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Women's Heraldry

The rules for women's heraldry were complicated by brothers, marriage, widowhood, and remarriages. Like men, women could inherit or be granted a coat of arms. Unlike men, women's arms never had a helm or crest on top of the shield, since women did not fight on the battlefield. A woman's coat of arms was generally in the shaped of a lozenge, or diamond, when she was unmarried or widowed, but was joined in a shield with her husband's arms upon marriage.


Anne Clifford's personal interest in inheritance issues is apparent in the way she read her copy of John Selden's book on inheritance, Titles of Honor (image top right). She underlined relevant passages and dog-eared important pages, paying particular attention to sections that might inform her in her battle to obtain her father's vast estates. In the chapter on women's titles, shown here, the headings about female inheritance are highlighted in pencil. She recorded on the title page that she read the book in February 1638.


In this pedigree from The Blazon of gentrie . . . for the instruction of all Gentlemen bearers of Armes, John Ferne addresses the issue of female heirs (image middle right). The last row in the pedigree describes the three daughters - Margaret, Alice, and Ellen - as co-heirs, since they had no brother. If an arms-bearing man had only daughters, then they would each bear both of their parents' quartered arms, which would then be conjoined with the arms of their husband if they married. Their children would also be entitled to those arms.


Gerard Legh's rules for heraldry provided answers to frequently asked questions about how coats of arms were created and inherited. In the image bottom right, he addresses a series of hypothetical questions concerning women's arms: Can a woman bear her father's arms without difference? How should a woman bear arms if she is a widow? What if her mother dies and her father remarries and has a son? What if a woman with a coat of arms marries someone without a coat and they then have a son? His answers form a still-valuable heraldic grammar-book.

Selden. Titles of Honor. London, 1631

Ferne. The blazon of gentrie: deuided into two parts. London, 1586

Legh. The accedence of armorie. London, 1591

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