I have been asked many times about the authenticity of the Thayer Coat of Arms presently used by many descendents1.
Obviously, there are a few of us whose original interest in heraldry does not emanate from a desire to possess a coat of arms for our own families. Additionally, I doubt there are many out there who do not have a profound sense of pride and love for our wonderful Thayer surname. However, I caution that our readers spend money to decorate their homes and belongings with heraldic devices that they never had a legitimate right to. Those who do so may be advertising to all the world a false pretense of noble heritage an kinship to a family from whom we cannot prove descent. Furthermore, in some countries (such as Scotland) a civil suit can be brought against a person who uses an unauthorized coat of arms.
Concerning the present commonly used Thayer coat of arms: Our Thayer surname was derived from “Tayer, Tawier or Tawyer” with the letter “h” not being added until the after the family came to New England. It was originally a trade name for one who dresses skins, and it will be remembered that each of the Colonial immigrant ancestors, Thomas, Richard, and Nathaniel, were shoemakers or cordwainers by trade.
From The New England Historic Genealogical Register (July 1906) we learn the following: “No coat-of-arms appear on any tablet or monument of the family at the parish church, St. Mary’s of Thornbury, and the fact that Edward Tayer2 of Oldbury-on-Severn, in the parish of Thornbury, was disclaimed by the Heralds at their Visitation of Gloucestershire in 1625, for using arms without proof of authority, tends to show that the family was not armorial. The name is now extinct in Thornbury. A family spelling the name Theyer and Thayern and having the same root “taw” had long been at Brockworth in Gloucestershire, a parish twenty-five miles northeast of Thornbury, and there was an armorial family of Tawyer at Raounds in Northamptonshire, about eighty miles northeast of Brockworth and one hundred and five miles from Thornbury; also an armorial family of Thayer at Great Baddow and later at Thayden Garnen [sic] in county Essex, afterwards of London; but no connection between these families has been established, so far as is known”
The only extant Coat of Arms in use in America today, to my knowledge, is the one described as “Arms – Per pale ermine and gules, three talbots’ heads erased counterchanged. Crest – A talbot’s head ermine erased gules.” This Coat of Arms was granted during the visitation of the Heralds to the county of Essex, England between the years of 1664 and 1668 to “Humfrey Thayer of Much Badow in com. Essex.” This means that only Humfrey; his son Anthony Thayer of the city of London; Anthony’s son Humfrey Thayer of Thoydon Garnon, Essex, England (“Gent. Petitioner extradinary to King Charles 2nd”); and possibly the latter’s children (Samuel, Eliz., Mary, Sarah, John and Anne) were entitled to its use! I have considerable doubts that any Thayer in the United States today descends from this line. Perhaps there was a connection between the ancestor of the first Humfrey and the ancestors of our earliest known ancestor, “John Thayer” of Thornbury, Gloucestershire, England, but the chances of finding such a relationship are very minuscule.
In order that we may better comprehend the inappropriate use of the “Thayer” coat of arms being promoted by some of the present day heraldic firms, it is helpful if we first have an understanding of the slightly snobbish subject of Heraldry.
Through the centuries, the origin of Heraldry has been a matter of much speculation. Most certainly, there was no such thing as a Coat of Arms in existence at the time of the Norman Conquest, and remained so until about the beginning of the 12th century. By the 13th century, Coats of Arms were used universally throughout Europe and a science of Heraldry was developed in which known and accepted rules were established, some of which are still in use today.
The practice of Armory use was once created as a practical war-like device during the Medieval times to enable soldiers to distinguish one another. The upper classes, who asserted nobility of birth, were the land holders from whose land the military units were recruited, and upon whom the leadership in battle obviously fell.
During the time of warfare, however, the armor which the brave soldiers wore, so completely concealed the face and otherwise hid the identity of the individual that the Feudal Lords were confronted with a necessity of imposing an emblem, represented in colors, on the shield and other armorial bearings, by which the illiterate followers could be distinguished. Consequently, these somewhat prestigious devices, which were intended to be hereditary in nature, became recognized as signs of nobility of blood and as emblems of the upper, privileged classes.
Therefore, with the possession of arms being such a matter of privilege, there inevitably followed a certain prestige associated to that effect, and it became necessary that a standard of definition be instituted by which the arms for which official authority could not be shown would be excluded.
The Heraldic Visitations were an attempt on the part of the Crown to control the use of arms by its subjects and began during the Reign of Henry VIII. In 1530 a Royal Commission was given authorization to “Officers of Arms” to visit the various counties in England with the objective of registering arms and pedigrees of the nobility and gentry, and to reprove and control those who laid claim to the use of arms they had no right to possess.
In-as much as the study of heraldry encompassed it’s very own language, and for the purpose of preventing the possibility of duplication of design, the College of Arms was erected in England in 1484. The tours of inspection took place at least three times throughout the 40 counties, commencing in 1530 and encompassing 158 years to the year 1688, when no further visitations were commissioned. By this time the Heralds would have been compelled to accept the bulk of arms “borne by prescription.” After the years of Visitations, it would have been reasonable to assume that claims to arms by the user could be allowed if they went back before 1530. It is also reasonable to assume that genuine arms originating before then, and having been in proper use during that time period, have been appropriately registered.
When theses officers of arms conducted their Visitations, they were empowered to deface any monuments which bore arms without authority. They must surely have encountered some arms which were utilized for the pleasure of the families who were not entitled to their proper use. One must be sympathetic with the monumental task of the Heralds, not only for the difficulty of their responsibilities, but also in consideration of the problems concerning social position which was most certainly affected by their decisions. Some persons who had claim to gentility and were living in the style of gentlemen were allowed arms, while others were not. It is reasonable to assume that the Heralds also encountered some “marginal” cases.
The Heralds were accustomed to accepting arms not granted by the College of Arms IF they had been in use for a sufficient period of time and if the users were persons of gentility. This procedure was known as “Arms by Prescription,” and the period of time in consideration apparently varied according to the strictness of the Herald. Of a rule however, the arms claimed by those families must have been used by them for no less than sixty years, or at least two generations before the claim was made. Therefore the right of adopting arms which had existed from the earliest days of armory was recognized and subjected only to confirmation by the Heralds. Once the Visitations ceased, Heraldry entered into a period of decay, although in America today, we are currently enjoying a greater interest in the subject than any other time in history. Unfortunately, there are a number of companies who promote the unauthorized use of arms and sell them to the unsuspecting public.
Contrary to what these firms would like you to believe, Coats of Arms have never been granted to surnames. There simply is no such thing as a “family” coat of arms. Armorial bearings are granted, along with their proper marks of difference, to individuals for use by his direct descendents only.
In America we are often in contact with heraldic devices, some are legitimate, others are not. In most cases, the arms used by families in America have been purchased from one of a number of Heraldic firms. The U.S. government does not exercise any authority over the use of arms, and it should be pointed out that the Heraldic firms are not breaking the law. What they are doing, however, is in direct contradiction of all heraldic traditions and principles which have been established for centuries. Keep in mind that the arms sold by these companies are of no real historic or heraldic value for the buyer.
We have two major problems associated with Heraldry in America. First, the general public lacks the technical knowledge concerning the proper usage; and second, we have an absence of authority to regulate the use of arms.
IF my readers share my concerns, by now they have a burning desire to know WHY Edward Tayer was disclaimed by the Heralds! Of course mistakes were bound to happen, and I am sure there were many families who most likely never had the opportunity to travel to London to apply for a grant. A clue as to the reasons for these instances may be found by looking through the list of disclaimers and seeing the notes attached by the visiting officers. Unfortunately, this information is not readily available to me.
Nonetheless, I can speak with authority that there are no individuals in America today who carry the Thayer surname that are likely to have descended from this Edward Tayer (see endnote 2). It should be noted that an individual can only be legitimately entitled to an ancestral coat of arms if his direct ancestor was personally granted the use of arms. This means that even if the supposed armigerous Edward’s claim had been acceptable, his brothers, and their respective descendents, would still have been excluded from the use of the controversial arms!
I challenge each Thayer family to satisfy themselves that they have a right to use these arms, and I invite others who may already have endeavored such an achievement to come forward and share their findings. May I add a word of caution here that you do not rest in the confidence of the opinion of your grandfathers, as they may have been mistaken!
Use of the Thayer Coat of Arms, Part II
I had hoped to receive some feedback from our readers after the publishing of Part I in the Fall issue of the Thayer Quarterly, but I have not heard anything to date. Perhaps the news that we may be using arms to which we have no rights did not settle well with some. Please let me hear from you if you have comments regarding this subject. I would like to point out that I made an error in Part I wherein I stated that “Richard died about the same time as the visitation,” as I have since been able to find more revelant information on that particular visitation and now know that Richard instead died 2 years after the visitation.
Concerning the use of Arms in America, for the majority of us in this country who have come through the filters of the time and place, there will be few who hold the same importance of class consciousness and “prestige” as our English and European cousins presently do. There may be those who would outwardly deny that the officers of arms have the authority to assert usage concerning the right to arms, and may even contend that the Crown is superfluous; though we all seemingly yearn for a symbol of our new found unity.
Therefore it is comforting to know that an individual can still obtain a formal patent of arms, adapted to the circumstances of the present day, conferring upon them the right to bear and transmit the armorial bearings to their posterity and which is granted by the Crown upon payment of certain fees. One should not be fooled into thinking that an ancient coat of arms is more honorable than a modern one on the grounds that the latter was “purchased,” as all Arms are paid for at one time or another, the precedence of the date being the only advantage of the former over the latter.
For more information on this, our readers may right to the following address: H.M.’s College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street, London, EC 4, England. If you can prove the authority to arms, they will register your right to them3. I warn however, that this is no small venture and would take several years to undertake and then possibly several more years to convince the heraldic authorities of your qualifications to register!
Regardless, do not be totally discouraged if an attempt to prove a right to arms by inheritance through that passage has failed. In-as-much as the U.S. Government declines to exercise such responsibility, the individual is left with the freedom to choose for himself the method he would use to obtain armorial bearings. Probably a more sensible course of action would be to apply for a new grant of arms from the heraldic authorities in Madrid, Spain. The Spanish Cronistas de Armas will grant new armorial bearings to citizens of the U.S. who live in formerly Spanish Colonial areas4. A letter should be sent requesting a new grant of arms be issued, supplying a drawing of the arms desired, and requesting that you be notified of fees involved. Interested individuals may write to: Don Vicente de Cadenas y Vincent, Cronista Rey de Armas, Calle de Atocha, 91 Madrid 12, Spain.
A symbol design intended for use by all Thayers is presently being created. Watch for details in a future “TQ” issue! Patricia Thayer Muno 6 Jan 1995.
Note 1. It is my supposition that the present Coat of Arms most frequently in use is the same as appears in Burke’s General Armory for the year 1884, and I believe it to be similar to that which is generally circulated by the Halbert’s Family Heritage Company.
Note 2. This Edward may have been one and the same as Edward Thayer (1577-1627) of Thornbury who was an uncle to the Immigrants, Thomas and Richard Thayer. If so, he was the husband of Katherine Eddys and was the father of the immigrant Cecily (Thayer) Davis. Edward’s brother Richard (1562-1625) was the father of Thomas and Richard. It is interesting to note that Edward died about two years after the Heraldic Visitations to Thornbury and Richard died about the same time as the visitation, which leaves the reader to wonder if Richard also may have had arms to present to the Heralds had be been alive at the time of the visitation! This concept is purely speculation, however.
Note 3. To prove a right to arms in England it is necessary to show a male line of descent – without break – from a person who was granted a patent; OR from a person whose right to bear arms was confirmed at one of the visitations; OR from a person whose right has been officially recorded at the college of arms in London.
Note 4. The Heraldic authorities in Scotland and Ireland recognizes these grants, but England will not. I understand that the fees involved are reasonable and considerably less than those of the English College of Arms.
Source: The Use and Abuse of Coats of Arms in North America. Lowell A. Barker. 1980 World Conference on Records, Volume 3, Series 318.