Family Crests Might Not Be What You Think They Are

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Family crests are not what you might think. The term “family crest” is sometimes used interchangeably with the heraldic terms “coat-of-arms” or “family shield,” but a family crest is actually only one portion of the heraldic display known as a coat-of-arms. The crest is usually the uppermost design element in a coat-of-arms, standing on top of an armor helmet depicted in the coat-of-arms. It is analogous to the crest on top of the heads of some birds.

Design Elements in Family Crests.

Different animals and other graphic representations may be used in the design of family crests. A hand or arm holding a weapon, a lion, horse or dragon, or the wings of an eagle or another bird are often seen.

A wreath (torse) in the family liveries (the principal colors of the family shield) usually surrounds the crest. In family crests of nobles such as princes, dukes or earls, a coronet often takes the place of the torse or sits on top of the torse.

Historical Underpinnings of Family Crests.

Heraldic coats-of-arms and family crests originated in Europe’s early Middle Ages, and they came into popular use during the feudal period. Medieval knights used their crests and coats-of-arms to quickly and easily identify themselves to friends and foes during tournaments and battles. For example, a knight’s shield and helmet were usually painted with colorful, vivid design elements from his coat-of-arms, oftentimes the family crest. A similar system – but with different graphics – evolved and came into use in feudal Japan.

Other than reigning Queens, women are generally not entitled to bear or use family crests, and neither are members of the clergy. These exclusions are an historical artifact that arose because women and clergymen did not fight in battle or participate in medieval tournaments, and accordingly they would not have had a helmet on which to display a family crest. Because the stylized representations which we now think of as being family crests originated as displays on top of actual armored helmets, there was no mechanism to ever create a family crest for a woman or clergyman.

Family Crests Today.

By law, in several countries, only certain specific people (“armigers”) are technically entitled to bear or use family crests and coats-of-arms, even today. But family crests are such attractive designs that they have become popular as wall displays and as part of the design of some jewelry. Like coats-of-arms, heraldic family crests relate to a specific historical individual or family name, and sometimes they symbolically portray that individual’s deeds or events that occurred during the family history. Typically, very specific symbolic devices, colors and patterns are combined to create a heraldic family crest, and each of these components tells part of the story of the person or family that the crest belongs to. They are, however, typically highly stylized and it is sometimes very difficult to accurately decipher the symbolism used in a family crest. But even when the meaning of a family crest has long been lost in the mists of time, it is a beautiful, highly decorative design that evoke the magic of the Middle Ages and links us to a noble past.

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