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Monday, 28 February, 2000, 17:13 GMT
Fancy your own coat of arms?

Charles and Diana's coat of arms: Now defunct
Posh and Becks have one. Baroness Thatcher, Bill Gates and Cliff Richard have them. And now New Labour peers are ordering them in record numbers.

Coats of arms would appear anachronistic to say the least, in a world where tattoos, body piercing and designer logos are more usual personal insignia.

Sophie got a new one after it emerged her family's had been fake
Yet hundreds of people applied for them last year, and Harold Brooks-Baker of Burkes' Peerage told BBC News Online demand remains "greater than ever".

The "well-off to very rich", such as pop stars and self-made millionaires, are leading the demand, he says.

"Once you've got your Rolls-Royce, your helicopter, your private island, your eight houses and 150 servants, what else is there to buy, apart from a title or a coat of arms?"

But demand for what Lord Bragg calls "pomposities" is also coming from a more middle-class, nostalgia-driven interest in genealogy and family trees.

A brief history

The practice of bearing arms evolved in the twelfth century, when the nobility began to decorate their shields with animals, birds or geometrical shapes.

Elements in a "full achievement" of arms
By 1300, the fashion had spread to knights, who put designs on shields and coats for them and their horses.

Cecil Humphery-Smith, founder of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, said that the practice then spread to anyone "who needed to be identified" - such as new mayors or lords of the manor.

Nowadays, he said, people who have no such need whatsoever create coats of arms for their letterheads or motorcars.

"They never get the right car door of course - it's supposed to be on the passenger door, not the driver's. You have a chauffeur if you're a gentleman, don't you?"

How to do it

Any number of companies will design a coat of arms to go over your fireplace to help you impress the neighbours.

Winston Churchill's: Arms are hereditary
But in Britain there are only two bodies who supply official coats of arms - and who may look very snootily upon those drawn up elsewhere.

In Scotland, all heraldry is controlled by the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms, based at New Register House in Edinburgh.

For England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth, all heraldry is controlled by the College of Arms, whose offices are near St Paul's Cathedral in London.

You can either try to prove that you are entitled to bear an existing coat of arms (quite complicated - you have to prove your genealogy). Or you can be granted arms in your own right (simple).

Mr PL Dickinson, Richmond Herald at the college, says "most people" are eligible - all you need is 2,925 and proof that you are reputable and "deserving".

A degree, a professional qualification, or proof that you have done something special for charity or your local area would usually suffice.

The Marquess of Cholmondley's
You then send your request to the college, with a CV and as much or as little genealogical information as you want.

They will then usually grant your arms and draw up a design based on your own ideas, you will pay and - voila! - you have a unique embellishment for your business cards.

The design

The college can adapt almost anything you like to fit in with the formal rules of heraldry, but warns people to keep designs simple.

Lady Thatcher's, for example, features the coronet, an admiral to represent the Falklands War and Sir Isaac Newton, depicting her love of science.

However, the College warns against any design which is "heraldically trite" - and it must conform with heraldic art form.

Commonly turned-down requests include damsels (to represent wives or girlfriends) and items of heavy industrial machinery to depict a trade.

Posh and Becks' design was not created by the college - which later criticised the cartoonish crest of a swan facing right, over a crown similar to the top of football's Premiership trophy.

And beware of trying to use anyone else's coat of arms in this fiercely guarded world.

Earlier this year, Mohammed al-Fayed put the arms of the Ross clan chief on the gates of Balnagown, his Scottish castle which had been a Ross stronghold.

But the 27th clan chief David Ross of Ross, who lives in a more modest modern house in the Perthshire village of Stanley, refused permission for the arms to be used - and Mr al-Fayed had to take the entire fixture down again.

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19 May 99 |  UK
Sophie's new coat

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