Burgher Arms

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Burgher arms are coats of arms borne by persons of the burgher social class of continental Europe (usually called bourgeois in English) since the Middle Ages. By definition, the term is alien to British heraldry.


The term Burgher Arms refers to the Armorial Bearings that are inherited, assumed, or granted to peasants and commoners.[1] arms of peasants. In several European countries, the use of Armorial Bearings was restricted to a particular social class, e.g. the use of supporters in United Kingdom, tinctures in the Kingdom of Portugal or coronets in the Kingdom of Sweden. In other countries, every individual, family and community has been free to adopt arms and use it as they please, provided they have not wrongfully assumed the arms of another.[2]

Use of coats of arms by burghers and artisans began during the 13th century and in the 14th century some peasants and other commoners took to using arms.[3] The arms of burghers bore a far wider variety of charges than the arms of nobility like everyday objects, in particular, tools. In burgher arms are also house marks which are not met in arms of nobility. Most widespread burgher heraldry was and still is in Switzerland and in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. In the Kingdom of the Netherlands only a small percentage of the existing arms belong to the Nobility.[3] Burgher arms are rarely allowed to use a coronet and those who are allowed are not allowed coronets of rank and must be granted by a sovereign and the coronet is explicitly mentioned in the grant.[4]

Individual Nations

There are burgher arms in most countries on Earth because most countries allow the free assumption of arms without much regulation. There are some countries that have statutory protections where misuse can result in criminal penalties and others where people may bastardize heraldry to their every desire. However, there is a growing list of Heraldic Societies and Armorial Registers that are now recording and registering people's Coat of Arms essentially forcing people to adhere to heraldic rule or have their Coat of Arms refused for publication. Some are very specific. For example, one must be of Scandinavian origin or decent to register their Coat of Arms Scandinavian Heraldic Rolls and their Coat of Arms must adhere to Heraldic rules. Below you will find a brief abridgment of countries where people are free to assume burgher arms with or without much regulations.


In the Holy Roman Empire it was Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor (1316-1378) who began to grant arms without raising people to Nobility status. In the 15th century the authority to grant arms was delegated to “Counts Palatine of the Imperial Court”, who from then on also granted arms to burghers. This was regarded as luxury everyone was not able to afford. The tilting helmet was prescribed for arms of non-nobles, while the barred helmet was restricted by the Imperial Chancellery to the Nobility as upholders of the tradition of tourneying. This privilege was also shared by certain people who enjoyed the same standing as the Nobility, e.g. those who had a doctor's title in law or theology.[5] Although the rule of the use of the tilting helmet by burghers was not always obeyed, it has still become the norm in many countries of the Germand and Nordic heraldic tradition. After the fall of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, arms were no longer granted to burghers except in the Kingdom of Saxony, where such grants continued from 1911 until 1918. Elsewhere burgher arms were assumed. Presently burgher arms are protected by law in Germany.


Burgher arms used to be common in France, but they disappeared in the French Revolution, which was hostile to heraldry and anything that had to do with Monarchy or Nobility. In the end of the 17th century, an attempt was made to list all arms in Armorial Général as a device to increase tax revenue. When the attempt failed, in order to force people to pay tax, arms were given to many burghers who had never had them. These arms were never used by their recipients.[2] In France burgher arms are not supposed to have a helmet under any circumstances.


Burgher arms had a complicated and suppressed history in Portugal. During the reign of King Afonso V of Portugal, burgher arms were restricted to the use of colours only. This restriction would become irrelevant when King Manuel I of Portugal forbade the use of arms to those who were not of the Portuguese Nobility.[6] This restriction against burgher arms in Portugal lasted until 1910. Today, however, HRH The Duke of Braganza, Prince of Portugal does not desire any restrictions against burgher arms in Portugal.

Kingdom of Denmark

Danish heraldry has its roots in medieval times when coats of arms first appeared in Europe. Danish heraldry is a branch of the German Nordic heraldic tradition. In the Kingdom of Denmark the Coat of Arms of farmers are preserved on seals from about 1300 and the first burgher arms were recorded in 1320.[3] The assumption of arms is free in the Kingdom of Denmark where it is estimated that up to 80% of Danish private coats of arms are burgher arms.[7][8] Official Danish coats of arms are specially protected by Danish law. The unlawful use of an official coat of arms or other official insignia is a criminal offence under section 132 of the Danish penal code. The National Heraldic Consultant is an officer under the Danish National Archive. His job is to ensure that official coats of arms adhere to the rules of heraldry and to approve municipal coats of arms. Private coats of arms can be used as trademarks and thus be protected from other commercial use. Specific renditions of coats of arms are protected by copyright law.

Kingdom of Norway

In the Kingdom of Norway peasants have used arms since the Middle Ages and some of the arms have even been used as family arms.[9] The oldest Norwegian personal arms are known only from seals of the late 13th and the early 14th centuries. Most of the arms in the seals are not simple and have several charges combined. They became increasing complex especially in the late 17th century and the 18th century. Many ennobled persons and families received coats of arms with shields containing both two and four fields, and some even with a heart shield above these. Norwegian Kings started to grant Nobility and personal arms in the 15th Century. Arms were self-assumed in Norway and not a privilege just for nobles. The Norwegian nobility had no real heraldic privileges, as it was allowed for all citizens to assume their own coats of arms. In letters patent where a Coat of Arms was granted to the nobility, however, it was expressly granted a legal protection under the Norwegian Penal Code.

United States

Many of the original leaders of the United States bore a Coat of Arms. It has been debated whether the use of arms is reconcilable with American republican traditions. However, George Washington stated that, "heraldry is not incompatible with the purest ideals of republicanism". Several of the founding fathers also employed personal arms and a great number of Americans continue to do so. The problem with Heraldry in the United States is the lack of Heraldic cultural traditions and the disrespect for Heraldry itself. There is no consequence for the bastardization of heraldry socially or statutorily so companies in the U.S. run Coat of Arms websites and then target ignorant Americans who presume that they have a "family coat of arms" because they searched their surname on a Coat of Arms website. Without any type of social or legal consequence regarding a Coat of Arms people simply makeup their own and adorn them with coronets of rank and other elements that would be restricted in virtually every other country in the world - even for burgher or peasant arms. There is one anomalous exception to this lack of regulation: the coat of arms of the Swiss Confederation is specifically protected from unauthorized use within the U.S., under penalty of a fine and/or imprisonment for up to six months.

Arms of peasants & commoners

In some regions of France, such as Normandy or the County of Flanders, even peasants sometimes bore arms.[2] In Switzerland Armorial Bearings bore by farmers stretch back to the 14th century, but they are rare and did not become numerous until the 17th century.[3] There were also areas in Lower Saxony, Frisia and County of Tyrol, where farmers had personal freedom and bore a Coat of Arms.[10] In virtually all Monarchies today people may freely assume burgher arms so long as they do not violate the rights of the Nobility or others who bare arms. There are many Republics that also grant arms and arms enjoy the legal protection of the state. There are also many countries who are openly debating creating some type of Bureau of Heraldry in order to regulate Coat of Arms and there are various Monarchist movements in a number of Republics where the chance to restore the Monarchy is highly likely. For example, in Serbia the White Eagle, Serbian Heraldry Society now registers Coat of Arms for commoners and old Serbian Nobility.


  1. Woodcock, T. S. (1988). The Oxford guide to heraldry. Oxford [England]; New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Pastoureau, M., & Garvie, F. (1997). Heraldry: its origins and meaning. Thames and Hudson.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Von Volborth, C. A. (1981). Heraldry: customs, rules, and styles. Sterling Pub Co Inc.
  4. Von Volborth, C. A. (1991). The art of heraldry. Todtri Book Pub.
  5. Neubecker, O. (1980). A guide to heraldry. McGraw-Hill.
  6. Slater, S. (2003). The complete book of heraldry: an international history of heraldry and its contemporary uses. Hermes House.
  7. Weber-Andersen, K. Bomærke i Køge S. Nicolai Kirke. Personalhistorisk Tidsskrift, 65(11_5_0304), 188-203.
  8. Berghman, A. (1950). Borgerlig vapenrulla. Förf..
  9. Krag, H. (1955). Norsk heraldisk mønstring fra Frederik IV's regjeringstid 1699-1730. OB Hansens boktrykkeri.
  10. Prange, K. (1997). Heraldik på auktion. Heraldisk Tidsskrift, (bd. 8, nr. 75, marts), 224-226.

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