Katharine is a lifelong student of history and an admitted anglophile. She has studied in Scotland and England.
What Is a Coat of Arms?
Strictly speaking, the coat of arms is the design on an individual’s shield. Originally, the colors and symbols were meant to distinguish the individual in battle, competitions. Nowadays, what many commonly refer to as the family crest or coat of arms is actually a heraldic achievement, which consists of the coat of arms (shield) along with some or all of the following elements: crown, helm or helmet, mantling, torse, crest, supporters, order, and motto.
How to Make a Family Crest
Traditionally, a family crest can be legally used only if given to you by the appropriate authority (e.g., in the United Kingdom, the King of Arms). You can trace your genealogy to see whether your family has a coat of arms, and there are many services to help you with this (we will discuss this later in the article).
However, if you don’t have a coat of arms, by all means create one of your own to represent you or your family. Traditional heraldry has many customs and rules to abide by. You can certainly research these and follow them to see what you can create, but you can also let your creativity flow free.
Tips for Choosing Symbols
When deciding what symbols to include in your family crest, here are some ideas for you to think about:
- What is your ancestral background? Tracing your family line back to medieval times (or further) can give you ideas of traditional symbology used by your ancestors or even by your ethnicity.
- What values are important to you or your family? Or you may ask: What are your best characteristics? Many values, attributes, or characteristics have associated symbology. For example, justice is commonly associated with a balance or scale.
- What are your hobbies or interests? Is it music? Sports? Reading? If, for example, you love to play badminton, a racket and/or shuttlecock can be used to represent that.
- What is the main purpose of your business or organization? If you’re designing a coat of arms for a company or organization, think about what the main purpose of the organization is. Boil it down to a few key themes to narrow down your choices for symbols.
If you are good with PhotoShop or a program such as paint.net (which is free to download), you can search the links I have provided for free clip art that you can use, perhaps along with images of your own, to construct your crest that way.
Alternatively, you could decide what you want the elements to be and have an online service create the crest for you, which will cost you some money, and varies greatly from about $30 to $250.
A third option is to build one with a free program you can find online and print it out from there. Links for all these are found in the links section below.
Sites to Create Your Own Coat of Arms
There are many sites that help you create your own design. Some will let you choose from elements from templates and put them together. Others will generate one based on your choices or a personality test.
- All Family Crests: Coat of Arms Generator
- Fleur-de-lis Designs: Custom Crests
- GraphicSprings: Crest Logo
- MyTribe101: Family Crest and Coat of Arms Generator
- MyBlazon: Coat of Arms Maker
- Roll for Fantasy: Coat of Arms Generator
Tracing Your Genealogy
How to Find Your Coat of Arms
If you are of Western European descent, you may have a coat of arms in your family line. However, that doesn’t mean everyone from Western Europe has one; remember that they were traditionally granted only to nobility. And even if you are not from Western European descent, you may still have a version of a coat of arms.
Although heraldry is a European tradition, many other cultures have similar practices. For example, Japan uses Mon (Kamon for families) to represent individuals (samurai) or clans, which can be likened to badges or crests in heraldry.
Here are some ways you can find your family's coat of arms:
- Talk with the elders in your family. Parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc. They may have stories, pictures, documents, or other artifacts that can help in your quest. They may already know what the family coat of arms is!
- Do some research. If talking to your family doesn’t get you the full picture, it can hopefully give you some pieces to guide you in the right direction. From there, you can visit the library or research online to find out more about your family history.
- Visit online genealogy resources. Sites such as FamilySearch.org, Archives.com, or Ancestry.com can help you tremendously in your research since they have already compiled hundreds of millions of records and are fully dedicated to tracing family history.
- Search by last name. You can also see if there is a coat of arms associated with your last name. Sites such as 4crests.com, houseofnames.com, or allfamilycrests.com can show you your family name’s coat of arms. Although it may not always be specific to your direct lineage, it can give you good start.
There is always an option to create a crest for yourself or your family from scratch. It may not be "official,” but it can be fun to customize a coat of arms that is specific to you, your interests, hobbies, family history, philosophy, or religion, to name a few examples. To do this, you'll need to have a basic understanding of the elements that go into a coat of arms.
Parts of a Coat of Arms (Heraldic Achievement)
Above, you will see the example of the Royal Coat of Arms of the UK with the most prevalent components labeled. Below, we will go over the various components, their significance or symbolic meaning, and common design features.
Coat of Arms
As stated previously, colloquially, “coat of arms” can refer to the whole heraldic achievement or the shield. Formally, it is the design etched and painted onto the shield, or escutcheon. The coat of arms has many design elements.
Also known as an escutcheon, the shield represents the actual shield used by knights in combat. There are many escutcheon shapes:
These are just several of the most common shapes, with variations dependent largely on region and time period. Going off of these basic designs, many escutcheons are designed by mixing and matching elements to make ever more complex designs.
The main shield may be adorned by one or more smaller shields called inescutcheons to represent familial lines, inheritance, or territorial claims.
Traditionally, there are only a limited number of colors, or tinctures, used in designing a coat of arms. They can be divided into three major groups:
- Metals: Silver, gold
- Colors: Green, blue, purple, red, black
- Stains: Mulberry, blood red, tawny
The tinctures used can carry different meanings:
- Silver: Peace
- Gold: Generosity
- Green: Hope or joy
- Blue: Truth or loyalty
- Purple: Royalty
- Red: Might
- Black: Grief
Rule of thumb: When choosing which tinctures to use, remember not to use color on color, or metal on metal. This is a classic heraldic rule. For example, if the background is gold, the ordinary (discussed below) can be anything but silver.
Ordinaries are geometric shapes or bands that divide the shield into segments, and they also carry symbolic meaning. The ordinary that you choose will also depend in part on what other elements you want to appear on the shield. You can choose not to use an ordinary at all and just have your symbols on the shield as your design.
Broad band across the top
Authority, leadership, wisdom
Vertical band down the middle
Sash; broad band diagonally across the shield
High military rank or honor
Broad horizontal band across the middle of the shield
Readiness to act
Vertical and horizontal bands crossing each other
“Cross of St. Andrew”; X-shaped
Endurance of hardship, martyrdom
Angled band pointing up (like the roof of a house)
Charges are symbols placed on the background and/or the ordinary. Charges can be any object, but are most commonly things such as humans, animals, fish, birds, mythical creatures, elements of nature, tools, or religious symbols. Like all elements of a coat of arms, charges also have symbolic significance. There are so many that we won’t go through them here, but you can start learning more about the symbology of charges you choose in the link provided.
Many of the items on this list are representations of other symbols that appear with a coat of arms, such as supporters, which we'll discuss in a moment, and the lines of division on a shield. If you're making your own coat of arms, you'll want to choose a charge or charges that represent you in some way. For example, you might want to use a bell tower, which signifies integrity, or a boar which means bravery. For a personal touch, you might choose a fountain pen if you're a writer, or tragedy and comedy masks if you are a lover of theater.
A helm, or helmet, is usually placed on top of the shield. Sometimes, it will rest on top of a crown, as in the case of royalty. The style of helmet that an individual uses depends upon his rank in the aristocracy.
- Royalty, for example, are represented by a gold helmet with several bars on the front, and red or blue silk, used to pad the inside of a helmet, will show through the bars.
- A nobleman will use a helmet of silver.
- A knight will use one of steel with an open visor.
- A squire or gentleman will have a helmet with a closed visor.
As you see, the rules are quite extensive and complex. For your purposes, you can choose a helmet to your liking, or choose not to use a helmet on your coat of arms at all. Many coats of arms use crowns or coronets in place of helmets.
The crest is a decorative piece—usually a sculpture—placed on top of the helmet. Historically, it was worn on top of a knight’s helmet—particularly for those participating in tournaments. However, it is more often used as a personal insignia in place of the coat of arms (e.g., as a badge on documents, clothing, personal items, buildings, etc.). This usage lead to the confusion of “crest” for “coat of arms.”
Generally a personal device, it can be used to represent the individual or the family—hence the term “family crest”—but it can also represent entities, such as governments, organizations, and businesses. Although you often only see one crest on top of the helm, you may also see two or more in use on some achievements, so don’t let that be a limit. Use as many as you see fit.
Like the charges on a coat of arms, the crest can be any object, and each object carries a symbolic meaning. For example, a deer signifies harmony, a dog represents loyalty, and an elephant represents strength. Again, refer to the link to the list of symbology of charges above to get an idea of what objects you may want represented on your achievement.
The crest often holds or leans on an object. These are often weapons, but they can be other things, such as a shepherd's crook, a walking stick, or even a gardening tool. If you're a musician, for example, you could have your crest holding a flute or a guitar.
Also called a wreath, the torse is a twisted piece of silk or other fabric that encircles the top of the helmet and is meant to tie the crest, helmet, and mantling together. It can also be used to decorate an animal in the crest or on a charge, adorning the animal’s head or neck. In some cases, the torse is replaced with a crown or coronet. The torse consists of two colors—one from the medals and one from the colors—and are usually the same as the main colors on the coat of arms.
The mantling can be seen as a decorative flair for the helmet and crest It drapes around the helmet and flows down to the sides of the shield. It was worn by knights in battle and is tied to the helmet by the torse to protect the knight from elements. The mantling can be depicted as intact or tattered, the latter to indicate hard fighting in battles. It usually has the same colors as the torse.
Supporters are figures or objects on either side of the shield meant to be holding up or framing the shield. As with most heraldic elements, the supporters have symbolic meaning and are generally animals—either real or mythical.
The compartment is the landscape—usually either a bed of rocks, a mound of grass, or a wreath—underneath the escutcheon and supporters. Traditionally said to represent an individual’s land, nowadays, it can represent anything. For example, sea-faring entities may choose to depict a lake or ocean—especially if the supporters are aquatic animals.
Usually a phrase printed in Latin on a ribbon or scroll, the motto can be anything from a battle cry to a slogan to declaration. Although the most common language is Latin, you can use any language you like. The motto can appear at the top or bottom the achievement.
Examples of some mottos are as follows:
A te pro te = From thee, for thee
Amo, ut invenio = I love as I find
Celer et audax = Swift and bold
Corage sans peur = Courage without fear
You get the idea. Imagine the fun you could have coming up with your own motto! It can go above the whole coat of arms, or below. Oftentimes, the name of the family is also found either above or below the coat of arms on a scroll or ribbon.
History of Heraldry and Why It Is Fascinating
An Overview of the History of Heraldry
The tradition of having a coat of arms has been commonplace in Europe since the early 12th century. The original coats of arms were simple, using just a handful of different shapes and color combinations. But as more individuals were granted their own coat of arms, the designs became more and more complex. Although originally granted to only individuals by the ruling monarch, not to families, in 13th century England, these beautiful symbols could be passed down from father to son. In this way, the family "crest" evolved.
By 1400, these were officially codified into English law. It was forbidden, for example, to display a coat of arms that had not been approved by the crown, and the meaning of various symbols and colors used on the crests were indexed and regulated. Even now, new coats of arms may only be granted either by the Queen herself, or by an authority known as the King of Arms.
Today, coats of arms or crests are used to symbolize more than just individuals and families. You may see them used as symbols for nations, governments, businesses, sporting teams, clubs, and other organizations. However, most individuals of European descent, particularly Western European descent, can trace their family genealogy to find what their family coat of arms is.
I hope you now have a good basis for understanding heraldry and family crests. As you can tell, this is a very complex system, which requires further study if you want to become well versed in the meaning of its symbolism. It is a fascinating study, and there is no shortage of excellent resources on the internet and in print about heraldry and coats of arms, many of which you will find in the following links section.
- College of Arms. FAQs: heraldry. Accessed Apr. 15, 2020.
- Encyclopedia Japan. Brief Overview of Japanese family Crest “Kamon”. DoyouknowJapan.com. Accessed Aug. 25, 2020.
- English Heritage. Our Guide to Heraldry. Accessed Aug. 18, 2020
- International Heraldry & Heralds. Accessed Aug. 18, 2020.
- Your Family History Magazine. Coats of Arms. Historic UK. Accessed Aug. 18, 2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Hello on June 30, 2020:
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Heather Swope on January 17, 2019:
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martinho martins on April 11, 2018:
much apreciation... thanks
Potato on December 20, 2017:
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Lee Cloak on March 01, 2015:
Great article, very interesting, i read it twice and i'll read it again, great stuff, thanks!
Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on September 07, 2014:
My goodness, but this was a well-done, thoroughly researched and fascinating piece!
I enjoyed it very much, and learned quite a few things as well. I'm going to look up my maiden name, because both my ex-married name and current one are not original, but flub-ups caused at the port of immigration.
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Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on September 05, 2014:
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Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on September 04, 2014:
I appreciate this work. I have tried to pay people to trace my family tree, but they only get us back to Ireland and as for a family crest/tree, same thing. No evidence found, but this does not subtract from the excellence of this hub.
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Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama
ziyena from the United States on December 23, 2013:
This is a great article to help with Geneaology! I'm passing this one along on Pinterest ... Z UP
Ruth Pieterse on September 04, 2012:
So interesting! Voted up etc.
Tony Wilkerson from Evans, Georgia on June 21, 2012:
This is very helpful and informative. I have been searching genealogy for a few years now and it always offers surprises!
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Conway Bown on December 25, 2011:
Excellent precis! Well done! As a devotee of heraldry and iconology, I found it informative and easy to read!
Conway Bown www.ipas.com.au
wanzulfikri from Malaysia on November 06, 2011:
Wow! A splendid lens on heraldry. I once thought that heraldry are for nobles but now, I know that every family can actually have them
Shasta Matova from USA on November 05, 2011:
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I am interested in genealogy, and this is a great hub on how to create a family crest.