Discover Your Family Crest and Coat of Arms

We've all heard about family crests and coats of arms, but what are they, where did they come from, and why are they so important? In this article, we'll answer these questions and more.

Maybe you’ve heard someone mention their family crest, or that they have a picture of their family coat of arms. You probably brushed it off, thinking it was just some silly shield or symbol that is no longer applicable.

The reality is, this couldn’t be further from the truth, as family crests and coats of arms are much more than just a picture or a symbol. Rather, they are still a story about a family in a way that is much more concise than words and tends to stand the test of time.

Are you wondering how this is possible? Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Read on to find out more about family crests and coats of arms and the important things you can discover about your history from a single symbol.

What is a Coat of Arms?

Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom
Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom

Let’s start simple, a coat of arms is a symbol used to identify a family or an individual. While they aren’t as common nowadays, throughout history they were very important for establishing who was on what side of a certain conflict and more.

Coats of arms can contain many different symbols within their elaborate design, such as a shield, crest, helmet, weapons, or even a saying which applies to the family goal. Sometimes, if there is a crest within the coat of arms, this will be used on its own without the rest of the elaborate design.

Look at it this way, the coat of arms is basically a logo for a family. It tells you information about where the family is from, and what they are about. Because logos can sometimes get complicated, there is also a simplified version (the crest) that can be used in certain situations.

Where Did the Coat of Arms Come From?

Back in Medieval times, Europe and parts of Asia were run on the feudal system, where families would own kingdoms. These families would collect taxes from their citizens and frequently go to war with neighboring kingdoms.

Many of these kingdoms had knights, or other forms of warriors, that when a big threat was established, they would join together with knights from other kingdoms and go to war. Because these knights were dressed in chainmail armor from head to toe, it became difficult to know who was on what side during a battle.

Therefore heraldry or the practice of creating a coat of arms to establish identity was created to tell these knights apart. These coats of arms were used to adorn the shield of knights when they went into battle as well as during tournaments.

While a coat of arms for a specific family would show their alliances and perhaps the area of land they owned, these coats of arms were also dynamic, meaning they would change as certain kings and knights reached certain achievements. For example, if a kingdom won a jousting tournament, perhaps a jousting knight would be added to the coat of arms for that noble family.

Additionally, the kingdoms of feudal Europe were constantly changing as alliances were made through marriages and peace treaties. These alliances were often reflected within the coat of arms and sometimes two designs would be combined to create one coat of arms.

Why Are Coats of Arms Still Relevant?

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking it was cool to have a logo back in the day, but that it is no longer relevant. Think again because coats of arms are an amazing way to learn about your family history.

Although you can often trace your surname to discover your roots, much-written information about surnames has been lost over the years. For example, you may know that the surname Farmer means your ancestors were farmers by trade, but this doesn’t give you much other information. Referencing a coat of arms or crest for the Farmer family could help you to bridge this gap.

Not to mention that family crests and coats of arms are actually still used in some parts of the UK today. You won’t find them attached to knights however but to family estates and plots of land.

How is a Family Crest Different from a Coat of Arms?

Remember, a crest is a simplified symbol used to represent a family. This crest, called the family crest, is almost always a small portion of a large coat of arms.

The reason these are often portrayed as separate things is that while the knight would have the coat of arms on his shield heading into battle, that design was just too intricate to put on every piece of his armor in the case he was separated from his shield. For this reason, the simplified coat of arms, called the crest, was placed on the sword and helmet of the knight.

Does Everyone Have a Coat of Arms?

As cool as crests and coats of arms are, unfortunately only the noblest families had them. This means that if your last name is Farmer, like in the example above, the sad truth is that you probably don’t have a crest of arms.

While it may be obvious for some families that their surname wouldn’t have come from nobility, it is always worthwhile to check, because you never know who your ancestor may have been.

How to Read a Coat of Arms

If you are one of the lucky people who has a noble heritage, then you may be curious what all the symbols on your family crest or coat of arms mean. Here is a little more information to help you to read a coat of arms.

The Shield

The first aspect of reading your coat of arms starts with the shield. Every coat of arms must have a shield, and if yours does not, then it is not a true coat of arms.

If your coat of arms looks like a shield, with a flat top and rounded bottom, this is the traditional shape and was used to represent men. Almost all coats of arms have this shield shape.

But, on the off chance your shield has a diamond shape, this was used to represent a woman, or perhaps a noble family led by a woman. Some coats of arms may have an oval shape which was used to represent a member of the clergy.

The Colors

Coats of arms were intricately crafted, down to the very colors they contained. Each color had a historical meaning and was used to show the ambition of the family.

Red and maroon are both common and this is because they were used to represent military strength and victory in battle, respectively. White was also a common color, and it indicated peace or serenity.

If your family coat of arms has yellow, this was used to signify generosity, while purple was the universal sign for royalty. Blue meant loyalty, as did green. Orange was used to represent ambition.

The final color seen in family coats of arms is black, and this was used to represent grief if a tragedy had perhaps befallen the noble family. The colors were mixed together in different patterns and styles to create different meanings.

The Patterns

While it isn’t possible to cover all of the possible patterns you may encounter on your coat of arms (specifically on the shield) below are a few along with their meanings to help get you started.

  • A cross: represented that the bearer was Christian
  • A single solid line down the middle: displayed military strength
  • A solid band across the top: this showed that the bearer was dominant
  • Black with white dots: valor
  • Gold with black dots: valor
  • Blue and white in a bell pattern: great wealth

Chances are one of these patterns is on your family coat of arms. But if you encounter another, it is definitely worthwhile to look into it, as you never know what secret your ancestor may be trying to convey about their life.

The Supporters and Compartment

Besides the shield, most coats of arms also feature some sort of animal or person on either side of the shield. These are known as the supporters, and they tell a great deal about the origin or emotions of the bearer of the coat of arms. There are quite a few so take a look at the list below and if you don’t see yours, check out this website for the full list.

  • Bear: strength
  • Boar: bravery
  • Eagle: a person of noble nature
  • Fish: generous, Christian religious implications
  • Hawk: someone who doesn’t quit
  • Lamb: patience under suffering
  • Lion: courage
  • Stag: one who doesn’t fight unless he is provoked
  • Dragon: defender of treasure
  • Mermaid: eloquence
  • Unicorn: courage and strength
  • Angel: missionary or bearer of joyful news

Of course, it seems a little weird to leave these animals floating in thin air, which is why they were often given land, or sea, to stand on. Don’t get too attached to this landscape (called the compartment) however, because it is rarely seen with the coat of arms except when the coat of arms is painted on a palace or sign.

The Objects

Getting a little overwhelmed? Well, besides just looking at the animals, there are several different symbols you can find buried in a coat of arms that have meaning. The most obvious of these is the crown, which, if present in your coat of arms, would indicate that someone in your family once wore a crown.

Like the supporters, there are hundreds of different symbols you can find in your family crest and they each have unique meanings. Here are some of the more common symbols you may see.

  • Chains: indicates the bearer has fulfilled a debt
  • Anchor: hope
  • Bells: the power to disperse demons or evil spirits
  • Harp: a person of fair judgment
  • Sword: bearer has military honors
  • Torch: truth and intelligence
  • Olive Branch: peace
  • Oaktree/leaves: strength and great age
  • Grapes: symbol for peace but also common on coats of arms from the wine-making region.
  • Bay leaves: the bearer of this coat of arms is a victor or a poet

As you can see, many of the objects included on a coat of arms can help you formulate your family’s story as they are typically tied to a place or a profession. For example, a crest with grapes would likely mean your family came from southern Europe as most of the wine is made here.

The Crest and Helm

The crest is the small part above the shield which, as mentioned above, can sometimes be used to represent the family all on its own. Sometimes the crest is a single animal, other times it’s a symbol created specifically for the family.

For example, a mermaid above the shield holding two objects is very well known as the crest for the Byrne family. The mermaid of course is a very small part of the coat of arms, but, for tournaments or battle, it is the only part that would be included on the knight's helmet.

The crest sits on the helm, which is a decorative item placed above the shield on the coat of arms. If your coat of arms contains a crown anywhere, it is likely here. The helm, besides being used to indicate royalty, was often used to designate rank, or if a bishop's hat was present, to indicate clergy.

The Saying or Motto

Besides being a collection of pictures and symbols to represent a family, most coats of arms also had a saying. Sometimes this saying was in English, other times it was written in French, Latin, or whatever other language your ancestors spoke. The language of this saying is a huge clue where they may have lived.

Sometimes these sayings are simple, like ‘honor and protect’ while others are more complicated. Either way, take the time to translate yours if it isn’t in English so you can know its full meaning.

Can You Make a Family Coat of Arms?

Feeling bummed that you don’t come from a family with a Coat of Arms? Well, the cool thing is you can still create one and register it within the United States or the UK. And once you design and register your coat of arms, no one else can copy it. How cool is that?

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