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When to Use a Family Coat-of-Arms

8 April 2011

I have, of late, seen many Filipino families branding their clan’s websites and Facebook pages with ancient Spanish coats-of-arms that correspond to their surnames.  Here are some facts which I hope budding Filipino family historians can consider before committing a possible genealogical faux pas.

The act of designing, displaying, and recording coats-of-arms for the purpose of identifying a family or individual is known as heraldry.

An early reference to the use of family symbols to represent family can be found in the bible*.  According to the Saint James version, in Numbers 2:2. “Every man of the children of Israel shall encamp by his own standard, with the banner of their father’s house: over against the tabernacle of meeting shall they encamp”.

The usage of coats-of-arms had a military purpose, when it was first adopted in Europe in the 12th century.  Soldiers usually wore the king’s crest to distinguish comrades and enemies in the battlefield.    Later, noble men were allowed by the king to design their individual coats-of-arms.  This was followed by the practice of using the crest for the descendants of that individual.  Traditional coats-of-arms were most prevalent in Germany, France, England, Spain, and Italy, but all the countries in Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia adopted the usage of coat of arms eventually.  Institutions such as churches, governments and universities also adopted the practice.  The crest or coat-of-arms can be likened to a trademarked logo today.

King Carlos IV of Spain ennobled the Tuason Family in 1795.

By the 13th century, commoners and peasants began adopting family crests which required the creation of regulatory institutions, like the College of Heralds in the United Kingdom, which registers crests and records lineage of the ennobled.   In societies where one’s pedigree defines one’s wealth and reach of influence,  family crests were legal properties transmitted from father to the eldest legitimate heir.  Those who claimed the right to “bear arms” or to use a crest had to provide proof either of a grant of arms to them by the country’s heraldic institution, or of descent from the entitled ancestor.

The Royal Cedula, signed by King Carlos IV of Spain, dated 20th of August 1795, granting Don Antonio Tuason the only hidalguia or mayorazgo (a non-titled nobility, exempt from paying royal tributes and recipent of land grants) awarded in the history of the Philippines,  refers to the legal manner in which the family crest was held:

“That he [the heir to the mayorazgo] must keep in his possession the original parchment Royal Patent of Nobility of my house, and in case that it should be lost, he must immediately request a certified copy thereof, from the Royal Audiencia, the Noble City, or the Court of Justice of Tondo in whose offices it has been recorded and so likewise he must do with the certificate of the coat of arms and insignia of my house, which have been registered in the said Noble City.”

Another important consideration is the historic Claveria Decree of 1849.  The law enforced by Governor Narciso Claveria resulted in many Filipinos changing their surnames to facilitate the administration of public services in the colony.  While there were exceptions to the edict, in the case of many Filipinos, their surnames were not passed on from ancient ancestors; rather, they selected from a government-issued catalog in the mid-19th century.

So, when does it make sense to brandish a noble family’s coat-of-arms?  If and only if, one has a documented direct paternal link to a person who had legal rights to use the crest.  Now, if you want to create your very own neo-family crest, which reflects your family’s strengths and traits, you will find these apps helpful — [1][2][3].

Family History Research Notes

1. “Coat of Arms”. My Lineage.  Date published:  2009.  Date accessed:  10 April 2011.

2. “Coat of Arms”.  Wikipedia.  Date published:  08 April 2011.  Date accessed:  10 April 2011.

3. G.R. No. L-23923, Barretto versus Tuason, dated 23 March 1927.  LawPH.  Date accessed:  10 April 2011.

4. “Pedigree Chart”.  Wikipedia.  Date published: 01 April 2011.  Date accessed:  19 April 2011.

5.  Santiago, Luciano PR.  “To Love and to Suffer: The Development of the Religious Congregations for Women in the Spanish Philippines, 1565-1898″.  Quezon City:  Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2005.

6.  “Spanish Nobility”.  Wikipedia.  Date published: 01 April 2011.  Date accessed:  11 April 2011.

7. Thanks to Jude G for contributing the reference to heraldry in the bible!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jude permalink
    16 December 2011 10:38

    Hi Mona-

    Thank you for this article….I have only known around 4 people in this country who has interests in heraldry. That makes you the 5th.

    Anyway, I think the earliest written accounts on the usage of symbols can be found in the old testament.

    “Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of [his] father’s house…. And the children of Israel…. pitched by their standards and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers”.

    ( The book of Numbers, 2 v.2 and 34 )

    Reuben – Man/ Water
    Simeon- Sword Gate
    Levi- Ephod of the high priest
    Judah- Lion
    Zebulun- Ship
    Isaachar- Donkey
    Dan- Serpent/ horse
    Gad- Troop
    Asher- Cup
    Napthali- Stag
    Benjamin- Wolf
    Ephraim- Ox, unicorn
    Manasseh- Olive Branch, arrows
    Zarah- Red lion, red hand

    • Mona permalink
      17 December 2011 09:40

      Thanks, Jude! If you are a writer (amateur or pro) who can generate original content on Philippine history and ancestry, please give me a holler. I would love to make you a contributor. :)

  2. Lynn permalink
    23 January 2012 04:47

    Hi Mona. I really like your article because I was curious about coat of arms. I knew that a lot of filipinos were given spanish names. Is there a good way to trace our ancestry? I live in the U.S. All I was told by my mother is that her mom is half-chinese and her dad is part of a Spanish family in Pasig, Metro Manila with the last name of Ferrer. My dad’s family is from Taytay, Rizal. One of my aunts said that one way to trace is by going to their church which has a list of all the couples they married. Are there other ways?
    Thanks.

    • Mona permalink*
      23 January 2012 18:09

      Hi Lynn. The first thing to do is plot what you know already. You may want to consider using an on-line family tree platform (like Geni.com, Ancestry.com or MyHeritage), if only to check if anyone else has created a family tree connected to yours.

      Even from the US, you can go to the nearest Church of the Latter Day Saints and order microfilm of records from the Philippines. It would take longer than if you were here; but you can scan church and civil records from the place/time you are interested in. Good luck!

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