How a Family Crest or Coat of Arms Leads to Family Discovery

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Family crests and coats of arms are powerful family symbols passed down through generations. They were commonly used throughout the 11–17th centuries, and they can still be meaningful reminders for families past, present, and future.

The symbolism in the design of a family crest or coat of arms can tell you about your ancestors' achievements and status in society—a real testament to a family’s legacy. Here’s everything you need to know to understand, find, or create your family’s coat of arms. 

a knight's helmet. Knights typically had coats of arms and family crests.

What Is Heraldry?

Heraldry is a system used to design, display, and record coats of arms and family crests. These symbols were often used to differentiate knights in tournaments—picture the brightly emblazoned shields carried by medieval knights in shining armor. But heraldry was used for more than just tournaments. It allowed people to recognize opposing sides on battlefields, family lineages, alliances, and more.

Today, heraldry is still used by some individuals, companies, and cities to display their heritage and achievements. In modern uses, it can also be used to portray family values and ambitions.

What Is a Coat of Arms?

A coat of arms is a symbol used to identify families or individuals. It is a detailed design that often includes a shield, crest, helmet, motto, and more. The image could be used as a whole, or the crest can be used as a simplified symbol.

different german coat of arms

Going back to the medieval knight, remember the brightly emblazoned shield? The design on the knight’s shield was often the knight’s coat of arms. 

Coats of arms can help you learn a lot about your ancestry. They were intended to recognize achievements and family heritage, so the design can provide insight into your family’s legacy. They’re also passed down through generations and carry the history of the family with them.

What Is a Family Crest?

In a full coat of arms, the crest literally crests the design—that is to say that it is often located at the top of the image. The family crest is a smaller part of the design that can be used on its own when the entire coat of arms is too complex. Once again going back to the knight in shining armor, the crest may have been attached to the knight’s helmet.

Common family crests include a lion, cross, tiger, or horse, but there are many others out there. Some even use unicorns or monsters. Sounds like a fun conversation starter if you’re lucky enough to have one of them in your family tree!

Alternatively, the term family crest can refer to the overall design. Over time, family crest became interchangeable with coat of arms, but the distinction is still important to understand, particularly if you’re searching for your family crest.

How to Find Your Coat of Arms

If you have European heritage, you may have a coat of arms or family crest. Unfortunately, they’re rarer than you might think. Most commonly, only nobility or high-class families in medieval Europe had them because they were granted by kings to recognize achievements.

a knight on a horse. knights typically had coats of arms and family crests.

That rarity just makes it all the more exciting if you find one in your family tree! Search for coats of arms associated with your last name using 4crests, House of Names, All Family Crests, or other resources. If you find one, trace your family tree to find out if you can find a link or reference to the coat of arms. While you’re at it, take the opportunity to discover more about your heritage.

Some families choose to adopt a coat of arms based only on a last name without an ancestral link, but this practice can hinder the significance and meaning behind the coat of arms. This guide can help you find out if a crest is associated with your family. An alternative is to create one that is unique and meaningful to your family!

How to Design a Coat of Arms

Designing your own coat of arms can be fun and insightful. Think about your family’s achievements and how you can incorporate them into your design. If you’re looking for inspiration, explore the stories your relatives have shared on FamilySearch Memories.

Parts of a Coat of Arms

an infographic showing the different pieces of a coat of arms, including the family crest.

A coat of arms can be very detailed, and it often includes many elements. Although not every coat of arms has every piece, the following parts are often incorporated in the design.

Shield: The shield is the center of the design; it is the only necessary piece when designing a coat of arms.

Crest: This symbolic object sits atop of the coat of arms.

Helm: A helmet rests below the crest but above the shield. It reflects the origins of heraldry. A crown could replace or accompany the helmet. 

Wreath: The wreath is a rope or twisted cloth, a literal representation of the silk or rope used to tie a crest to a knight’s helmet.

Mantling: The mantling is a piece of cloth that flows out from the helmet. Originally, the cloth protected a knight’s armor.

Supporters: A pair of people or animals stand on either side of the shield and support it. They’re typically a local or hereditary figure, and they were traditionally used for nobility.

Compartment: The compartment is a base design (usually a landscape) on which the shield and supporters rest.

Motto: The motto is a saying displayed on a ribbon either below or above the rest of the design.

a coat of arms with a crest.

Symbols and Their Meanings

These resources explain meanings behind different items and colors you can use in your family crest and coat of arms. Remember that the family crest can be used on its own, so choose something significant to you!

Of course, if you’re making your own, the most important thing is that it is meaningful to you and your family. Work together to include elements that speak to you personally and your heritage.

Regardless of whether you find a family crest that has been around for generations or you create a coat of arms yourself, crests and coats of arms are powerful symbols that can unify a family. How do you plan to use yours moving forward? Record the image and the meaning behind it to keep the memory alive in your family.

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