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Clarkson Family Coat of Arms

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Using an image to represent a concept, an individual, a clan or a nation-state dates to antiquity. Using imagery on a shield within a regulated system may be seen as a form of branding that dates to the twelfth century. Over time the shield became part of a larger design, a “coat of arms.” 
The system of creating, describing and regulating these designs is known as heraldry.

A basic precept of heraldry is simplicity and brevity. All design elements have significance, and all are described as succinctly as possible. For example, the Clarkson family shield is described simply as “Argent, on a bend engrailed sable, three annulets, or.” Let’s see what this means.

The points of a shield are named according to their positions, for example, the fesse point is the exact center of the shield. There are different degrees of rank in the various positions. The dexter or right side of the shield is more honorable than the sinister, or left, and the chief or upper part is more honorable than the base or lower part. The shield bears ornamentation on its external surface, so the dexter (right) side and sinister (left) side are those which align with the right and left side of the bearer when holding the shield; therefore the relative positions appear switched to us when we are looking at a shield, that is, the dexter appears to us on the left and the sinister appears to us on the right:

 Coat of Arms window 

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A. dexter side        
B. sinister side
C. chief
D. base
E. dexter chief
F. sinister chief
G. dexter base
H. sinister base
I. fesse point


There are five basic heraldic colors and two metals:

Blue (azure)
Red (gules)
Black (sable; may represent constancy and grief)
Green (vert)
Purple (purpure)
Gold (or; shown in engraving by dots; representing wealth and generosity)
Silver (argent; shown in engraving by a plain surface; representing innocence and humility, may also represent peace and sincerity)

The surface of a shield is called the field, and elements (charges) are added in layers upon the field. The field of a shield may be divided by lines. One such division is the bend. It may be described as a band drawn from the dexter chief to the sinister base. When charges are added to the bend, it encompasses one-third of the area of the field. The bend may be reminiscent of a scarf or shoulder belt. It also signifies defense or protection. The bend may originate from the defensive mark left upon a shield made by a (right-handed) opponent’s sword striking the shield.

Engrailed means “having semicircular indentations along the edge.” It signifies earth, or land. Annulets are small rings; they may represent fidelity and may possibly represent members of the family in the clergy.

The description of a shield begins with the field and then describes charges as they are layered upon the field. So, the description, “Argent, on a bend engrailed sable, three annulets, or.” is a shield with a silver field, upon which is a black band, with edges representing land, upon which are three gold rings.

The shield comprises the main element in the coat of arms. Below the Clarkson shield is a motto in a scroll. The Latin “Deo Fidendum” is translated as “One must have faith in God.”

The helmet is always placed upon the chief of the shield. The Clarkson helmet is shown in profile with the visor closed, signifying the rank of esquires and gentlemen. The helmet’s crest is a griffin’s head (with lion ears) coupled between two wings.

Pictures of three Clarkson coat of arms are recorded, but they are all fundamentally the same. The image available to us is the stained glass window installed in Holcroft House on the hill campus. From the memoirs of Matthew Clarkson: “The Clarkson family is traced to Bradford in Yorkshire, and to the year 1544, in the reign of Henry VIII. There were also Clarksons in the county of Nottingham who had the same coat of arms with those in Bradford, and which is still found on the plate and books of the families in New York and Philadelphia.” The Yorkshire coat of arms includes the griffin’s head crest.

Heraldry is a vast and rewarding topic to explore, and this article certainly cannot claim to be authoritative. We welcome any comments, clarifications and corrections that may help us understand the topic and the Clarkson family in greater depth.

Sources consulted for this article include:

Heraldry: Ancient and Modern, edited and revised by S. T. Aveling, published ca.1873

The Symbolisms of Heraldry, by W. Cecil Wade, published 1898

An Introduction to Heraldry, by W.H. St. John Hope, originally published in 1913

The Clarkson Family in Potsdam, by Marguerite Gurley Chapman, originally published in 1958

(rev. 12/2015)

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