An Introduction to Coats of Arms & Family Crests
Every now and again I get an offer in the mail to get a free copy of my family coat of arms, or have one designed if my family doesn’t have one. I’m sure you’ve seen these offers too, but have you ever wondered what the whole coat of arms / family crest thing is all about? Well here’s your chance to learn a little but about it.
The coat of arms has a rich and old tradition dating back to the days of European knights and castles. They were originally developed as a means of identifying soldiers by clan or kingdom. Later they were adopted by families and other groups of people that needed distinct identification. Also known as an armorial achievement or armorial bearings, the coat of arms is a very specific design expressed by something called a blazon.
The blazon could be thought of as a template, or a base, upon which the coat of arms is built. But rather than being a picture, a blazon is a written or oral description of the various elements and their meaning to the arms’ owner. The designer, or heralder, uses the blazon to create a visual representation which we call the coat of arms. Not every coat contains all of the possible elements, but some of the most commonly used elements include the shield, motto, supporter, and crest.
The shield is commonly represented in the escutcheon shape, derived from medieval battle shields. The shield is often referred to as the “family crest”, but that is an incorrect association. The crest is a separate element of the coat of arms which will be discussed later. Because of the military nature of the escutcheon shape, non-military coats of arms sometimes use a different shape for the shield including a lozenge (diamond shape), cartouche (oval), and roundel (circle). The geometric design or emblem on the shield is called a “charge”, which is described in the blazon using various “points”. These points must be followed exactly in the creation of the charge.
The motto is a phrase or sentence used to state the intention or motivation of the group commissioning the coat of arms. It can be located anywhere on the coat but is most commonly found directly underneath or above the shield. In centuries past, Latin was used for most mottos, but national languages were adopted as heraldry became more popular.
Supporters are placed on either side of the shield, holding it up as it were. Supporters can be in the form of animals, humans, plants and vegetation, or even imaginary figures. They are often used to reflect something or someone important to the history, reputation, or geographical region of the owner.
Finally, the crest is an element used primarily for military-based coats of arms. Although modern coats of arms employ the “family” crest, the earliest coats utilized the crest only on the uniforms of soldiers. The crest is typically found near the top of the coat, and in military applications, generally sits on top of the helmet. In a non-military coat it is generally placed above the shield or coronet (crown). The crest can take the form of animals (lions and birds of prey are most common), human figures, or a set of hands clasping weapons of other implements. In Scotland crests were often displayed by themselves on badges, leading to the misunderstanding that the crest and coat of arms are the same thing.
Medieval flags belonging to feudal kings or clan leaders were often adorned with a coat of arms. Many national flags still utilize a historical coat or crest of some nature, but these uses should not be confused with seals or logos. Heraldry, which is the art of designing and displaying coats of arms, follows a very specific and rigid set of specifications. Legitimate coats of arms follow the specifications while seals or logos do not.
One of the most recognizable families associated with the coat of arms is the current royal family of England, the House of Windsor. The House was established in 1917 by George V, bringing and end to the ruling House of Hanover with the death of Queen Victoria. The House of Windsor was created through the marriage of Victoria to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who was of German decent. The Windsor coat of arms shares some similarities with that of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as a result.
Students of Italian history will recognize the family name Medici. This powerful family was at its peak from the 14th to 18th centuries, influencing politics, religion, business and culture. The family provided three popes, several Italian rulers, a French Queen, and spouses for royalty in France, Spain, and England. The Medici coat of arms is one of the least intricate of European coats, yet it’s simple beauty is well respected in modern heraldry.
Modern figures to have obtained an original coat of arms in their lifetimes include John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Kennedy was granted his in 1961 by the Chief Herald of the Republic of Ireland. Eisenhower was required to have a coat of arms in 1945 when Denmark elected to award him the Order of the Elephant. He used his family arms with a crest and motto specific to his military career being added to it.
Just about anyone can get a coat of arms if he can prove ancestry with a male who received a coat in the past. Acquiring a coat in this manner requires an individual to send documentation to the heraldic authority of jurisdiction, who will review it and issue the coat if the documentation is sufficient. Individuals who wish to create a new coat to pass on for future generations must do so according to the laws of their nation or the nations of their ancestors. Some countries have strict laws about the issuance of coats of arms, while others do not.