Many people think that a coat of arms and a crest are the same thing and use the terms interchangeably. But there are differences between the two and a set of rules that each follows. The difference may seem minor to some; but they are very important details for historians, researchers, and genealogists. Having these in your tree is rare and having the heredity to prove use is even rarer.
There are plenty of companies out there that will sell you items with what they say is your family crest on it, but how can you be sure? Many of these companies do little to no research on the crests and coat of arms they sell. To this, you could be inadvertently displaying the wrong crest or coat of arms for your family heredity or for an individual in your family.
What is a crest?
The crest is the top portion of the coat of arms and is actually part of the overall coat of arms design. The crest is an identifier for what the person who was originally granted the coat of arms did in order to receive the honor. Some families have used it as a logo, without the full arms beneath it.
What is a coat of arms?
In history, a coat of arms has been the design on a knights shield, and was unique to that individual. Some individuals only had a right to the coat of arms during their life time, in other instances some individuals were allowed to pass their coat of arms down to successive generations. This is where it would become a family coat of arms, the symbol for the family, instead of the symbol for an individual. The symbols on a coat of arms are meant to represent the achievements of the person, manor, or state, to whom the arms were granted.
The first documented use of a coat of arms was in the 11th century on the Bayeux Tapestry, which chronicles the Norman invasion and conquest. By the 12th century the use of coat of arms had become much more common, and in the 13th century family use of coat of arms became common as the symbols had been passed down from ancestors in the previous centuries.
To use and legally bear a coat of arms a person had to be granted the honor by a ruling monarch. The laws and rules regarding the right to use them, and if they could be passed on varied greatly by region, ruler, and country.
In England and Scotland the individual granted the coat of arms was the only one who could use it and display it. It wasn’t till King Richard I, in the 13th century, that coat of arms became hereditary. Even still, families would have to alter the coat of arms enough to distinguish it from prior generations. This is why you will see several coat of arms for one surname or family, that can look only slightly different, or can looked entirely different from each other. Women were also allowed to bear a coat of arms, as long as the main family design was included in their personal design, to distinguish them as a female bearer if the arms. The use of coat of arm in Germanic countries is very different, both aristocrats and non-noble free citizens could display a coat of arms. Non-noble free citizens could be granted and display a coat of arms if they had any distinguishing accomplishments.
The use of a coat of arms was largely governed by customs and traditions. Places such as England had and still do have governmental rules and regulations regarding use of a coat of arms, and they have heraldic authorities which grant and regulate the use of coats of arms. In other countries the use of a coat of arms was or is heavily regulated as many of them have been trademarked.
Using Coat of Arms today?
In general most European countries no longer regulate the use of coat of arms, unless it is trademarked. Italy for one, no longer recognizes them at all, meaning anyone is able to adopt a coat of arms.
The United Kingdom is of course different. The UK still carries laws on the books regarding coat of arms, and their use, and they apply to anyone in the world wishing to use a coat of arms from the British Isles. In the United Kingdom it is also important to remember that a coat of arms is not generally granted to a surname, just to an individual person.
Coat of Arms parts
There are several parts to a coat of arms. The motto, the crest, the wreath/torse, the helm or the coronet, the shield elements, the mantle/mantling, the supporters, and the blazon.
- The Motto: originally a war cry, it is located any where on the coat of arms, but usually found at the bottom, it’s placement is determined by the artist rendering the design. As time went on the motto would be used to express a worthy sentiment. On some coat of arms a surname may be found under the motto. This happens when a coat of arms is allowed to be passed down.
- The Crest: consisted of charges painted onto a ridge on top of the helmet, it is located at the top of the coat of arms and is the ornament of the helmet.
- The wreath/torse: supports the crest, and is a twisted rope made up of the main color of the shield and a second metallic color.
- The Helm or The Coronet: the helmet, it is commonly seen from the side view and sits a top the shield. A coronet is a crown. In both cases they signify a persons status/class.
- The Shield Elements: inside the shield is the arms, which is the design and colors on the shield. The shield can be any shape, and can sometimes indicate where the person came from. The background colors of the shield are called the field. The main picture of the shield is the charge.
- The Mantle/Mantling: usually depicted as leafy swirl, but it is not a leaf, or branches from a tree. It is supposed to be cloak fabric, flowing in the wind. The more tattered looking the mantle the great the honor bestowed, as it was to show a braver warrior. The mantle only occurs when a helm is present.
- The Supporters: this is usually an animal on either side of the shield, but can also be a human.
- The Blazon: the text description of the coat of arms and its components.
Over time there came to be hundreds of coats of arms, and some were very similar to others. In order to make sure each coat of arms was unique, heralds were tasked with the job of keeping track of each coat of arms and to who it belonged.
Below is a link to a list of symbols that are commonly used on a coat of arms. The most commonly accepted meanings are given for the symbols, but scholars and historians do vary in the their opinions concerning the meanings for coats of arms and crests.
Coat of Arms In Stained Glass
Coat of Arms for Robert Plot, in the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.
Robert Plot was an English naturalist, a chemist and professor at the University of Oxford. Plot was also the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, the worlds first university museum. Born in Borden, Kent, in December of 1640, Plot was the son of Robert Plot and Elisabeth Patenden (some biographies list his mother as Rebecca Patenden). Plot would be educated at the Wye Free School as well as at Magdalen Hall, and would receive his BA in 1661 and his MA in 1664. Plot followed this with a BCL and a DCL in 1671. A little over ten years later, in 1683, Plot was appointed Professor of Chemistry and first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. By 1690 Plot retired from his posts, and spent the remainder of his years at Sutton Barne with his wife Rebecca Burman. Robert Plot died from urinary calculi 30 April 1696.
Coat of Arms for Sir Christopher Wren, in the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.
Sir Christopher Wren was an English architect, as well as an astronomer and geometrician. Wren was born 20 October 1632, and was the only son of a rector. Wren spent much of his early life at court and in study, and by 1651 he had graduated from Wadham College in Oxford with a BA, two years later he would receive his MA. In 1662 Wren was given his first opportunity at architecture, and was engaged in the design of the Sheldonian Theater in Oxford. Wren married his first wife; Faith Coghill, daughter of Sir John Coghill, on 7 December 1669. He was then knighted in 1673, Faith died of smallpox two years later, leaving him with a young son name Christopher. Wren married a second time; to Jane Fitz William, on 24 February 1677, with whom he had two children; a girl named Jane and a boy named William. Jane died in 1679. During his life, Sir Christopher Wren would design 53 London churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral. Sir Christopher Wren died at the age of 90 on 25 February 1723.
Resources on heraldry
“The Real Truth Behind Coats of Arms and Family Crests.” Ancestral Findings. 1995-2017. https://www.ancestralfindings.com/real-truth-behind-coats-arms-family-crests/.
“Components of a Coat of Arms.” The Governor General of Canada His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston. October 28, 2013. http://www.gg.ca/document.aspx?id=83.
“Coat of Arms Information.” Family Names Online. http://www.familynamesonline.com/coainfo.html.
“Coat of Arms – General.” Lindsay Coat of Arms. http://www.clanlindsay.com/lindsay_coat_of_arms.htm.
“ELEMENTS OF A COAT OF ARMS.” Sydney.edu.au. November 6, 2009. http://sydney.edu.au/heraldry/what_is_heraldry/elements_of_a_coat_of_arms.shtml.
“Middle Ages A Knight’s Coat of Arms.” Ducksters Education. 2017. http://www.ducksters.com.
Turner, Anthony. “Robert Plot (1640-1696).” Mhs.ox.ac.uk. 1996. Accessed July 9, 2017. http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/about/sphaera/sphaera-issue-no-4/robert-plot-1640-1696/.
“Robert Plot.” Oum.ox.ac.uk. http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/learning/pdfs/plot.pdf.
Handly, Stuart. “WREN, Sir Christopher (1632-1723), of Scotland Yard, Whitehall.” Historyofparliamentonline.org. 2017. http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1690-1715/member/wren-sir-christopher-1632-1723. Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Summerson, John. “Sir Christopher Wren ENGLISH ARCHITECT.” Britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Christopher-Wren.