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What is the difference between a family crest and a family shield?

What is the difference between a family crest and a family shield?

A family crest and family shield are two distinct heraldic symbols used to represent a family or individual. While they are often confused with each other, there are some key differences between the two.

In brief, a family crest is a symbolic design that often appears on top of a helmet or crown in a coat of arms. It can contain various elements like animals, plants, objects or geometric shapes. A family shield on the other hand is a full heraldic achievement that forms the main focal point of a coat of arms. It is typically depicted as a shield shape and features personalized symbols, colors and patterns.

This article will examine the origins, purposes and visual distinctions between family crests and family shields. It will also highlight how the two heraldic devices are used together in a complete coat of arms.

Origins and Purposes of Family Crests

A family crest originated as an identifying symbol worn atop a knight’s helmet or on the caparison, or cloth, of a warhorse during medieval tournaments or battles. It allowed spectators and opponents to distinguish competing knights, who were otherwise unrecognizable in full armor.

Over time, the family crest became hereditary and was passed down through generations. It evolved into a symbol of family lineage and prestige.

Here are some of the main purposes and uses of family crests:

– Identifying distinct families – Each family crest contains unique images or designs that represent a particular surname and bloodline. This allows for clear visual recognition.

– Demonstrating lineage and continuity – As a hereditary symbol, a family crest connects present generations to their ancestral roots and honors a shared history.

– Marking property or goods – Crests were often stamped on possessions, estate gates, carriages and correspondence to denote ownership.

– Decorative art – Intricately designed crests adorned objects like furniture, silverware, books and jewelry.

– Symbolic representation – The specific images and motifs in a crest symbolized virtues, values, interests or achievements of a family.

Origins and Purposes of Family Shields

Like crests, family shields also originated from medieval heraldry of armored knights in warfare and tournaments. The shield was one of the main pieces of defensive armor, so it provided a natural placement for a knight’s identifying symbolism. This coat of arms directly on the shield formed the basis of a family shield.

Here are some of the main functions and uses of family shields throughout history:

– Military identification – Heraldic designs on shields allowed combatants to recognize ally from enemy on the battlefield.

– Rank and social status – More ornate shields with grander symbols indicated nobility or high-ranking knights. Simple shields showed lower status.

– Territorial symbol – Coats of arms reflected fealty or allegiance to certain kingdoms, lords or lands.

– Personalization – Unlike regimental uniformity of troops, shields used customized designs based on a family’s history, values and achievements.

– Legal ownership – Transferring a coat of arms through inheritance or marriage signified rights of lineage and property ownership.

– Visual commemoration – Passing down arms through generations memorialized a family’s legacy.

Visual Differences Between Crests and Shields

While family crests and shields originated together as heraldic symbols, they each developed distinct appearances and roles within a full coat of arms:

Location on coat of arms

– Crest – Positioned atop a helmet, crown, wreath or directly on a family member’s head in portraits.

– Shield – Centrally located as the focal point, either held up by supporters or situated between the helmet and crest above it.


– Crest – No defined shape, often appears as a three-dimensional sculpture or carving. When two-dimensional, usually a sideways orientation.

– Shield – Shaped like a shield, escutcheon or inverted triangle with straight or curved sides. Vertical orientation.


– Crest – Less complex visuals like animals, plants, mythological beasts, geometric patterns. Often a single prominent image.

– Shield – More elaborate combination of symbols, patterns, figures and colors. Divided into sections with multiple images.

Prominence in arms

– Crest – Typically a secondary, complementary element framing the shield.

– Shield – Primary focus of a coat of arms, displaying the core symbols of a family’s pedigree.

Visual Element Family Crest Family Shield
Location on coat of arms Atop helmet or crown Center focal point
Shape No defined shape Shaped as shield or escutcheon
Content Simpler image or pattern Elaborate combination of symbols and images
Prominence in arms Secondary element Primary element

This table summarizes the key differences in the typical style and positioning of family crests versus family shields in a coat of arms.

Usage Together in a Coat of Arms

While they have distinct roles, family crests and shields combine together to form a complete heraldic achievement. A basic coat of arms consists of the shield, crest and helmet.

The shield forms the central focus displaying the main symbols representing a family’s history. This provides quick identification.

The crest sits atop the helmet adding supplementary symbolic meaning. It may represent an area of achievement, special value or a visual play on the family name.

The helmet originated from medieval armour. The type of helmet depicted often matched the bearer’s social rank.

Together, this basic arrangement clearly conveys a family’s pedigree to viewers of their coat of arms. However, many other elements can supplement the shield, crest and helmet:

– Crown – Demonstrating royalty or honor

– Wreath – Decorative element joining crest to helmet

– Mantling – Cloth drapery framing the shield

– Supporters – Creatures holding up the shield

– Motto – Phrase representing family values

– Compartment – Ground or landscape under shield

Not all coats of arms contain every element. But the classic trio of the shield, crest and helmet remains consistent.


In conclusion, while family crests and shields originated together in medieval warfare, they evolved to have distinct appearances and roles in a coat of arms.

– Crests are simpler symbols located above the shield to represent a key family interest or value.

– Shields form the primary focal point displaying detailed imagery and colors associated with a family’s history.

– Together, they create a unified visual identifier conveying lineage, history and values.

This allows anyone viewing a coat of arms to quickly ascertain the identity and pedigree of the family it represents. The crest provides supplementary meaning, while the shield contains the core information. These differences make family crests and shields complementary rather than interchangeable heraldic elements.


Here are some examples illustrating the differing appearances and positions of family crests vs. shields within complete coats of arms:

The Sears Family

Sears family coat of arms

The Sears family shield features ornate heraldic imagery like the chevron, fleur-de-lis, buck’s head and moorcock. The prominent crest is a much simpler armoured arm brandishing a sword, representing military service.

The Rockefeller Family

Rockefeller family coat of arms

The Rockefeller coat of arms contains three black crowns on a shield, symbolizing leadership. The crest of a white unicorn head complements this as a mythological symbol of strength and purity.

The Washington Family

Washington family coat of arms

The red and white stripes on the shield epitomize the Washington family’s roots in England. The crest of a raven on a gold helmet alludes to their service in the army of William the Conqueror.


– Family crests are simpler symbolic images, often single figures, located above the shield.

– Family shields contain detailed multicolored imagery depicting a family’s history and identity.

– Together, they form the basis of a coat of arms that conveys lineage, values, and achievements.

– The crest provides supplementary meaning while the shield is the primary identifying element.

Understanding these distinctions helps properly interpret the heraldic symbolism in a family coat of arms.