Should I Use the College of Arms for Identifying a Coat of Arms or Crest?
The answer to whether you should hire The College of Arms in my opinion is a resounding NO. The services they provided me were less than worthless, and of very questionable integrity. I would be loathe to level words against this organization like fraudulent or criminal, but taking money and providing nothing in return in every other business dealing I've ever been engaged in would be considered unacceptable and dishonorable. Yet, this is precisely what they may ask you to accept. But, so you fully understand how valueless is the service they provide, I have chronicled it here so hopefully if you choose to wire them money, you'll understand the very real risk that they will keep your money and do nothing for you except provide lip service.
Here's some background. The College of Arms in London, "...maintains registers of arms, pedigrees, genealogies, Royal Licences, changes of name, and flags." The heralds are appointed by the Queen of England. This group was founded in 1484. Heady stuff! As they describe, "The individual Officers of Arms are paid nominal salaries, less than £50 per annum, by the Crown, but conduct their professional practices on a self-employed basis." So, in effect, the government provides them no financial support and they earn a living by charging for their research. If you are trying to research a coat of arms, the College of Arms asks that you contact the Officer in Waiting.
So, I went for it. I had an incredible wax seal set in gold and I wanted help tying it to a particular family or organization. I left an email message and was greeted same day by the Officer in Waiting who happened to be one of the pursuivants. This was March 5th, 2015. On the same date, he wrote,
"Thank you for your enquiry which I have received as Officer in Waiting for the College of Arms. The College of Arms has probably a hundred thousand different coats of arms on record, filed in date order with various nominal indexes, but not computerised. To identify something from a picture or description is extremely time consuming and I normally make a charge of £125 to undertake such a task.
If you would like to send me an image of the arms in question to this email address, I shall be pleased to reply without charge if I recognise them immediately. If not, I shall advise you of my fee."
Encouraged, I sent photos the same day hoping he would recognize it right away to avoid the fee. Time passed and no response from the pursuivant. I followed up about 20 days later to ask if he had a chance to take a look. More than 2 weeks later, I received the following reply,
"I regret that I do not recognise the arms and cannot do so readily. I should be pleased to search the records of the College of Arms in an endeavour to identify them for you. If I can identify them, I shall tell you when they were first granted or confirmed and to whom.
The College of Arms has never been publicly funded and we have to charge for our time. My fee for this work will be £125 which should be sent to me in Sterling drawn on a British bank in favour of College of Arms (or transferred to my client account) if you wish to proceed."
On June 4th, I took the plunge and sent the £125 + a 6.5% fee via PayPal to his personal account. From then on, I entered a long period of silence. Not even a receipt. I requested to know if he had even received the funds on June 17th and received no response. A month later, I again requested to know if the funds had been received. He finally agreed the money had been received and stated that the work would be completed in 3-4 weeks. I heard nothing and finally wrote him on September 4th to get an update on the work. No response. Again on September 26th, I requested an update. No response. On October 8th having heard nothing, I wrote and asked for an update and asked if I needed to send a message to the King of Arms.
It was this that finally provoked the pursuivant to reply and miraculously, the research was completed on October 11, 2014-- 5 months since I made payment and 3 months over deadline! I surmised that the analysis would be detailed owing to the amount of time and concentration they must have put into the task, but that's where I was wrong. What finally came back from the pursuivant was that nothing could be determined. He also provided no analysis, for example, describing the seal formally or any indication that he had done anything at all except to say he had flipped through a few books.
Here's the form letter I received via email in full regarding the wax seal,
"Thank you for your recent email; I am sorry for the delay in writing back to you, but we have been submerged with work over the past few months.
I have now had an opportunity to examine the records of the College of Arms and can report to you as follows.
I first searched the records of the Heralds’ Visitations of the English and Welsh counties during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Officers of Arms went out to each county roughly every generation to oversee the use of arms and to record the pedigrees of the gentry. I also searched the records of grants and confirmations of arms from the Tudor period to the present day. Sadly, I did not find in any of our records the arms engraved on your ring.
A search in Sir James Balfour Paul’s An Ordinary of Arms (Vol. 1, 1903 and Vol. 2, 1977) was made, but once again nothing was found.
I then looked at Elvin’s Handbook of Mottoes (1971) and Fairbairn’s Book of Crests (1905) for the motto, but did not find any reference to that found on your ring.
I finally turned to Burke’s General Armory (1884), a dictionary of arms that lists those families who might have used armorial bearings with or without the sanction of the Heralds. Again, I did not find any relevant reference.
I am sorry that our search has proved unfruitful.
[Name Redacted] MSc
Rouge Croix Pursuivant
College of Arms
130 Queen Victoria Street
London EC4V 4BT
T 020 7332 0666"