As civilisation evolved, it became important that a person or family’s rank became distinguishable in society. Heraldry is a mechanism which developed for doing this.
Artwork and symbolism developed in the Middle Ages to signify merit and preserve the memory of those illustrious forebears who had gone before.
The use of armorial ensigns dates back to Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Ancient Greeks who would decorate their shields with personal insignia. The Romans adopted the same principle with military standards borne by their armies.
Coats of arms and family crests have been important since the 13th century and often described as history’s shorthand.
What is a family crest?
The family crest is simply a part of a “heraldic achievement”. A heraldic achievement is a full depiction of the components associated with the bearer and consists of the shield upon which the coat of arms is displayed as well as the motto and the crest. Sometimes people mix up the family crest with the coat of arms, but they are different things.
The crest is the emblem which stands at the top of the coat of arms and its original purpose was to aid the identification of a knight in battle or in a tournament.
The elements of a coat of arms are symmetrical and stand on top of each other. The crest is often some sort of decorative plume, an animal or another object of significance placed at the summit of the coat of arms.
What is the purpose of a family crest?
The crest was often worn on top of a helmet and was usually made from wood, canvas, metal or boiled leather.
As well as enabling easy identification, the crest also added height to the wearer – an advantage on the battlefield. An apparently taller knight would naturally appear to be a more fearsome opponent in battle. Tall warriors have an advantage in combat due to longer limbs and being physically more imposing.
The armed knight would be known by his shield and his crest. These devices marked the family from which he came and his country. Such emblems not only embellished the knight’s armoury in war but were also introduced as an apparatus of grandeur and pageantry in times of peace.
Family crests are often found adorning pieces of jewellery and silverware. This is because entire coats of arms are very detailed and would be too complex or costly to engrave.
The history of the family crest
The date of the first introduction of crests is unclear. Warriors in ancient times often appear with plumes of feathers or crests made out of leather on top of their heads.
Paintings of Richard the Lionheart show his followers wearing helmets with a kind of crest upon them, resembling a plume of feathers. After the reign of Richard I, English kings appear with crowns affixed to the top of their helmets.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, such simple crests were usually painted in the same colours as the knight’s shield. Later centuries saw crests become more ornate. With the increasing popularity of tournaments, the crest became an important part of ceremonial occasions.
Often a crest used in a jousting competition would be too fragile for use on a battlefield. As heraldic art became ever more complex, the crest became valuable extra design space when there was no room left to incorporate an important emblem on the shield.
Historians credit Edward III as the first English monarch to introduce the family crest as a mechanism of heraldry with the first Royal Crest. The custom of conferring crests as marks of distinction appears to have originated at this time. The Royal Crest underwent minor variations until taking its present form in the reign of Henry VIII.
Rules around crests
As with most long-held customs, the rules around the design and use of family crests are complex and archaic. With so much meaning attached to them, each family crest became a coveted item.
The rules around British heraldry dictate that only a firstborn son would be allowed to receive a father’s crest upon his death. By default, the firstborn grandson would receive the crest if the man had no sons.
It has long been a rule that ladies, regardless of their rank, were not entitled to a crest, though they were entitled to bear coats of arms. This rule of custom is probably simply due to the presumption that women would be unable to take to the battlefield.
What the symbols on crests mean
The animals, people, plants and designs on family crests have particular meanings. Even the colours used in a crest denote something specific.
The lion is a common feature on crests as it has a majestic appearance and is an emblem of strength, courage, power and, as king of the beasts, royalty.
The tiger is considered equally as fierce as the lion but can be cruel and ferocious without provocation and has often been favoured by warriors.
The stag is quick and skilled at avoiding danger and so is considered to represent intelligence and peaceable qualities.
The horse is useful, strong and proud and notable for its place on the battlefield, so it is commonly found in heraldry.
Eagles, unicorns, foxes, dragons, hares, owls and wolves are just a handful of other animals which also often appear and are represented because the original bearer believed they possessed the qualities of the creature.
Objects which are often found in crests include a portcullis to represent valour, a bugle-horn to represent hunting prowess and a ring to signify fidelity.
Some famous family crests
The Royal Crest is in the form of a passant guardant lion wearing an imperial crown stood upon a chapeau. Passant guardant is a Latin term meaning the lion is depicted sideways with its face towards the viewer. A chapeau is a hat worn by important religious figures such as cardinals or archbishops.
The crest of the Prince of Wales dates back to Edward the Black Prince. Legend suggests Edward took the helmet of John I of Bohemia, after the Battle of Crecy - the first major battle of the Hundred Years War. The helmet of the dead king was lined with ostrich feathers which are still found on the Prince of Wales crest today.
How to find your family crest
Tracing your family tree is usually an important step in discovering if you have a family crest. Family crests follow the male lineage, so you will need to follow this back through history if you want to find out if your family have an authentic crest.
The United Kingdom, Scotland and the United States each have an official registry of family crests. In the UK, this is the College of Arms.
Burkes General Armory is one of the greatest collections of information on family crests and coats of arms for families in England, Scotland and Ireland. Burke’s 1844 publication was updated through to 1884 by which time the compendium listed 60,000 names. You can search an online edition here.
For a little fun to find out if your family name has an associated crest, there are lots of searchable databases online. One of the best is the Armorial Register which has an authentic searchable register of family crests.