CONNECTIONS: Nostalgia for trappings of royalty

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By Tuesday, Oct 31 Life In the Berkshires  2 Comments
A plate from 'America Heraldica,' which catalogs the coats of arms of American families before 1800. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

On Sept. 28, 1896, the New York Sun reported: “Coats of Arms in Demand…There are any number of persons in this country who can easily trace their line directly to the person who originally had a coat of arms and many who cannot.”

The article gave an example. A young lady on the occasion of her wedding asked the engraver to emboss her thank-you notes with her family’s coat of arms. The engraver kept a book of arms and from it she pointed to one with confidence.

She said, “That’s it.”

She selected the coat of arms of Henry VI, who died childless at 20 years old.

The article concluded that many Americans select a coat of arms they think pretty and to which they have no connection or right. In 1888, the New York Sun reported that “nearly all [coats of arms] worn is this country are bogus.”

“I supply coats of arms to all the prominent families in New York,” the little old man told the reporter.

The reporter asked, “What do you do in case they have no coat of arms?”

“O well, in that case there is no law to hinder a man from adopting one.”

Not quite true: There were those who eschewed what Ward McAllister, the arbiter of fashion, called “the irregular state of affairs.”

Edward Vermont, editor of the book “America Heraldica,” told the New York Sun: “The fact is there are very few [American] families that are entitled to arms…I do not suppose there are six hundred families in America who have any title to the arms they wear.”

“How large a proportion of the coats of arms we see on carriage panels are genuine?” the reporter asked.

“Not over 5 percent,” replied Mr. Vermont.

Genuine or ersatz, the desire for a coat of arms was rampant in this country. A hundred years after ejecting the king and rejecting the royal hierarchy, apparently, we wanted it back, or at least we wanted a social connection to it.

The Penn family coat of arms, consistent with 16th-century design

“The arms are not bogus – they are well-known – but the persons who wear them have no right to them whatever,” Vermont concluded.

Having a coat of arms was a fad during the Gilded Age. In part, coats of arms are decorative, and the Gilded Age prized decoration: It wasn’t called “gilded” for nothing. In part, however, it was deadly serious. Imagine this: America was thought of as little more than what, today, we would call a third-world country. The country, and especially the Gilded Age elite, sought recognition as civilized and powerful. They wanted – who doesn’t? – respect and a seat at the international table. They did many things to gain them. They built museums and theaters. In 1893 at the Columbia Exhibition, they built a whole city of beautiful architecture, art, science and technology. They dressed, ate and drank as the western Europeans did, and they claimed descent from the best European families. They wanted an economic aristocracy and claiming connection to the Old World aristocracy was one way to grasp it.

If you step back 200 years, our earliest settlers abjured their connection with their European forebears, rejecting coats of arms. However, times had changed and, at the end of the 19th century, everyone who could begged, borrowed or bought arms.

Remember the shoemaker’s children? Well, in the past 30 years, I have researched everyone’s family but my own. Frankly, it never occurred to me. My grandson, on the other hand, was curious about his antecedents. With the computer skills commanded by American children, DNA analysis and a list of family surnames, he found out a good deal.

He uncovered the requisite drop of royal blood and coveted coats of arms – two. He checked the accuracy of family lore. I remember my grandfather speaking only of horse thieves and pistol-packing judges even though there were also English receivers of knighthoods, arms and royal land grants in the new world. When we gild the lily, we do so with what we find most interesting. Evidently my grandfather was a man of catholic tastes.

The Butt family coat of arms, consistent with 16th-century design

On the other hand, that land grantee, William Penn, is an ancestor about whom I am ambivalent. After all, King Charles II gave Penn the colony of Pennsylvania and he died in debtor’s prison. The king granted the land in March 1681 to satisfy debt he owed Penn’s father, Sir William Penn, admiral and money lender. Penn died penniless in 1718. Really – how do you squander all of Pennsylvania? He did it and therefore, was a scary progenitor – a dubious role model.

The two families with rights to arms were the Penn and Butt families. Butt was a good name in England and a joke in America. The derivation of most European names is either geographic or occupational. Butt is both. It could be the name of a family living on land that abuts a border or it could mean a target referring to archery. Nonetheless, in America, most changed it. They added an -e (Butte) or an -s (Butts) or a -ler (Butler). Penn was perfectly acceptable on both sides of the pond and the name remained unchanged.

Now whether I or my grandson has any right to either coat of arms is buried in the mists of history and is more than I can figure out. There are a dozen complicating factors in determining the right to arms. For example, if an ignobilis – a man not entitled to bear arms – married a woman with a coat of arms, the children could not use the mother’s arms. If both parents had coats of arms, the right followed to the next generation, but then was dependent upon the next marriage.

Here they are and, to help you know what you are looking at, here are a few pieces of information – the few I know.

At the top of each is the family motto, always in Latin. The Penn motto was “Glory and righteousness;” the Butt motto was “They can because they think they can.” Under the motto is the crest, the helm and the field. The horse’s head crest means ready and willing to serve. The demi-lion rampant is pure – impeccable. Just looking at the two coats of arms, you can see one belongs to a family of higher rank than the other. The helm (helmet) is the giveaway. A steel helmet dexter (facing right) is that of an esquire or gentleman. The silver and gold helmet face front is that of a peer. The field (shield) tells of occupation. The roundels (three colorless circles on the field) represent plates, that is, coins – perhaps for our moneylender to the king or simply a man of means. The chevron generally relates to the military, so the owner may have been archer to the king. The colors also have meaning. Blue is fidelity or fealty, yellow is glee, red (gule) is the color of princes. Coats of arms are biographical shorthand.

Right to them or no right, like the silly young bride in the engraver’s shop, I agree the arms are very pretty.


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2 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Carole Owens says:

    A reader stopped me and asked that I correct an error. He pointed out that Henry the IV did not die childless. It was a New York Sun reporter in September of 1896 who made the error so I cannot apologize for or correct it. I can only hope it was clear that I was quoting and if not I apologize for that.

  2. Carole Owens says:

    Nor did Henry VI

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