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Understanding the difference between a Coat of Arms vs a Family Crests

What is a Coat of Arms?

A coat of arms is a design that historically appeared on the shield of a medieval knight and was unique to that individual.

Some were allowed to pass it down to their descendants, making it a family coat of arms. Over time, some nations and corporations also adopted their own coats of arms. The symbols on a coat of arms represent the achievements of the person, state, or corporation to whom or which the arms were granted.

The Bayeux Tapestry, which dates back to the 11th century, shows some knights holding shields with heraldic insignia on them, marking the first documented use of coats of arms. By the 12th century, coats of arms had become common and were used by many knights and minor feudal lords in battle.

Families later began to use coats of arms as a family logo, and only the highest classes of people in medieval Europe had ancestors distinguished enough to have been granted them by the kings of the time.

Once a family began using a coat of arms, it was passed down through the generations, even to the present day.

A genuine coat of arms is comprised of various components, each of which provides insight into the person, family, corporation, or organization to which it was granted.

The different parts of a coat of arms are:

  1. The Motto: This is a phrase or statement that represents the values, beliefs, or principles of the individual or entity who possesses the arms. It can be located at the top of the arms and may or may not be accompanied by a design.

  2. The Crest: Positioned directly below the motto, the crest is a three-dimensional symbol that represents an accomplishment or achievement of the arms' owner.

  3. The Shield Elements: Since coat of arms were originally painted on shields, the shield remains a fundamental element of any coat of arms. It is a miniature depiction of the original shield and may have various designs that reveal the history and origin of the arms.

  4. Supporters: These are typically two animals or people that are positioned on either side of the shield, offering support. The choice of supporters also contributes to the story and origin of the arms.

What is the Difference Between a Coat of Arms and a Family Crest?

The family crest is actually a part of the overall coat of arms and is situated at the top of the arms.

The term "crest" refers to the three-dimensional object on top, such as the crest of a wave or mountain. The crest is an important identifier of the accomplishments of the person who originally received the arms, and it has been used as a smaller family logo over time, sometimes independently from the full arms.

As time passed, the original meaning of the crest was often forgotten, and it became a symbol for identifying a family of high rank or nobility.

Therefore, the main difference between a coat of arms and a family crest is that the crest is only a part of the coat of arms and has a more specific and personal meaning, while the coat of arms represents the overall identity of an individual, family, or organization.

During the Medieval times, who used a coats of arms?

In medieval times, the use of coats of arms was restricted to individuals who had been granted them by ruling monarchs.

However, the laws or customs that determined who could use them varied by country.

In most of Europe, only the aristocracy were allowed to use coats of arms.

In Germanic countries, both aristocrats and non-noble citizens who had noteworthy accomplishments could be granted coats of arms and use them.

In England and Scotland, the original person who was granted the coat of arms had exclusive rights to it. Although King Richard I made coats of arms hereditary in England during the first Crusades in the 13th century, each subsequent generation had to make slight alterations to distinguish their coat of arms from the previous generation's. Women were also permitted to bear their own coat of arms, as long as it contained unique elements alongside the primary family design to distinguish them as female bearers of the arms.

Later on, churches and towns were granted the right to use coats of arms to identify themselves. Universities and certain companies with royal charters were also given coats of arms, which evolved into the modern corporate logo.


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