Coat of Arms, Family Crests, Heraldry and our Ancestors
What are they, and how do they play a part in our genealogy and family history as we research our ancestors?
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Definition of Terms
Coat of Arms (armorial bearings or arms for short)....
the official symbols of an individual, family, state, etc., indicating ancestry and distinction.
to describe, paint, or depict a coat of arms with accurate detail and in proper terms.
the science of describing or depicting armoral bearings.
a loose outer coat, gown, or tunic worn in the middle ages by a knight over his armor.
a plume used as decoration on top of a helmet; a device placed above the shield on a coat of arms; an ornament of the headpiece that afforded protection against a blow.
the profession, study, science, or art of devising, displaying, granting armorial insignia, blazoning arms, tracing and recording genealogies, and determining and ruling on questions of rank or protocol, as exercised by an officer of arms.
Coat of Arms
Coats of arms originated in the middle ages and colors used by medieval knights to make their armour and shield easily recognizable by friend, foe, or spectator, in battle and in tournament. In a society where few people could read and write, pictures were very important and a coat of arms was more like a label for instant identification. A coat of arms helped to identify a knight, his country of origin and for which king he fought. It was originally a cloth tunic frequently emblazoned with the arms of the wearer and worn over or in place of armour to establish his identity. These tunics or surcoats were long and flowing and usually extended to about mid-calf, had slits in the bottom front and back, and were sleeved or sleeveless.
In the confusion of battle one man in armor looked a lot like another. The knight clad in armour from head to toe, with his great war helmet covering his face, the only means of identification was his insignia painted on his shield and embroidered on his surcoat. These surcoats or mantles were frequently torn off in battle so the Crest which again were individual to each knight was attached on top of the knights helmet to identify the knight in all the confusion of battle. You wanted to know instantly who was coming toward you, so you could know which side he was on.
Coats of arms later took on further significance and meanings. They also became a way of showing membership in the aristocracy, after they lost their significance in warfare.
In the full armorial achievement the distinctively patterned shield is ornamented with a crest sitting atop a helmet, and the helmet sitting on a shield. Other elements include mantling, motto, crown, wreath, and supporters and rests upon a compartment.
Shield: The shape of the shield can vary according to the period of the arms
Helmet (or helm): The design of the helm is determined by rank. The helm usually faces to the left, unless the crest dictates otherwise. Helmets of Kings and Nobility are shown full face.
Crest: This evolved from a 3 dimensional object set on the helm to help identify the knight in tournaments and in battle.
Mantling: This evolved from a simple cloth used as protection from the heat and cold, being spread over the helmet. It is now a very decorative part of the achievement, used to fill space.
Motto: The motto first appeared on standards and shields and probably originated with the war or battle cry. It can also be a phrase or collection of words intended to describe the motivation or intention of the person.
Wreath: Originally was a twisted band of cloth used to hold the crest on the helm.
Supporters (or bearers): They are generally animals standing erect supporting the shield. Their use is usually limited to Royalty and the Nobility. These are regarded as one of the highest honors, normally granted in pairs, although they may be granted singly. These can either be granted on a hereditary basis or only for the life of an individual.
Compartment: This is the area beneath the shield, usually depicting a grassy mound, rocks, the ocean, etc. Sometimes more elaborate designs are used that may relate to a family's history. Compartments are only used in cases of high rank or distinction.
A coat of arms is used by individuals, families and even countries as an official symbol. After the crusades, a coat of arms became a sign of power and authority and were recognized by the laws of the land. When John Cabot explored the "new founde land" in 1497, for example, he raised the Arms of the Royal Banner of England to officially claim ownership of the land in the name of the King of England.
Crest and Family Crests
A crest was a device worn on top of the helmet. It provided the double advantage of easy identification and addition of height to the wearer. In heraldry today, the crest and arms are usually displayed together. The earlier forms of crests were usually of stuffed leather, gilded, silvered, or painted; later they were of wood or metal.
The term "crest" is incorrectly used to mean family coat of arms. So far as Britain is concerned, there is no such thing as a family crest. Rather, a crest is part of a coat of arms or a heraldic achievement and these were and are granted in their entirety to an individual for use by him during his lifetime and thereafter to his oldest son. The term "family crest" probably arose from an understandable abbreviation of the terminology in heraldry for an important part of a coat of arms. It is not difficult to see how the use of the term "crest" could have become synonymous in common use with the term "coat of arms," since one is a part of the other. Through time, "the crest" has been associated with family names, independent of the coat of arms.
Crests today are often chosen to reflect in some way features of the wearers family, career, or life...perhaps in the field of politics, commerce, armed services, or the Arts.
Heraldry and Heralds
The word "Heraldry" is derived from the German "heer"--a host, an army--and "held"--a champion. Whenever a new Knight appeared at a Tournament, the herald, often a tournament official, sounded the trumpet, and as the competitors attended with closed visors, it was his duty to explain the bearing of the shield or coat-armour belonging to each. He had to recognize men by their shields; thus he became an authority on personal and family insignia and quickly built up an expert knowlege of the subject. This knowledge of the various devices and symbols was called Heraldry...or "the art or office of the herald."
Many herolds were originally minstrels who after tournaments or battles extolled the deeds of the victors. In those days, Kings, Dukes and Knights would employ men in their households called heralds, the dual role as minstrel and messenger led the herald to then recount the deeds of his master and as time went by his masters ancestors.
The regulation of distinguishing the various coats of arms evolved according to a hereditary system, which also required the heralds expecially of the English royal household to keep records both of arms and family descents. As a token of their office they began to wear the coats of arms of the leaders they served.
The herald was appointed to organize and make the announcements at tournaments, to act as diplomats and to record the various insignia borne by the individuals and to carry as a non combatant messenger, messages from place to place, as well as to make declarations of war.
So, Heraldry is, in its basic form, simply a means of identification...a system of symbols handed down in families or in institutions. From simple beginnings of a device painted on a shield for easy identification from a distance in battle, heraldry has developed into a beautiful art form with many rules which must be strictly observed. Before an artist or craftsman can render a Coat of Arms, it must exist. In other words the arms must have been designed and recorded by heralds. For individuals, heraldry is a family emblem and for impersonal organizations a symbol of corporate identity. Heraldry is all around us, from a simple football shirt to complicated symbols of state. Even a company logo is a form of heraldry.
Today heraldry is usually associated with individual families' coat of arms. Researching heraldry has become a hobby for many people. The art and science of heraldry, with its medieval beginnings, is still alive and well in our modern world.
Coats of arms are not awarded to a family or a name, but to an individual. This is why there is no coat of arms and crest for many family surnames---only a coat of arms and crest granted to someone with that name many years ago. This is why there is often more than one coat of arms associated with a given surname. In England, direct descent is required for any heir to have the legal right to bear his ancestor's coat of arms.
Unless you can trace your family history to one individual, and unless the sources list that individual, then the best that you can hope for is to find a coat of arms that is the oldest for a given name from a given region or the one most frequently used. Coats of arms usually started out fairly simple in design, then continuing generations added onto it or made slight variations to the design to make it their own. Marriages often resulted in a combination of two different family lines' coats of arms.
Someone making a study of heraldry usually becomes interested in Genealogy or maybe seeking for legal claim to a particular coat of arms. No family can make real claim to the right to a coat of arms unless a proven connection is established through certified genealogical records.
Bearing of coats of arms is not regulated in the United States and in most countries. We might find a coat of arms and history for a given surname, but know that it is associated with someone centuries ago who shared our surname. These can be enjoyed based on the association with our name. And there's no reason why we cannot create a coat of arms and crest for ourselves based on the coat of arms of an ancestor with our name, or designed from scratch to mean something special to our own lives and family.