Posted by Jeff Ezzell on
Family crests and coats of arms - does your family have one? Genes Reunited reveals the meanings behind the signs of heraldry. What do they represent? What’s the difference between a coat of arms and family crest? And what does a lion on a red background represent?
A coat of arms is a unique heraldic design on a shield, surcoat (loose outer coat or gown) or tabard (tunic or cape garment). Medieval knights used coats of arms to identify the wearer. Heralds, or announcers, would introduce knights at competitions and spectators could distinguish each knight by the design adorning his shield, helmet and armour. A knight's battle gear was so prestigious and spoke to all of his achievements, so the coat of arms evolved into a status symbol that provided commentary on one's family history, property and profession or occupation.
The coat of arms generally refers to the, cape, shield, crest and helmet, while the family crest technically only refers to the small image that lies on the helm (top of the helmet). The family crest is a component of a coat of arms, which can be used as a simplified symbol when the full coat of arms is too detailed.
British heraldry rules only allowed a firstborn son to receive his father's crest upon his death. By default, the crest would go to the firstborn grandson of a daughter if the man had no sons. In a number of heraldry traditions, a couple blended their respective family crests when they married to form a hybrid version (note the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's combined Coat of Arms above).