“Dictionary of British Arms. Medieval Ordinary” (4 vols) available in Open Access
In four volumes, the Dictionary of British arms gathers the known coats of arms from the British Isles from the beginning of heraldry up to 1530. Unlike other instruments like the Rietstap or the Siebmacher, here the coats of arms are not arranged by the names of their bearers but – as a so called “Ordinary” – by their figures. This approach makes it much easier to identify unknwon coats of arms by the help of this dictionary.
That the Dictionary is build this way is also a result of its very interesting history, which goes back to 1926 when Lieutenant-Colonel G. B. Croft Lyons bequested the Society of Antiquarians in his will with £15.000 to encourage the study of Heraldry and especially to produce a revised edition of the “Ordinary of Arms” by John Woody Papworth published from 1847 to 1874. In 1940, the well known Sir Anthony Richard Wagner became director and general editor of this project, to whom it ows its high scholarly standards, and the project picked up pace. In a few years, many thousands of cards with information about medieval coats of arms were written. Appearently, this was done by several volunteers also during the inactive periods of firewatching duties during the war years. So, already in 1943 there were more than 61.000 cards written on different coats of arms and their bearers.
In order to make this publication possible, at a very early stage the use of computers was introduced. As early as 1979 it was decided to convert the different index cards into data. A couple of lucky circumstances led to this decision and from this time onwards, the cards were sent to Cambridge by batches of 1.000, to be keyed into the “University computer”. This was done by a “Humanities Computing Consultants” which actually was a husband and wife team. The database for this purpose was conceived by Dr Ian Graham, Lecturer in Quantitative Methods at the Institute of Archeology in Cambridge, based on several articles on Heraldry and computing published in the “Coat of Arms” in the 1970s.
It took another decade until 1992, when finally the first volume of the new Dictionary was published. Since, three more volumes followed, the last one in 2014. Unfortunaltey, there are no clear numbers of how many arms and mentions are finally registered. But in the introductions to those volumes it is highlighted several times that the Dictionary is based on more than 114.000 index cards. A very conservative estimation would suggest that there are something like 50.000 entries in the name indices.
Until recently, in order to be able to use this treasure of information, you had to purchase all the four volumes for about £80 each, or altogether as a set for £285 (if you prefer the printed version, you can purchase it here: Boydell & Brewer). Therefore, it is a considerable relief and achievement that all the four volumes of the Dictionary have been made accessible by the Society of Antiquarians in Open Access on the portal OAPEN.
Dictionary of British Arms: Medieval Ordinary, volume I, edited by Thomas Woodcock, Hubert Chesshyre, Society of Antiquaries of London, 1992. Open Access: http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=634733
Dictionary of British Arms: Medieval Ordinary, volume II, edited by Thomas Woodcock, Janet Grant and Ian Graham, Society of Antiquaries of London, 1996. Open Access: http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=634734
Dictionary of British Arms: Medieval Ordinary, volume III, edited by Thomas Woodcock, Sarah Flower, Society of Antiquaries of London, 2009. Open Access: http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=634735
Dictionary of British Arms: Medieval Ordinary, volume IV, edited by Thomas Woodcock, Sarah Flower, Society of Antiquaries of London, 2014. Open Access: http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=634759
Each volume features a detailed introduction on the project and the structure of the Ordinary, the Ordinary itself as well as an index of names. So you are able to search for unknown coats of arms by their main figure as well as by name of the bearer (though, in this case, you have to search the indices of all four volumes).
Moreover, it needs to be mentioned that – also unlike many other armorial dictionaries – all the entries are accompanied by a mention of the source where the coat of arms has been found! Which improves the quality of this tool enourmously.
For more information on the project see the different introductions in the several volumes as well as the wikipedia entry on Ordinary of arms.