How Family Crests Work

Family Crests and Coats of Arms

Locating and displaying a family crest is a serious matter to some people, while it's just plain fun to others. Listening to others talk about their genealogical research, you may be confused by what exactly the difference is between a family crest and a coat of arms. As we learned earlier, the names have become interchangeable. But originally, a coat of arms was the cloth tunic worn over armor to shield it from the sun. Because a knight's battle gear was so prestigious and spoke to all of his achievements, the coat of arms evolved into a status symbol that provided commentary on one's family history, property and profession or occupation.

With so much meaning packed into that design, the crest was a coveted item. But as we've already established, 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, when a couple married, they blended their respective family crests to form a hybrid version. In past cultures where single women were allowed to have their own crests, it was usually an oval or lozenge shape, whereas a man's shield was often shaped like a square.

In certain places, a man could will the rights to his crest to anyone of his choosing. In other countries that have heraldry authorities, a person can petition the agency for the right to bear arms, or for use of the family crest. Ireland is one of them. In France, legal right to bear arms is simply a race for time. Sort of like a copyright in the United States, it's a matter of registering one's crest with a notary or clerk of court before someone else does.

These days, many governments throughout the world have their own crest. These are like individual brands that symbolize their society. The crest is incorporated in that government's flag, currency and official business documents. Also, religious and business organizations may use a crest for their particular logo.

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