If you're researching your family history it’s possible that you may discover ancestors who were entitled to bear arms: displaying a coat of arms that is, not brandishing a musket. This being the case, it’s not uncommon for family history enthusiasts to take an interest in heraldry.

Traditionally coats of arms are drawn by heraldic artists who work with traditional materials such as inks, watercolours and gold leaf on high quality paper or vellum. If you want the ultimate, this is still the way to go although you should be prepared to pay a few hundred pounds. See also: Publishing your family history

Coat of arms

For a passable result, the availability of drawing and painting software has removed the need for some artistic motor skills but, even so, unless you have an eye for design you’ll probably be disappointed at the end result.

There's a third option, however, that totally removes the need for artistic and design skills yet produces results which will be perfectly good enough for placing on a family tree. This is to use dedicated heraldry software and we look at two packages which are very different in their approach.

The first could be described as a rather specialised drawing package that is able to implement the basic principles of heraldry. Our main package is of this type, it’s called Coat of Arms Design Studio and it runs online. There’s also a Pro version for $20 (approx. £13) which adds more features including the ability to download and run it locally.

The second is able to interpret the blazon which is the official way in way in which a particular coat of arms is described. Having interpreted that somewhat peculiar description, the coat of arms is drawn automatically. We’ll take a look at this method too.

One thing we should mention, and one that experts in heraldry are at pains to point out, is that despite public perception to the contrary, and despite the myriad of companies who would have you believe otherwise, there is no such thing as a family coat of arms. Instead, arms are granted to individuals and are passed down through the male line of descent.

It’s quite possible, therefore, that you could find someone with your surname who was entitled to bear arms but you would only be entitled to bear those arms if you could demonstrate a direct lineage.

How to draw a coat of arms for free

1. Go to http://inkwellideas.com/coat_of_arms/free-version/ and wait for the Java code to start. We’re going to create the arms of Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and we suggest you do likewise, following our instructions exactly, before drawing a different shield. If the background was a single colour you’d click on ‘Background Color or Fur’ but we need divisions which we’ll create in the next step.

Coat of arms 1

2. Click on the green box labelled ‘click here to add objects’ and select ‘Add a Division’ from the pull-down menu. The Divisions dialogue appears to the right of the shield and here you should select ‘Per Quarter’ from the ‘Select Division’ menu. This divides the coat of arms into four quarters and, as a result, various boxes appear for colouring those quarters.

Coat of arms 2

3. By default all the quarters are gold which is quite handy since we need the NE and SW quarters to be gold. However, we want the other quarters to be red so click, in turn on ‘NW main Color’ and ‘SE main Color’. When you click on either of those boxes the ‘Color Chooser’ menu appears and you should select Gules and then Save.

Coat of arms 3

4. Our coat of arms has no borders between the divisions so change the Border Width to zero. Our next job is to add a mullet (a star) to the NW quarter so click on the green box in that quarter and select ‘Add a Division’ from the pull-down menu. The New Charge Wizard will appear and you should select Mullet from the ‘Select a Charge’ menu.

Coat of arms 4

5. All we need to finish the coat of arms is to change the mullet from its default gold colour to silver. So, in the box to the right of the coat of arms, click on the gold box labelled Color to the right of the coat of arms to display the ‘Color Chooser’ menu again. Select Argent before clicking on Save.

Coat of arms 5

6. If you might want to edit your coat of arms later you should save the design in Coat of Arms Design Studio’s proprietary format. Having done that (or if you’ve chosen not to) you’ll want to save it as a graphics file which will be in PNG format. To do that, select ‘Save Coast of Arms Design’ and/or ‘Save (Export) Image’ from the File menu.

Coat of arms 6

Next page: Using DrawShield

Using DrawShield to draw a coat of arms

The official definition of a coat of arms is called a blazon. It’s written in a strange mixture of English and Norman French according to very strict rules. The blazon for the coat of arms we created using Coat of Arms Design Studio is “Quarterly Or and Gules in the first quarter a mullet Argent” which makes sense once we know that Or means gold, Gules means red and a mullet is a five pointed star.

Since any reference to someone’s coat of arms will almost certainly provide the blazon, using a clever piece of software called DrawShield provides an easy way to draw a coat of arms. The web app can be found at tinyurl.com/cevh6sj http://www.karlwilcox.com/drawshield/create/.

Try typing “Argent, a lion rampant gules and a bordure sable bezanty” into the box at the top-left and click on ‘Draw Shield!’. The shield corresponding to that description will appear on screen and you can save it to disk as an SVG format image by clicking on ‘Save to file’.

While DrawShield is certainly easy to use it does have its drawbacks compared to Coast of Arms Design Studio. First, although it will usually work with simple coats of arms it’s not hard to find a blazon that it can’t interpret. Second, the blazon defines the essential features but allows for a degree of artistic choice. While Coast of Arms Design Studio provides options for customising elements such as the width of borders and the sizes of symbols, DrawShield provides no such flexibility.