A family crest is a heraldic symbol that represents a particular family lineage. Medieval family crests date back to the 12th century and were used extensively by nobility and knights during the Middle Ages in Europe. The crest was typically displayed on shields, banners, and other items to identify oneself in battle as well as in tournaments and ceremonies. Over time, family crests became associated with surnames passed down through generations of a family. While no longer used in battle, many family crests are still used today as symbols of shared history and identity.
Origin and history
The origins of medieval family crests trace back to the 12th century in Europe, particularly in England, France and Germany where heraldry began being used to identify knights and nobles. Heraldry refers to the system of visual identification using symbolic images and colors on shields, banners, and clothing. This helped identify knights and nobles on the battlefield as armor covered up facial features. The images and symbols used eventually became associated with particular families, forming early versions of family crests.
Some key developments in the history of medieval family crests:
- Early crests featured simple geometric shapes or crude depictions of animals. By the 13th century, more intricate and naturalistic images were used.
- Crests were gradually passed down through generations, evolving into symbols representing entire lineages.
- By the 14th century, crests were firmly established as hereditary, associated with surnames.
- Regulation of heraldry increased with “colleges of arms” overseeing and maintaining records of family crests.
- Crests were widely used by nobility and knights throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras until declining by the 17th century.
The crest served not just as identification but came to represent reputation, achievements, and family honor. As a result, great care was taken in bestowing crests and regulating their use.
Elements and design
Medieval family crests could incorporate a variety of elements and designs, though followed some general conventions.
Common elements of family crests:
- Shield shape – Crest was displayed atop a shield. Different shield shapes had different meanings.
- Ordinary – Simple geometric Charges like stripes, bars, chevrons.
- Charges – Main image or symbol, often of an animal.
- Crest – Where the family name came from, shown above helmet/shield.
- Supporters – Creatures or figures beside the shield.
- Motto – Short phrase representing family values.
In terms of design, crests aimed for simple, bold shapes and striking colors for maximum visibility on the battlefield. Red, blue, black, green and purple were commonly used. Intricate details were rare as crests needed to be identifiable from a distance.
While complex designs existed, restraint was encouraged. A crowded design could imply someone was trying to show off high status rather than respectable lineage.
In medieval times, family crests had a variety of uses:
- Displayed on shields, banners and pennants during warfare and tournaments.
- Found on seals used to represent authority and authenticity of documents.
- Architectural use – Carved into buildings and manors.
- On liveries – Clothing worn by staff of noble households.
- As part of coats of arms inherited by each new generation.
Only the oldest son would inherit the full coat of arms while younger sons often incorporated minor variations. Daughters could also inherit if they had no brothers but typically with new arms incorporated for their husband.
Regulation dictated who had the right to use crests. While initially intended for battlefield use, crests became highly prized symbols of lineage over time. Families strongly guarded their right to use their crest.
To regulate the use of heraldry and recording of family crests, heraldic authorities were established in several European countries. They governed everything from the granting of arms to the rules of inheritance.
Prominent heraldic authorities included:
- Court of the Lord Lyon (Scotland, founded 1318)
- College of Arms (England, founded 1484)
- Court of the Lord Chief Herald Ulster King of Arms (Ireland, founded 1552)
- High Council of Heraldry (France, founded 1407)
- Bureau of Heraldry (South Africa, founded 1895)
Record-keeping by these authorities, such as registers of coats of arms, enables the study of medieval heraldry today. Heraldic authorities still exist in many countries to preserve and oversee heraldic traditions.
In medieval Europe, family crests and heraldry gained great social significance for several reasons:
- Enabled recognition on the battlefield between heavily armed knights.
- Denoted noble status and family lineage, signifying social prestige.
- Symbolized reputation and accomplishments of forebears.
- Served as early brand identity for families.
- Reinforced loyalty and pride within a family.
As a result, great care went into granting arms and regulating their usage. Crests became tied to family honor and identity. This social significance is why heraldic traditions persisted long after medieval warfare declined.
While no longer used in battle, family crests continue to be used ornamentally today. Some modern uses of family crests include:
- Symbolic connection to family history and identity
- Artwork displays, carvings, jewelry, clothing
- Letterhead, documents, websites, social media
- Souvenirs, keepsakes
However, proper use of family crests still follows traditional heraldic rules in many countries. Individuals do not always have rights to use a coat of arms belonging to an ancestor and must check with heraldic authorities.
Heraldry myths and misconceptions
Some common myths and misconceptions associated with medieval family crests include:
- Crest ownership – Modern use doesn’t necessarily confer rights to use any coat of arms from one’s surname.
- One crest per surname – Multiple unrelated families may use similar armorial bearings.
- Oldest son inheritance – All male children could inherit with variations to distinguish. Daughters could also in absence of sons.
- Permanence – Arms evolved across generations, and branches diverged or died out.
While symbols of lineage, crests historically weren’t as fixed to surnames as often assumed. Proper use still depends on heraldic laws rather than just shared surname.
Some of the most well-known examples of medieval family crests include:
- Plantagenet crest – The Plantagenet dynasty ruled England from 1154 to 1485 AD, and their crest of three lions is still used today by the British monarchy.
- Stanley crest – The Eagle and Child crest of the Stanley family included the famous three-legged emblem known as the Triskelion.
- Douglas crest – The black chief and three white stars on a red field is still used by Clan Douglas of Scotland.
- Stewart crest – The fess chequy (checkerboard pattern) is identified with Clan Stewart, and was used by Scottish kings.
|Plantagenet||French||Three golden lions on red background|
|Stanley||English||Eagle, child, three legs|
|Douglas||Scottish||Black chief, three white stars|
In summary, medieval family crests were important historic symbols of lineage and reputation. Originating in 12th century Europe, they were hereditary emblems associated with noble families, particularly in England, France, and Germany. While no longer serving functional purposes in battle or tournaments, family crests persist as ornamental links to shared history. However, popular assumptions about family crest usage and inheritance often differ from formal heraldic laws still followed today.