How Family Crests Work

Common Family Crest Symbols

As you're researching your family crest, you're bound to notice some common family crest symbols. Some that are especially popular among family crests and that also appear on governmental, religious and other cultural coats of arms include the Christian cross; ornate leaves, flowers and trees; and animals like lions, tigers, fish, horses, lizards and birds. You may be surprised to see unicorns and monsters among these symbols, too.

Color schemes and patterns also contribute to each crest's unique design. Even the shield's overall shape -- from round to square and all other variations -- holds meaning. Then, there's usually a motto stamped or engraved prominently on the crest. Each of the elements that comprise a crest work in tandem to represent character traits that the family is known for, such as strength, wisdom, leadership, agility and resilience.

Attaching a crest or coat of arms to one's family history sometimes fuels a sense of pride or belonging. If you take a lighthearted approach to genealogy, you can simply have fun figuring out what a designer was thinking when he created a family crest.

Millions of them exist, but there are elements basic to any crest. The components of a crest almost always include a shield. The shield can rest on a compartment adorned with a motto. Then, there are supporting flanks on each side of the shield to keep it propped up. A helmet rests on top of the shield with a mantle draping the sides and back of it. A wreath (think Julius Caesar-style) perches on the top of the helmet to hold the mantle in place, and then a winglike emblem crowns the whole thing.

As we're learning, family crests are limited only by one's imagination. Although it may be disappointing to find out that the chances of having legitimate claim to a family crest going back just one or two generations are pretty slim, the beauty of it is that these days, anyone can create his or her own family crest. Depending on where you live, you may be able to record the crest or coat of arms you design with a genealogy registry or heraldry authority.