Doyle Heraldry

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The Doyle Coat of Arms?

So, like thousands of Irish families in America, in Britain, in New Zealand, in South Africa, in Australia -- and even in Ireland -- you've bought an attractive polished replica of the Doyle family crest or "coat of arms."

There are a few things you ought to know.

First there is no such thing as a "Doyle family coat of arms."

According to experts in Heraldry, "Arms" were (and are) granted to individuals (and their direct descendants). Patrick O'Shea, one such expert, writes, "Most of these examples of armorial bearings originated as English Grants of Arms in the late Medieval or early Renaissance periods. Today the regulation of armorial bearings in Ireland is handled by the Chief Herald of Ireland or the U.K. College of Arms (in Northern Ireland), and both authorities continue to make new grants of arms to worthy individuals."

O'Shea also writes that "Irish heraldry does appear to have native roots at least five centuries older than the system introduced by the Anglo-Normans in 1169."

In order to display a "coat of arms" as your own, you must prove that you are the direct first born descendant of the individual to whom the arms were granted.

Unless you can prove that you are the heir to a properly matriculated “coat of arms”, you have no Arms whatsoever until you matriculate a set at the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland in Dublin.  (If you use the Arms of someone else then you are usurping Arms, if you make up your own Arms, then you are using bogus Arms.)

The legal position is quite simple ... Arms belong to the person who records them and the heirs of that person according to the limitations of the Grant or of tailzie.  However, whereas in England, the right to a “coat of arms’ passes to all male descendents of the grantee, in Ireland and Scotland a “coat of arms” is considered to be heritable property and thus can only belong to one person at a time.  This means that the younger sons of a grantee have no direct right to inherit the Arms until elder branches of the family have died out.  All younger sons must rematriculate the Arms with a difference in order to possess legal Arms.

Unfortunately, there are lots of unscrupulous merchants worldwide who are happy to promulgate false information about the subject of heraldry.  They will happily take your money to sell you “Your Family Coat of Arms”, which they supply simply by finding an armigerous family that happens to share your surname.  (We suggest that you avoid these businesses;  if you want anything more than a decorative wall-hanging, they are a waste of your money.)

This of course means that all those people who offer to sell you “Your Coat of Arms” or “Your family’s coat of arms” are wrong.  If you are lucky, you might get a cheaply produced version of the arms of Sir John Doyle from the 19th CenturyThis of course means that all those people who offer to sell you “Your Coat of Arms” or “Your family’s coat of arms” are wrong.  If you are lucky, you might get a cheaply produced version of the arms of Sir John Doyle from the 19th Century, but there is every chance that the Arms will simply be those of the first person of your surname that they can find in a reference book of heraldry.

There is a perfectly acceptable way for those of Doyle descent who do not have their own “coat of arms” to have some heraldic display.  This is in the wearing of the Clan Badge.  This is akin to a military cap badge, and like it, is not the personal possession of the wearer, but a badge that proclaims that person to be a member of a particular group.  In traditional Celtic dress, the belt and buckle Badge is worn as a cap badge, and it can also be seen on kilt pins and as sporran ornamentation.

When you want Arms, but do not possess Arms and are not descended from someone who possessed Arms, then you must petition for a Grant of Arms.

The individual Heralds of Arms at The Office Chief Herald of Ireland have a great deal of discretion to devise any “coat of arms” for you, but the process is a conversation rather than an imposition, and an applicant’s desires will be taken into consideration.  Generally, if you bear the surname of an armigerous Irish family, your arms will be devised to reflect in some way the Arms of the head of that family.  This is due to the “clannish” nature of Irish society where it is considered that by bearing a particular surname you are proclaiming yourself a follower of the chief of that name.

Once the Arms have been devised, they are painted onto vellum together with the accepted details of personal and family history.  The Arms are recorded in the Register of The Chief Herald of Ireland (a public register which may be inspected in the same manner by which someone inspects a register of Births, Marriages, and Deaths), the Arms then come under the protection of the laws of Ireland, and those Arms also become the personal property of the petitioner.

As explained above, only one person may rightfully use a “coat of arms” at any particular time.  All other persons must bear Arms with some form of difference ... either temporary or permanent.

The main temporary difference used with any frequency in Ireland and Scotland is the “Label”, which is used by the nearest heir to a “coat of arms”.  In Irish and Scots practice this includes presumptive heirs as well as apparent heirs, so an only daughter would be heraldically correct in using a Label ... though as a daughter she could also use her father’s “coat of arms” undifferenced.  The rule also applies to more distant relatives ... so long as they are the nearest heir to the “coat of arms”.  It must, however, be remembered that the Label is only temporary, so should a nearer heir be born, the previous nearest heir must drop the Label and matriculate an appropriate cadet difference (which would be best practice anyway).  In most cases, “differencing” involves the use of a bordure that is tinctured, charged and generally devised to denote the position of the person in the family.

Many people mistakenly call a Shield bearing Arms a “crest”, for example in the phrase “my family’s crest”, which usually refers to the Shield itself, or perhaps a Badge.

A full heraldic Achievement (a “coat of arms”) consists of:

-         a Shield (with Arms painted on it, obviously);

-         above the Shield, a Helm or Helmet;

-         hanging from the Helmet, the Mantling, which represents a piece of cloth used for protection from the sun.  The Mantling is frequently arranged in decorative swirls around the shield, suggesting a tattered cloth hacked about in fighting;

-         a Torse, or wreath, being twists of cloth wound around the Helmet;

-         the Crest, sitting on the Torse.

 Not all the above elements have to be present;  the essential part is the Shield.  There may also be other bits and pieces, such as Mottos, Badges, or Warcries

“Coats of arms” are described in a technical language (the Blazon), which has been devised over the centuries by heralds, with the aim of describing even the most complex “coats of arms” concisely and unambiguously.

 A question that is often asked is, what do particular Arms mean?

Without knowing the circumstances of the original Grant, it is difficult to say whether a “coat of arms” means anything at all, except that someone (grantee or herald) liked the design.

In the Middle Ages, bestiaries, popular tales and folklore contributed greatly to the association of specific animals with specific characteristics or virtues, some of which persist to this day (owls are wise, elephants have memory, etc).  It is quite possible, for any given “coat of arms”, that the original bearer of the Arms chose an animal with such associations in mind.

Often a “coat of arms” will contain charges alluding to the original grantee’s career or interests;  for example medieval merchants and guildsmen often included the tools of their trade.  These may become less appropriate as the “coat of arms” is passed down through the generations, or their significance is forgotten.  Quite elaborate schemes can be developed:  a former Governor of New Zealand has a “coat of arms” based on the theme “a cat among the pigeons”, which is apparently how she sees her career.

Some charges were taken from the Arms of a bearer’s feudal lord or protector, as a mark of loyalty.  For example, the Maltese cross in the Arms of several towns in Switzerland is a reference to the Knights of Malta, who were once sovereign in that area.  The frequency with which the “bar”, a type of fish, appears in “coats of arms” of former duchy of Bar in Eastern France can only be explained in this way.  Also, imperial eagles, which appear in many Italian “coats of arms”, were originally meant as a sign of allegiance to the Imperial party in the conflicts that tore medieval Italy.

Origins of Heraldic Arms

A much-disputed topic, to be sure. I hereby summarize the discussion of the origins of armory in Pastoureau's Traité d'Héraldique (Paris, 1993).

The Causes

Form the 14th to the 20th c., many hypotheses have been mad eabout the origin of armory in the Western World. Three leading theories are now all abandoned: a direct origin in classical antiquity, or in runes and family emblems of German-Scandinavian populations, or in Muslim countries via the Crusades. He states that it is now accepted that the emergence of armory is due to the evolution of military equipment from the late 11th to the mid-12th c, with fighters unrecognizable under their helmets (there is a nice illustration from the 11th century Bayeux tapestry showing William lifting his helmet so as to be recognized by his troops in battle). This led fighters to paint emblems on their shields. The question is then to establish a proper chronology of this emergence and of the transformation of these emblems into armory, i.e., constant use of one design by the same person and application of strict rules in the design itself. (This last point the most puzzling, and which sets apart European armory from most other systems).

The Formation

Pastoureau summarizes Galbreath's opinions (which he thinks have been confirmed over time). Armory resulted from the combination of several pre-existing elements into one system. The elements pertain to insigns, banners, seals and shields. Insigns have contributed certain figures and the collective character of some arms. Banners brought colors as well as some geometric elements (ordinaries, partitions, semys) and the link of arms to fiefs. From seals come a number of family emblems already in use by some families in Germany, Flanders and Italy, canting arms, and the hereditary aspect. Shields contributed the shape of the design, furs, and some ordinaries (border, pale, chief).

This combination did not take place uniformly over time and space. It does seem that banners played a predominant role, and textiles in general, in shaping the way colors were used, as well as yielding a number of terms (more than half of the heraldic terms common in the Middle Ages come from the vocabulary of textiles).

The three main sources of emblems are thus the individual's own distinctive marks, used in battle for recognition, the family's emblems, probably in use for some time, and the fief's rallying banner, which served as a flag for vassals in combat. Elements from these three sources combined to form armory, which tries to play all three roles at the same time: identify individuals, be transmissible within a family, and represent ownership or claims to fiefs. In order to fulfill these contradictory goals, heraldry has developed mechanisms such as differencing (which allows to reconcile individual marks with hereditary emblems) and marshalling (which allows to express property rights as well as lineage).

The Date

The Bayeux tapestry provides a terminus a quo: no heraldry there. Combattants have designs on their shields, but the same design is seen on different individuals' shields (even on opposite sides of the battle) and the same individual uses different designs at different times. The usual first example is the Le Mans enamel from the tomb of Geffrey Plantagenet. The enamel is now dated to 1160-65; the chronicle of Jean Rapicault which narrates the gift of the shield in 1127 is itself also from a later date, 1170-75. Furthermore, the only extant seal of Jeffrey (on a 1149 document) shows no arms. So there is no contemporary evidence for the 1127 "birthdate" of heraldry.

A recension of all seals dating from before 1160 and displaying unmistakable heraldic elements, about 20 in all, show that the emblems appear on the banner before they do on the shield, they appear all across Western Europe in a short period of time (1120-1150) and until 1140 geometric patterns dominate floral or animal motifs. The oldest exactly dated seal with a coat of arms is a seal of Raoul of Vermandois from 1146; an earlier seal, dated ca. 1135, shows the same arms on a banner.

Pastoureau thus distinguishes 2 phases: the transformation of decorative motifs painted on shields into permanent and individual emblems (1100-1140) and the transformation of the latter into hereditary emblems subjected to precise rules (1140-80).

He suggests a number of alternative sources: illuminated manuscripts, sculptures, everyday objects (textiles, eating instruments) though they all suffer from a problem of dating. Texts may yield information. Finally, coins, especially bracteates (one-sided thin silver coins from Germany) present a promising avenue of research: pre-1160 coins show some fluctuation in shield designs, but remarkable stability of banners for the owners of a given fief.

It seems clear to him that, throughout the 12th c., individuals used motifs on their shields primarily based on taste, but banners presented a constant emblem for rallying, linked not to the individual but to the fief. Seals and miniatures show us the banners of some major fiefs around 1150, and they are all geometric and bi-color: Luxemburg (barry), Vermandois (chequy), Savoy (cross), Burgundy (bendy), Aragon and Provence (pallets), Flanders (girony), Hainaut (chevronny).


However, for members, supporters, and sponsors of the Clann O DubhGhaill/Clan Doyle it is very appropriate that they wear the official Clan Badge on any occasion or style of clothing (and particularly when wearing Celtic Dress). The Clan Badge is also available on a wall plaque for display in the family home and the office; and it features the armed Griffin within the traditional Celtic strap & buckle design, with the official Doyle Tartan in the background.



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 Last updated 01 May, 2001