an annulet) is not a satanist symbol any more if it ever was, and is valid for registration.  There are not a huge number of examples of its use in period heraldry, but enough for our standards.  This is universally seen as a win for Clue over the forces of mundane redneck bigotry, so we’re all rather pleased.

So if you want an infinity symbol or a starfish or an eight gigabyte iPhone rampant on your arms, just find evidence that it was found in genuine period heraldry, and you’ll overturn the rule. Easy… maybe.

 

Author: Karl Faustus von Aachen (with suggestions and corrections from Giles Leabrook). Updated: 17 May 2009 (AS XLIV)

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