The period of prescription is the length of time that a family could prove their right to bear a particular Coat of Arms. This period varied according to the strictness of the particular Herald, but it was rarely less than 60 years or 2 generations at the time of the Heralds’ Visitations 1530 – 1688. The most interesting point about this recognition of arms borne by prescription is that the period runs for 60 or 80 years before the time of making the claim. It might have been thought that the time should have run for 60 years before the foundation of the College of Arms in 1484, or before the commencement of the Visitations in 1530. At either of these two dates the vast majority of English coats of Arms were borne by prescription, being self-granted.
There are instances of arms being granted by the Heralds before the foundation of the College of Arms. By 1530 more grants had occurred, but even so the position of the majority of arms would not have been affected. Consequently at the beginning of the Visitations, the Heralds would have been compelled to accept the majority of the Coats of Arms as being borne by prescription. After 150 years of the Visitations it would have been reasonable to say that claims to Coats of Arms by the users could only be allowed if they dated back prior to 1530. Instead, the Heralds were willing to allow arms by prescription provided they had been borne for at least two generations prior to the claim being made. In other words, the right, of adopting arms, which had existed from the earliest days of armory, is recognized subject only to confirmation by the Heralds. That this should come from Sir William Dugdale ( image above ) towards the end of his life is all the more surprising because of the great reputation he had as an antiquarian. In his own work we encounter examples of the working of heraldic law. In the Visitation of Derbyshire in 1662 there are the Arms of Morewood entered with the note “ no proof “, and another note that an altered Coat of Arms had been granted to the same family in 1678. The Arms of Akney are allowed with the note that they are really the proper Arms of Imwardby, whose daughter and co-heiress married Abney or Akney. In about half a dozen cases the arms are described as not proven, but the majority are accepted and difference marks duly noted where cadet lines are found. ( A cadet is a younger member of the family, in practice the term includes anyone except the head of the family and his wife. Difference marks are marks placed upon a Coat of Arms to show that the person using the arms is not the head of the family.)