Heraldry - Find or Create Your Family Crest
What is a coat of arms?
The tradition of having a family coat of arms, or family crest, has been commonplace in Europe since the early 12th century. These symbols are sometimes also called "armorial bearings", "badges", "charges" or "devices", and the study of these is known as heraldry. The jargon used to describe the elements of a coat of arms is called "blazonry". Many of these terms stem from the French language.
The original purpose of a coat of arms was to mark warriors in battle by displaying symbols or badges on shields, flags and clothing. This made an individual easily identifiable in the carnage and confusion of bloody hand-to-hand combat. You wouldn't want to stick a bayonet into someone on your own side! Because each coat of arms features brightly colored elements, it also made it easier to identify an army advancing from quite a distance.
History of Heraldry
The original coats of arms were simple, using just a handful of different shapes and color combinations. But as more and more knights wished to distinguish themselves, the designs became more and more complex. Although originally granted to individuals, not families, these beautiful symbols began to be passed down from father to son, and soon lords and other members of the nobility began to create coats of arms to represent them and their families as well. In this way, the family "crest" evolved ("crest" is actually a term for just one element on the coat of arms, as we shall see).
Beginning in the 13th century, a system of rules and laws were developed to regulate the use of such symbols. 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 in more than just the family crest context. You may see them used as badges for sporting teams, as company logos, as symbols for clubs and organizations, and on currency, stamps, flags or banners. Most countries and cities of Europe have a coat of arms, and even some small villages. But they are still largely understood as symbolic of a family tree, and attached to a given surname.
Your Family Crest
Which brings us to YOUR family crest! If your surname is of Western European origin, chances are good that there is a family crest for your name. Here we will explore how you can find the crest for your surname (or one in your family tree). But if you don't have a Western European name in your family tree, don't despair! We will also explain the elements of a coat of arms and give examples, so that you will be able to create a crest just for you or your family!
Like anything else these days, finding your family crest is most easily done on the web! The place to start is probably House of Names. They have thousands of names, and show you the crest in full color. If you can't find it there, try James Wolf's wonderful blog. On the right column of his site, you'll see a huge long list of surnames. If you can't find yours, try sending a query to James. He may be able to help you locate it. A third option is found at Five Dollar Coats of Arms. He does charge $5 to send you a full color, printable family crest via email, but he claims to have over a million crests in his catalog and may be able to help those of you who have a more uncommon surname.
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 or crest.
Elements of the Heraldic Crest
Elements of the Coat of Arms
The name for the total and complete coat of arms is "achievement of arms". There are a number of elements that go into the creation of the achievement of arms. These include the coat of arms (meaning the base design on the shield), the crest, the supporters, the torse, the mantling, the helmet, the motto, the charges and the ordinaries. There are more possible elements that can go into the coat of arms, but many of these are only permitted for nobility or granted to knights. We will stick to covering the basic elements for now.
In the diagram below, you can see where the various elements are located. We will describe them one by one. If you are considering creating a crest of your own, be thinking about what you would choose for each element. Be creative! There is no limit to what you can use for the elements!
Rather than confusing you with links in the text, I will provide all links at the bottom so that you can check out some examples of the various elements that we will cover. The elements for which you can find a link will be in bold face in the text.
Not all the elements are present on all crests. Rather, the crest is designed, using the elements most useful to the individual, country, city or family that it represents. Some are always, or most always present, such as the shield itself (obviously), and the crest.
Looking at number 1 on the illustration, you will see that it's pointed to the design on the shield (shields can come in a variety of shapes, but this is one of the most common). This is the more narrowly defined "coat of arms" of your crest. The coat of arms on the shield has many potential elements that can go into its design. Things to consider are color, or "tincture" (each color signifies something), divisions of the "field" or background, lines of division, ordinaries and sub-ordinaries, furs, and more. You will find examples of many of these elements on the coat of arms in the links section below.
Number 2 points to the ordinary, which is part of the coat of arms. There are many possible ordinaries, or geometric shapes and bands that divide the shield into segments. The ordinary that you choose will depend in part on what other elements you want to appear on the shield. Or, you can choose not to use an ordinary at all, and just have your symbols on the shield as your design.
Number 3 indicates the charge, which in this case is set on the ordinary. Charges are any symbol that is represented on the shield itself. Charges can be any object, but are most commonly things such as humans, animals, fish, birds, mythical creatures, elements of nature, crosses or an implement, such as the sword you see here. A link I have provided below is very informative, in that it gives the traditional meanings for a wide variety of commonly used charges. 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.
Number 4 points to the helmet, which is usually placed atop the shield, but can sometimes be a charge on the shield as well.The style of helmet 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 one of steel with an open visor, and a squire or gentleman will have a helmet with a closed visor. As you see, the rules are quite extensive and complex. For your own 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 instead of or in addition to a helmet.
Number 5 is the "torse" or "crest wreath". It represents a twist of silk or fabric that encircles the top of the helmet. It is usually in two colors, each with its own meaning. You will see examples of the torse in the examples of coats of arms that follow.
Number 6 is the crest itself. These elements are usually animals, and again, are representative of the owner and carry meaning. A deer signifies harmony, a dog means loyalty and an elephant would signify strength. Again, refer to the page I will list at the end of the article for ideas for crests and their meanings.
Number 7 - The crest often holds or leans on an object, as in this example. 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!
Number 8 shows the "mantle" or "mantling", which is usually either a silk/ribbon like swathe, or a display of leaves. feathers or vines. It drapes around the helmet and flows down to the sides of the shield.
Number 9 this is your motto! Usually it is printed on a ribbon or scroll, and is written in Latin, but it can be in any language. 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. Often times the name of the family is also found either above or below the coat of arms on a scroll or ribbon. (if you want to put your motto into Latin or another language, try using a language translator such as google translate!)
There are further elements that can go into a coat of arms, one of which is the supporters, not pictured in the diagram. Supporters are a pair of figures that stand to each side of the shield. As with the other figures and objects, these have meaning and are usually human or, more commonly, animals or mythical creatures. They usually hold or support the shield with their limbs.
Putting the Elements Together
So, let us look at an example of a real coat of arms and go over its elements. The one just above is the historical coat of arms of the German duchies of Mecklenburg-Schwerin & Mecklenburg-Strelitz. As you can see, it is quite complex. Notice that it has multiple charges on the shield. Each charge will have its own meaning that pertains to this municipality. Rather than a helmet, this coat of arms features two crowns, and the mantle is an elaborate robe-like drape. There are supporters to either side of the shield, a bull and what looks like some kind of a winged mythical creature.
The purple and gold one is another example. This is the coat of arms of the Canadian town of Pitt Meadows, and was only recently granted.. It is somewhat simpler than the other, using only three main colors, and featuring geometric shapes as its charges, a helmet with a torse and coronet on it, and a feather-like mantel. The supporters here are herons, which symbolize the rich riverside wildlife of the area. The crest is an eagle, which is meant to honor the Native Americans of the area. The horizontal figures in the charge represent the railway that runs through the town, while the coronet is symbolic of the nearby mountain peaks, visible from this town. There are even sprigs of blueberry and cranberry beneath, which are the town's main agricultural products, and this coat of arms has a motto under those. The wavy bars in the base are representative of two rivers that converge at this location. So you see how highly symbolic a coat of arms is, and how much thought goes into creating one.
How do I Create My Own?
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.
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.
© Katharine L. Sparrow
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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.