Forefather: find the ancestor who founded your noble family!
by Jan-Olov von Wowern

I will here use the term “forefather” in the sense of “founder”, which, as used in nobiliary genealogical work, usually refers to the person who was first ennobled or recognized as noble.

If the headship of the family is hereditary, you are most likely to find the founding forefather by simply tracing the family line which possesses the headship backwards, until you encounter the person who was ennobled or first recognized as noble.

If you know the geographical place (country, county, city) where the family was first identified, you may well search its history for the family name in question in order to find your forefather. You should be aware of the possibility of variant spellings. This is also how I found further information about the founder of my own family. In the official history of the city of Antwerp, “Geschiedenis van Antwerpen”, a monumental 9 volume work, I found a list of the “sheriffs” of Antwerp who were also made Marquises (margraves) of the Land of Ryen (the county surrounding Antwerp in medieval times). My forefather Gilles van de Wouwere was made a “Schout” of Antwerp and a Margrave of the Land of Ryen in 1141, and his son Hendrik succeeded him in 1199.

If you have elementary knowledge of heraldry you may wish to use this to trace your founding forefather. The main problem when using heraldry to search for your forefather is that the terms and customs of heraldry varies a great deal from one country to another. Some symbols may be strictly reserved for the higher nobility in one country but free for anyone to use in another. It is therefore only possible to provide some general guidelines on this topic and you are kindly advised to look further into the heraldic customs of the country of your interest.

A free lesson in “Heraldry for Genealogists” can be found at: .

In many cases a coronet (crown) is used as a symbol of nobiliary rank. The coronets are different for nobles of the various ranks, so the coronets for a prince and a baron would look different. The presence of a coronet on a coat of arms of a forefather is by no means absolute proof of nobility, but it would be safe to say it is such a strong indicator that further research is motivated.

Also the use of supporters (figures either side of the shield appearing to support it) is a strong (but not definitive) indicator of nobility. In some countries nobles above a certain rank were required (or at least expected) to add supporters to their arms.

The number of helmets used can be another indicator. In some countries it was common for a nobleman to use 1 helmet, a baron 2 and a count 3 helmets. But variations are many and again the presence of one or more helmets on a coat of arms of a forefather is not definitive proof of nobility.

Mantling (a flowing drapery attached to the helmet) is often (but not always) a heraldic symbol of high nobility.

When researching your family history it is most helpful if you can identify the family arms which have been quartered or incorporated with your own arms and also identify the family arms where your own arms can be found as quartered or incorporated.

Part of this work may be done through the Internet, using various specialized sites with advanced search facilities.