The History of Families New and Long Lost: An American Compares Coat of Arms with Kate Middleton’s

News Abroad

The author will be speaking at the Brooklyn Historical Society on April 27 about her colonial American ancestors who were related to the British royals.

Americans are following the royal wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William for many details—the wedding dress, the hats the guest will wear, the couple’s romance and the pageantry of the royal event.  I am following the wedding with great curiosity, because I couldn’t wait to see the coat of arms Kate Middleton, whose family didn’t already have one, would be granted. 

There was such a buzz about a royal marrying a so-called “commoner,” and because Kate’s ancestors were laborers, carpenters and coal miners, I wanted to see what kind of design they would choose for her coat of arms. 

After the wedding, her coat of arms will be combined with Prince William’s arms, and impaled into her husband’s in what is called, “impaled arms.”  Her emblems and images will be on the right and his on the left, and this will form her new royal arms.

Amazingly, I, an American, an African-American, am able to compare this experience with Kate Middleton. Not the marrying detail, but the granting of the official, personal coat of arms.  A coat of arms, often referred to as a family crest, is a legal document, a written record of family.  It represents a family or person who was, or is a noble or royal, or who was or is related to nobles and royals.  So it was fascinating this week to see the coat of arms Kate Middleton received.

This week the Queen and the British College of Arms and the Court of Chivalry granted Kate’s coat of arms.  She requested that hers not be an individual coat of arms but one for her family.  The arms were granted to her father, Michael Middleton.  She and her family received her arms, because she is marrying into the royal family. 

Interestingly, and ironically, I received my official coat of arms from the Queen and Scotland’s Lord Lyon, King of Arms, in 2005 because after doing my American family’s genealogy I uncovered records of our colonial American ancestors who were nobles related to the royal families in Scotland and England.  Our main ancestors were farmers from medieval Ghana who were slaves and free people in the British Jamaican colony, who rebelled as maroons and freed themselves.  The noble whose coat of arms I received was an abolitionist, though some of his relatives owned slaves and plantations. 

So now that I see Kate’s coat of arms, I’m fascinated to do a comparison to my official coat of arms.  Both our coats of arms represent our ancestors and their ancestral places.  A coat of arms is based on a male ancestor, and descends along the male line.  Men receive a shield and women a lozenge-shaped crest, as Kate did, or an oval, as I did. 

Both our arms have a chevron: Chevrons represent ancestors who builders or others who succeeded in work and faithful service. Kate’s chevron in yellow represents her mother, Carole Middleton, and her mother’s Goldsmith ancestors.  The chevron represents their ancestors who were laborers, carpenters and coal miners.  My chevron represents medieval Scottish ancestors who were nobles who built churches, castles and other monuments.

Strength is the dominant theme in Kate Middleton’s coat of arms.  Chevron, the strength of builders and workers, separate three acorns on oak twigs, which represent the “great oaks from the small acorns” in the region where her family lived.  It has three emblems of oak with an acorn, one for her, and one for her sister, Pippa, and the other for her brother, James.  Her coat of arms can be used by her whole family, because when she marries Prince William on April 29, she will receive a new royal coat of arms, a blend of her own and of Prince William’s.  His will be in the left quadrants and hers in the right. 

Both our coats of arms represent blended ancestry.  Instead of my ancestors’ cinquefoil, the five-sided flower, which represents hope and joy, I selected the five-sided flower of the Tree of Life, the national flower of Jamaica, where my African and European ancestors built families.  The arms are granted, based on documented written records; I found birth records dating to 1726 in the Church of England archives.  The Church of England in the American Colonies collected the birth and marriage records from all the other denominations.  My Scottish ancestors were Presbyterians and they and my Ghanaian ancestors were defiant enough to leave birth records for their children, even when the colonial laws banned such an act, and had severe penalties.

The emblems and the colors on a family crest are quite personal.  I chose green for my Ghanaian and Jamaican ancestors who were farmers.  I chose an inkwell, which represents writing and the research I did to find these ancestors.  When I chose my ancestors’ royal lion for my own coat of arms, I selected a red lion on gold background.  The Lord Lyon wrote to me, saying I could not have those colors because they belong to the royal family.  I was not embarrassed, because as an American, this was all new to me, and I’d explained as much to him in my correspondence.  He was quite gracious and very patient as we chose my design.

I was used to emblems, because I had already studied the adinkra, nature-based symbols and images of the Medieval Ghanaian and other African ancestors I found.  But the symbols and emblems of British nobles and royals were quite new to me. 

Green represents hope, joy and loyalty in love; red, warrior strength and magnanimity; blue, truth and loyalty; black, steadiness, constancy, stability; white or silver represents peace and sincerity.  Kate’s family chose white chevronels that frame the chevron; they represent the peace and quiet of the mountain peaks in the lake district, a skiing area they adore.

But colors of the chevrons also distinguish her coat of arms from a similar one that belongs to someone else, a sixteenth-century noble.  Like Scotland’s Lord Lyon, England’s Garter King of Arms, whose research of ancestry is thorough, did a design of a crest that is half blue on the left side and half red on the right side.  Coats of arms have to be individual and distinct.  The couple’s souvenir program will have Prince William’s coat of arms on the front and Kate Middleton’s on the back.  The red and blue colors will complement those of Prince William’s.  After the wedding, the arms of their families will be blended—impaled.

Seeing her coat of arms, I learned something about my own.  The ribbon on top of her coat of arms means she is single.  I had know that the ribbon on top of mine means I’m single.  Now I know.  Now everyone knows.

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