Coat of Arms vs. Family Crest

Marc McDermott
First Published: | Updated: April 2, 2024

Ever wondered if your family has a coat of arms or a family crest? The heritage behind them is exciting, but what exactly do they represent and what is the difference between a family crest vs. coat of arms?

What is the difference between coat of arms and family crest?

The main difference between a coat of arms and a family crest lies in their composition and usage. While a coat of arms represents the entire heraldic achievement, encompassing elements like the shield, supporters, and motto, the family crest is just one part of this greater whole.

Specifically, the crest is positioned above the shield, typically atop a helmet. While the coat of arms acts as a full representation of the lineage or individual, the crest alone can symbolize the holder or family, serving as a concise emblem of their heritage.

Coats of arms date back to the 11th century yet were still commonplace in the 17th century and can tell you a lot about your family’s ancestry and their societal status.

These crests and coats of arms are passed down through generations, and if you’re curious about yours, then there is plenty to learn. Let’s take a closer look at this fascinating representation of family heritage so you can learn more about your family’s legacy.

Does every family have a crest?

No, every family does not have a crest as not every surname has a coat of arms. These coats of arms belong to individuals and their bloodlines. Descendants typically inherit them as they are passed down through legitimate male lines from those who were granted their coat of arms

Having a coat of arms is much rarer than you think. The art of heraldry (studying coats of arms and crests) shows that having an actual hereditary right to a coat of arms or crest is even rarer.

There are indeed companies who will sell you merch on your family crest, but these are not associated with any genealogical research of credence. A lot of the time these can be made up, but studying your genealogy is a great way of unearthing the genuine possibility of your family having a real coat of arms.

What does it mean if your family has a crest?

If your family has a crest it means that your ancestors passed it down from generation to generation. Crests were typically passed down to firstborn males meaning few people with the same surname share a family crest. It is highly unlikely for one coat of arms to represent an entire family.

Common crests include animals like a lion, horse, tiger, but also cross and even a monster! Many people may refer to a family crest as the larger design, but that is the coat of arms. The crest is usually found at the top of the coat of arms.

Where can I find my family crest?

There are many ways to find your family crest if you are curious about genealogy. There is an entire registry of family crests in the U.S and the United Kingdom.

These organizations can offer help with researching your ancestors’ coat of arms through a database of family crests.

Start by looking for heraldry symbols from the origins of your name. Try a heraldry website to help with the process, although the legitimacy of each one varies. All Family Crests is one website that allows you to search your name, but it is more general and won’t tell you anything directly about your actual lineage.

You’ll need to backtrack through your family tree and follow the make lineage according to most traditions. To earn the rights to your family crest, you must be able to prove that your father has rights to the crest, and prove that is your father, repeating the process for all the male lineage in your family as far back as possible.

Try to check more than one source. Many sites are there to sell you products with your family crest on so they are not always as reliable.

Anyone struggling to find their family crest should try different spellings of their surname. Research these first as ancestors may have changed them over time, helping to speed up the process of finding your family crest.

How do families get a family crest?

Times have changed but to be granted a coat of arms, the ruling monarch used to bestow the honor on an individual for them to legally use it. The governing bodies with the right to give coats of arms have changed over time. Only aristocracy could use them in Europe, although those with certain accomplishments could be granted them in Germanic countries, as well as aristocrats, of course.

Coats of arms only became hereditary when King Richard I changed the laws on coats of arms in the 13th century. Every generation had to make minor changes to their ancestry arms so they could be distinguished from previous generations.

The elements within the crest represent the character traits associated with the family such as strength, valor, wisdom, leadership, and resistance among others.

Can I create my own family crest?

Many websites give you the chance to create a crest from scratch and forge your own family history for yourself. These are not official in any sense of the words but it can be an enjoyable process. Try to customize the arms specific to your character traits and interests.

For example, your crest could be associated with your interests, personality, religion, or family history.

Not all coats of arms contain a crest, but you can add the basic components online to include a shield, and a helm or helmet and customize it to your taste. Why not add a motto that speaks to you and, depending on where you live, add it to your family tree for future generations to enjoy by recording your design of the coat of arms with a genealogy registry.

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