To whom these Presents shall come

The shield of George Darley, poet and novelist, granted in 1804.

Among the most frustrating experiences for internet heraldists is the difficulty of actually finding citations for grants of arms. Burke’s and Debrett’s have long recorded the arms of the peerage and baronetage, but knights and gentlemen (or those whose higher dignities came and went between publications) are left out, and in any case the editions of either that can be read for free online tend to be decades if not centuries old, so that recent grants remain elusive.

The Canadian Heraldic Authority, of course, has its public register, but its British counterparts are in no position to form anything similar. The rolls of arms at the Lyon Court and the College of Arms may be inspected in person for a fee. There has been talk of the latter digitising its records, but even then their access will likely still be restricted, for the corporation would otherwise ruin its financial model.

Ireland, though, has provided an unexpected boon. Some days ago Stephen Plowman of Heraldry Online blogged that the National Library of Ireland had uploaded microfilm scans of all that country’s grants and confirmations of arms from 1630 to 2009. The volumes are labelled by single capital letters, which is a little misleading as the contents are not arranged alphabetically but chronologically. The handwriting and blackletter print are sometimes challenging to read through a computer monitor, but most of the text is legible.

Some of the stories revealed are quite fascinating – there are several cases of people seeking posthumous grants for their ancestors, as well as seeking “name and arms” clauses to inherit the arms of their in-laws. This sometimes leads to the Ulster King of Arms writing out complicated stories of marriages, ancestries and deaths.

As in other places, there is the dilemma of whether the herald should “grant” arms anew or merely “confirm” arms that were assumed long ago. My favourite reference so far (in Volume C) is to a shield long being displayed on a decorative plate in the petitioner’s house!

Although not all of the names mentioned in the books have turned out to be that famous, there have been a fair few additions to my Wikipedia collection. Even individuals who were not themselves notable may be the ancestors of those who were, and those fill in the heraldic gaps indirectly.