The surname Nelson, in its variant patronymic forms as in the son of Nel, Neil, Neal, Njal, and the later more formal Nelson, Nielson, Nielsen, Nelleson etc., was widespread throughout Northern Europe from the early Middle Ages, particularly in Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia and England. It is found in every possible guise in English rolls, and although Nell and Nelson must in many cases spring from Ellen or Eleanor, there can be no doubt that in general they are descendants of Neil.
In the heraldic traditions of England and Scotland an individual, rather than a family, is granted a coat of arms. In these traditions, coats of arms are legal property transmitted from father to son; wives and daughters can also bear arms modified to indicate their relation to the current holder of the arms. Undifferenced arms are used only by one person at any given time. Other descendants of the original bearer can bear the ancestral arms only with some difference: usually a colour change or the addition of a distinguishing charge. One such charge is the label, which in British usage (outside the Royal Family) is now always the mark of an heir apparent or (in Scotland) an heir presumptive.
In Scotland, the Lord Lyon King of Arms has criminal jurisdiction to enforce the laws of arms, in England, Northern Ireland and Wales the use of arms is a matter of civil law and regulated from the College of Arms and the Court of Chivalry.
These are the most frequent colours used in heraldry.
The various coats of arms born by the Nelson families illustrate the wide geographical spread of this surname. Given that some Neilsons, such as the famous Thomas Nelson publishing house, changed their name spelling to Nelson, it is no surprise that Scottish features which tend to appear on the arms of Neilson, notably the red hand, are taken up in some English coats of arms.
There appear to be six basic designs which feature in English, Irish, Scottish and American coats of arms, whether the name is Nelson, Neilson or one of the other variants.
1. A silver shield bearing a black patterned cross, over which is a wide or narrow diagonal red bar.
(Argent, a cross flory sable, over all a bend gules)
2. A gold shield bearing a black patterned cross, again with the red diagonal bar, sometimes with four added stars.
(Or, a cross flory sable, a bend gules)
(Or, a cross patonce sable, over all a bendlet gules)
(Or, a cross patonce sable between four mullets gules a bendlet of the last)
3. A silver and black shield divided in four with three fleurs-de-lis in contrasting colours.
(Quarterly argent and sable, three fleurs-de-lis counterchanged)
4. A silver and black shield, over which there is a chevron and again, three fleurs-de-lis in contrasting colours.
(Per pale argent and sable, a chevron between three fleurs-de-lis all counterchanged)
5. Representations on a silver shield of two severed red hands with a third holding a sword or dagger, some with a chevron base of gold, some with only the weapon on the base.
(Argent, two sinister hands couped gules in chief, and a dagger, point downwards, hilted and pommelled or, in base)
(Per chevron argent and or, in chief two sinister hands couped at the wrist gules and in base a sword in pale proper point downwards, hilt and pommel or)
6. Six vertical silver and red stripes over which is a diagonal patterned bar of gold and black.
(Paly of six argent and gules a bend vairee or and sable)
There also several Scandinavian versions of Nelson, Neilson or Nilsson coats of arms which often differ widely in colour and design, but which share some or all of these features and colours.
Although the name Nelson in its variant forms had been around since the Domesday Book, the first recorded instance of a member of a Nelson family bearing arms is not until the fifteenth century.
Richard Nelson of Maudsley, in Lancashire, was living there in the time and during the Reign of Edward III. In 1377, he gave and confirmed to Warine de Golborn and Alice Nelson his wife, daughter of the said Richard, certain Lands in Maudsley, with the remainder in default of issue to George Nelson, son of Robert Nelson, and his lawful heirs. This deed is dated 1st Richard II (1405) and sealed with the Arms, "A cross over a bendlet".
The shape of the cross seems not to be that formalised. There are instances of a cross flory or a cross patonce and the shield colour is either silver or gold.
Thus the later arms of the Nelsons of Maudesley and Fairhurst, Lancashire, dating at least from 1664 are: Argent, a cross flory sable over all a bend gules as formally recorded in Burke's General Armoury.
However in British History Online we read that Nelson of Fairhurst's arms are: Or a cross patonce sable, over all a bendlet gules. The shield is a different colour and the bend narrower.
In Scotland, the Neilson arms feature a severed hand and dating from the fifteenth century, the arms of the Neilsons of Craigcaffie are described as: Argent, three left hands gules, bend sinisterways, two in chief and one in base, holding a dagger azure. Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) gifted Craigcaffie to his illegitimate son, Neil, Earl of Carrick, from whom the Neilsons were descended.
Gilbert Neilson of Craigcaffie bore them in this form: Chevron, argent and or, in chief two sinister hands couped and erect gules, and in base a similar hand holding a dagger azure, point downwards. Crest, a dexter hand holding a lance erect, proper. Motto — Hic Regi servitium.
A very similar version of these Craigcaffie arms with a downwards pointing sword was used in England by Richard Alexander Nelson Secretary of the Navy Office (1763-1820) Per. chevron argent and or, in chief two sinister hands couped at the wrist gules and in base a sword in pale proper point downwards, hilt and pommel or. Crest: a dexter arm holding a tilting spear, all proper.
A simplified “red hands” coat of arms is recorded to Thomas Nelson Esq., (1822-1892) the publisher, of St. Leonard's, Edinburgh in 1872. Argent, two sinister hands couped gules in chief, and a dagger, point downwards, hilted and pommelled or, in base. Crest: A dexter arm in armour embowed proper the hand grasping a dagger erect also proper hilted and pommelled or. Motto: Virtute et votis. There is also a version to William Nelson Esq., (1816-1887) his brother, of Salisbury Green, Edinburgh “as the last, within a bordure azure”, same crest and motto.
Similar features appear in other versions of the Nelson arms in Scotland, where the sword or dagger is pointing upwards. These arms are obviously derived from those of the founder of the Neil family, known as Red O'Neil, or O'Neil of the Red Hand, whose arms were: Argent, a sinister hand, couped at the wrist, gules, proper. This was said to commemorate the competition between chieftains of old time to be first to reach the shore of an enemy, and so to lead in the attack. The story goes that Neil was outstripped by some of his companions in arms, but not to be outdone drew his sword, cut off his left hand, and with the shout, "O Neil!" hurled the ghastly, bloody member to land, before any of the other chieftains had gained the shore. The three bloody hands on the shield of the Scottish Neilsons signify the three sons of he whose shield bore the Red Hand.
Again in Scotland, the Neilsons of Corsock, appear to date from 1439 when John Neilson and Isabel Gordon were granted the lands of Corsock by James Lindsay of Forgith. Their arms differed slightly from those of Craigcaffie, being: Argent, three left hands, bend sinister, two in chief, and one in base, holding a dagger azure, with a crescent in the centre for the difference.
There is also a separate Neilson arms also documented from Corsock, which dates to at least the 16th century. The General Armoury of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, 1884, describes it as being quite different from its predecessors; Neilson of Corsock, county Wigtown: Azure two hammers in saltire or, in the dexter flank a crescent and in base a star argent.
The same Neilson arms is also described much earlier in Nisbets System of Heraldry, 1722 by Alexander Nisbet, and the earliest known occurrence of this arms is on the stone shield of Corsock House, which bears the initials of John Neilson (1549-1630) and Margaret Gordon from 1588.
By 1576 another branch of the Nelson family, originally from Lancashire, has settled in Berkshire. The arms of Thomas Nelson of Chaddleworth are: Paly of six, argent and gules, a bend vaire or and sable
Other Nelsons, geographical location unclear, bear arms: Or, a cross patonce sable between four mullets gules a bendlet of the last. Crest: A lion’s gamb erect proper holding an escutcheon sable thereon a cross patonce or.
George Nelson, the Lord Mayor of London in 1765-6 had some very different arms from any of the above described as: Gules on a bend azure a cross formee argent. They appear with the other quartering of a rampant lion on a contemporary map of Aldersgate ward in London.
The Nelsons of Bedale, Yorkshire, in the person of Abraham Nelson Esq., of Gray’s Inn, one of the Cursitors in Chancery and a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber to Charles II, son of William Nelson, gent of Chancery Lane, also one of the Cursitors in Chancery and grandson of William Nelson gent of Bedale had the other distinctive English arms: Per pale argent and sable a chevron between three fleurs-de-lis, all countercharged.
The Nelsons of Grimston near Malton, Yorkshire, bear the same arms: Per pale argent and sable a chevron between three fleurs-de-lis, all countercharged.
Crest: a cubit arm quarterly, argent and sable holding in the hand proper a fleur-de-lis per pale argent and sable.
So too do a Nelson (Plymouth Dock) with different crest: A dexter arm in armour, couped and erect proper holding a fleur-de-lis as in the arms.
This was the design of arms taken up by William Nelson of Yorktown, Virginia, descended from the Nelson family of Penrith in Cumbria, ancestor of Thomas Nelson jr. who signed the American Declaration of Independence.
A simplified Irish version of these arms, without the chevron are those of Nelson, or Nealson, Clerk of the Council Chamber of Munster in 1632. Quarterly, argent and sable, three fleurs-de-lis counterchanged.
Crest: a dexter arm in arrnour, holding in the hand an oak-branch proper.
They bear comparisom with the Nelson coat of arms from Norway seen above, in counterchanged azure and argent.
The supposedly learned and educated class of the 17th and 18th century had such a poor opinion of the Middle Ages that it may have been expected that Heraldry, deprived of several of its former supporters, might fall into disrepair. This disrepair was perfectly illustrated by the terrible style in which Coats of Arms were produced during this time period.
One prominent example of this is the dreadful Coat of Arms granted to Admiral Nelson. Admiral Nelson’s naval career is symbolized by several augmentations to the basic Nelson shield. The Nelsons were an ancient family, and the original Coat of Arms was simply a single black cross on a gold field with a red diagonal line: Or a cross sable, overall a bend gules.
This bend was to distinguish the arms from those of Samson who bore: sable a cross patonce or (L) and Lamplow who bore: or a cross floretty sable (R).
The system of augmentation that was in place meant that with each major victory of Lord Nelson’s, his Coat of Arms was changed.
The basic arms were augmented first in 1797, to Sir Horatio Nelson, Knight of the Bath, and to the other descendants of his father: Or, a cross flory sable, a bend gules surmounted by another bend engrailed of the field, charged with three bombs fired proper. Interestingly, these same bombs appear on the Swedish and Danish versions of Nelson coats of arms, seen above in this article.
There was further augmentation of these arms, granted to him as Baron Nelson of the Nile in 1798: Or, a cross flory sable, a bend gules surmounted by another bend engrailed of the field, charged with three bombs fired proper on a chief (of honourable augmentation) undulated argent, waves of the sea from which a palm-tree issuant between a disabled ship on the dexter, and a battery in ruins on the sinister, all proper.
Crest, On the dexter side, on a Naval Crown, Or, the Chelengk, or Plume of Triumph, presented to him by the Grand Seignior, or Sultan, Selim III, as a mark of his high esteem, and of his sense of the gallant conduct of the said Horatio Baron Nelson in the said glorious and decisive Victory, and on the sinister the family crest, viz., on a wreath of the colours, upon waves of the sea, the stern of a Spanish man-of-war all proper, thereon inscribed San Joseff.
Motto - Palmam qui merit ferat.
Supporters, being a Sailor on the dexter, and a Lion on the sinister, the honourable Augmentations following - viz., In the hand of the Sailor a palm branch, and another in the paw of the Lion, both proper, with the addition of a tri-coloured Flag and Staff in the mouth of the latter; which augmentations to the Supporters to be borne by the said Horatio Baron Nelson, and by those to whom the said Dignity shall descend. This was the result.
Further augmentation of these arms were granted to the Rev. William Nelson, brother of Horatio and successor to the barony, who was created Earl Nelson of Trafalgar and Merton: A fess wavy azure, and thereon the word TRAFALGAR in letters of gold.
This second augmentation has since been discarded by the Earls Nelson, but it occurs in the Nelson quartering in the arms of Viscount Bridport.
The trouble with this type of Heraldic design is that it does not merely mark a few Coats of Arms but the style, which it enshrines, has a tendency to perpetuate itself, which happened in the 18th century. This following poem satirizes the practice.
These arms the Nelsons bore in days of old:
A black cross flory on a shield of gold,
And over all a bendlet gules, to show
Due difference from Samson and Lamplow.
When one Horatio Nelson rose to fame,
With "Sir" and "K.B." bracketing his name,
The Kings of Arms his scutcheon did resplend
With three exploding bombs upon the bend.
Later, they gave Lord Nelson of the Nile
An augmentation in a lavish style —
A ship disabled and a fort destroyed;
Which probably the Baron much enjoyed.
When Viscount Nelson of the Nile at last
Beyond the reach of earthly honours passed,
His brother (made an Earl), the heralds gave
The golden word TRAFALGAR on a wave.
The shield is a fine biographic gloss,
But where, alas! is Nelson's ancient cross?