So, the first question is, of course, "What the Hell is an 'escutcheon', JNCL?" Well, it's just another word--in this case, the Latin word--for "shield," and is often used to refer to our topic for today, coats of arms. "Okay. Clear as mud. What's a coat of arms?" Maybe this crudely drawn visual aid I created will help.
Coat of Arms
Ring any bells now? You may know this device as a "crest," but as you can see from Illustration 1, the crest is actually a piece of the whole coat of arms, not its proper title. (By-the-way, just for the information, "supporters" are not normally big, gray ovals; they're normally some kind of animal literally holding up the shield in their paws, but my artistic skills weren't up to that, so you'll just have to use your imaginations.) As a subject of study, coats of arms and everything relating to them are referred to as "heraldry," and those in countries around the world whose job it is to create and register coats of arms are called "heralds". In medieval Europe, heralds also had the job of ensuring that no one was cribbing someone else's arms, and announcing the identity of their master in a tournament. ("Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!" Haven't you always wondered what that meant? Well, now you know.)
As an American whose ancestry is mostly Celtic and Anglo-Saxon--not to mention a completely obsessive Anglophile--I tend to prefer my heraldry constructed according to the rules established in the UK. I can recognize the styles of numerous other countries on sight, as many of them are quite distinctive, but when I design a coat of arms myself--yes, I dabble with it on occasion as gifts for friends and such--I tend to follow the British guidelines pretty closely. With one HUGE, glaring exception. In the United Kingdom, women don't have their own coats of arms. Ever. Except on the rare occasion when every male heir in a family has died, leaving only her. Or on the even rarer occasions when a woman becomes the sovereign. Elizabeth II has arms that are hers, and will be inherited by her son when he becomes king. Most British women don't get that privilege.
No, women get to use their father's coat of arms "by courtesy," and they don't get to use a shield, or the helmet, because such military symbols are supposedly inappropriate for ladies. Nor does she get the motto, which was originally just a sort of battle cry. Obviously, these rules have been around a LOOOOOONG-ass time.
Arms of an Unmarried Woman
An unmarried woman bears her father's arms on a diamond-shaped, um, something, called a lozenge. (Since we're not allowed to call it a shield, "something" sounded better than "blob.") To show that she's single, or "eligible" for us Jane Austen fans, she has a "true lover's knot" on top of the lozenge, which goes away when she gets married.
Arms of Fictitious Husband
And that's not the only change; her husband's arms get added to her father's, so now her identity is a mix of two men, instead of just one. How flattering for her. On the upside, though, she finally gets a shield, once again "by courtesy," because she gets to borrow her husband's. There are a few other ways to arrange the two arms, but this one is pretty standard.
Arms of Married Woman
However, when he dies, she'll have to give it back--to their son, her husband's heir.
Arms of Widow
So, there she is, back to a lozenge-thingamy, with two halves of two coats of arms smushed together, usually with visually unimpressive results, and occasionally, an outcome that is just flat ugly. My personal favorites are the ones where a bird's wing or something is sticking at random out of the other half of these hybrid arms. "Always good [entertainment] value," as Ron Weasley would say.
And if you're wondering if anyone on Earth gives a flying fart in space about this anymore, I refer you to the arms of THE FATHER OF Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, granted on 19 April 2011, drawn in Illustration 6 as they were borne by Princess Catherine before she married Prince William.
Arms of Miss Catherine Middleton
Of course, her lozenge-blob has to be special, because she was the prince's fiancee. When she finally became a princess by marriage, her arms "by courtesy" became this.
Arms of HRH Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge
Unlike all other women in the United Kingdom--except those rare, chosen few who actually own their own arms because they ran out of male relatives--those closely related to the sovereign by birth or marriage get "courtesy" supporters. Such "courteous" people, aren't we?
Now, the final question is this: now that they made women fully equal heirs to the throne of the UK and the Commonwealth Realms, will they FINALLY be able to receive arms in their own right? And to all you lucky women out there who are Canadian citizens, you are ALREADY entitled to be granted arms, so if you have the money and the inclination, apply for some! The more armigerous (meaning "owning a coat of arms") women the better!