The Tathams of County Durham
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Coats of Arms, Crests and the Tatham Family

Coats of Arms, Crests and the Tatham Family

There has been much discussion over the years of whether the Tatham family of Co. Durham, or rather any of its members, ever had the right to bear arms, and, if so, what should be the correct form of the arms, and of the crest and motto to go with them.

A number of Tathams, from the Durham family and others, have adopted a personal crest or badge, to use in particular on their silverware, jewellery, letterheads or seals. There have been several forms. A common one is that of an arm holding a number of arrows - variously two, or three, or four, or else bunched in a quiver; there are others that are completely different. Sometimes there is a motto: "Veritatem" (a pun on the name Tatham) is one, "Omnia vincit veritas" another; others include "Deo Jubente" and "Semper Fidelis".

Henry Curtis, in his book "Notes for a Pedigree of the Tathams of Co. Durham" (London, 1922, rev. 1927) devoted seven pages to a review of the family's Armorial Bearings. After much research, with the College of Arms and elsewhere, he had to conclude that no member of the Durham Tatham family had ever received a Grant of Armorial Bearings, nor, it appeared, applied for one.

He therefore suggested that "the heads of the branches of the Tathams of Co. Durham, should unite to apply to the College of Arms, London, for a grant, or confirmation of the armorial bearings in use for at least the past two hundred years, which could then be legally claimed by all who could prove direct descent from the Durham family".

There are letters showing that members of the Durham Tatham family, assisted by Dr Curtis, did make approaches to the College of Arms during the 1930s but evidently there was no successful result.

The matter was reopened with the College by one of the family in 1973-75, but the response was along the same lines as before:

  • your family is not in our registers, with or without arms;
  • to establish a right to arms you would have to prove descent, in the direct male line, from one of the three Tathams who were granted arms in the past;
  • it looks as if you cannot prove descent from any of these, which means that your own family is not entitled to Arms.

The two letters from the College are reproduced below.

So the position of the College of Arms is very clear:
No arms have ever been granted to any Tatham of the Durham family.
Therefore no member of the family is legally entitled to use arms.

It should be noted at this point that there is no future in Dr Curtis's idea of applying to the College of Arms "for a grant or confirmation of the armorial bearings in use for at least the past two hundred years". In the first place, there is no agreement on what arms (or crest, or motto) have been used in the past, or by which of the several Tatham families. Secondly, and crucially, grants are always made to living persons (or corporate bodies), never to families or to individuals long dead.

In the light of these facts, it is suggested that the question of a coat of arms is of little importance or interest to the Tatham family today.

In order to move forward, it may be helpful to emphasize the distinction between two different things: arms on the one hand, and emblems on the other.

First, there is the narrow field of coats of arms, blazons, heraldry, elaborate illuminated pedigrees and so on. It is essentially this specialized field that has been considered up till now during all the discussions about possible Tatham arms, crests and mottos.

The use of coats of arms in England goes back to the early middle ages, but research has shown that the notion of restricting them to the nobility, or the gentry, did not come in until much later, not before the 16th century. Even since then, it has always been open to others - not just wealthy landowners without a coat of arms, but also commoners, merchants and indeed peasants - to obtain a grant of arms for a fee. There has never been any necessary link between bearing arms and being one of the gentry. Obtaining a coat of arms does not make a man more, or less, of a gentleman.

Another point to be borne in mind is that the College of Arms, despite its prestige and fairly long history, has never been able to exercise effective authority over the use of arms in England. It has been demonstrated that the great majority of the arms in use in Victorian England were self-assumed. A number of established institutions - including Oxford University - have never recognised the authority of the College of Arms. The only means of enforcing the College's will was the Court of Chivalry; but that has not met for nearly three centuries (apart from one municipal case of doubtful legality). In practical terms, therefore, it is a fact that people are able to display arms as and when they wish.

In fact the record shows that very few of the Durham Tathams have interested themselves in arms and heraldry as such. None of them has ever applied for the grant of a coat of arms. Only two are thought to have claimed to be arms-bearing at all. One was Dr Ralph Tatham of Sunderland, who around 1730 used a bookplate showing a sort of heraldic shield with three birds on it, topped by a crest in the form of a fist holding a quiverful of arrows. The other was his grandson, another Dr Ralph Tatham, Master of St John's College, Cambridge. The college history, written in 1869, twelve years after his death, describes his arms in a footnote. How and when Ralph used these arms is not now known. They were in any case somewhat different from those on his grandfather's bookplate, and the crest was also different: a bent arm (not a fist) holding a baton (not a quiver). So even by the mid-nineteenth century there was still no agreement on the form of the arms or the crest.

Turning away from heraldry, there is the second and broader field of badges, marks and emblems. It includes trade-marks, military badges, private and public seals, sporting and club emblems, masonic and similar devices, ..., even tattoos. One is talking about any mark that serves to distinguish a person, group or thing from another. A common instance is the use of a badge or emblem that members of an association use to identify themselves and to signify their membership.

Over the years the Durham Tatham family has interested itself much more in the "Tatham Crest" than in possible coats of arms. It is easy to confuse the two, because a crest is a heraldic term: it is the ornament that goes on top of the helmet in the coat of arms. A badge is different. Although it can have a technical meaning in heraldry, badges have always been widely used without any heraldic associations at all.

It is suggested that it would be of interest for the Tatham family of Co. Durham to leave aside all consideration of heraldry and coats of arms, and instead to settle on an agreed badge, or perhaps "emblem". This would clearly identify the family and all members would be encouraged to use it. A possible emblem would be the distinctive armoured arm, bent at the elbow and with the hand holding arrows. (An extra touch could be to vary the number of arrows according to the branch of the family.)

Going forward along these non-heraldic lines should have the advantage of avoiding the effort and expense of another fruitless approach to the College of Arms, as well as any possible interference with the heraldic claims of other families, and, on the positive side, could help reinforce the sense of family identity among the many Tathams of County Durham

Examples of past and present crests or badges (click to enlarge):


Report from College of Arms, 13 Jul 1973 and letter 07 Feb 1975

The following references appear in our Registers to families of Tatham:

  1. A pedigree is on record of the Fenwick family, showing Robert Fenwick and his brother Nicholas, of Tunstall, Co. Durham. Their property was left to their nephews, in succession, on condition that those who inherited the property should take the surname of Fenwick. They had the following nephews: John and Thomas Wilson, both of whom took the name Fenwick but died without male issue. The property passed to Francis Tatham, who evidently did not wish to inherit it. He had a younger brother John, who had perhaps died by the time the property came to Francis, since it went to Nicholas Tatham. He had a Royal Licence in 1796 to take the surname of Fenwick, but he died without male issue. The property then passed to the children of another nephew, Robert Lambert (who had died in 1779). His son Thomas took the name and the Arms of Fenwick in 1801.
  2. A change of name is on record, for a family of Upham of London who changed their name to Tatem. A Grant of Arms is on record for them.
  3. A Grant of Arms was made in 1838 to Sandford Tatham, of Tatham and of Hornby in Lancashire, Rear-Admiral in the Navy. He was the only surviving son of Sandford Tatham, Clerk in Holy Orders. Arms: Argent a Cross paty between three Cinquefoils azure. Crest: a Dexter Cubit Arm in armour, the hand in a gauntlet holding a Tilting-Spear in bend sinister and two Arrows in saltire, the points upwards, all proper. The motto given was Deo Jubente. No pedigree appears to be recorded for this family.
  4. A Grant of Arms was made in 1752 to Samuel Tatem of Allhallows Barking, in the City of London, Merchant. His parents were John Tatem of Colchester, and Sarah daughter of John Cox of Colchester. They descended "from a Family of Tatham in Yorkshire [who] have for several generations born and used" a Coat of Arms. However, it had been found that this was of no authority, not being on official record for this family, and Samuel Tatem therefore regularised the position by having a Grant to himself. Arms: Per fess argent and sable, a Pale counterchanged, three Martlets gules [a martlet is a small heraldic bird without feet]. Crest: a Dexter Arm couped at the elbow, habited per pale argent and sable, the cuff argent, the hand proper holding three Arrows bendwise or. No motto was given. No pedigree appears to have been recorded for this family.

  5. I have been unable to find any other reference to Tatem or Tatham in our Official Registers.

    This means that your own family is not in our Registers, with or without Arms. The Crest used by your family, of an arm in armour, the hand grasping four arrows, appears to resemble fairly closely that granted to Samuel Tatem in 1732 - except that, in his Crest, the arm had an ordinary sleeve and cuff. Sandford Tatham's Crest, granted in 1838, is also similar to that used by your family - the difference being that he had two arrows and a spear, instead of four arrows. In view of the statement in both Grants of Arms, that the family concerned had for several generations borne Arms and Crest without authority, it seems possible that you are descended from a Tatham in Yorkshire and that your family has borne these Arms for a very long time. Unfortunately, the position was never regularised by a Grant to any of your ancestors.

Follow-up letter, 07 Feb 1975:

    To establish a right to Arms you would have to prove that you are descended, in the direct male line, from Samuel Tatem who had a Grant of Arms in 1732 or from Sandford Tatham who had a Grant of Arms in 1838 or from the Tatem of London formerly named Upham who had their change of name early in the 19th century. It looks as if you cannot prove descent from any of these which means that your own family is not entitled to Arms. As I mentioned in my letter of the 13th July 1973 the Grant of Arms in 1732 stated that Samuel Tatem was descended from a Yorkshire family named Tatham who had for some generations used Arms without authority. It seems that the Arms and Crest actually granted to him were very close in design to those which the family had previously used.

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