A Family Crests – History of the Coat of Arms

A Family Crests – History of the Coat of Arms

As each generation is born, the history of a family crests like a wave that shapes the future of a canyon. I would like to discuss the importance of the traditional family crest and the role it played in recording deeds and attributes to families over time.Family Crest Map of Europe

Origins of the Coat of Arms.

As far as historians can tell, the initial use of a coat of arms may have begun as early as the Ancient Greeks. Greek hoplites (citizen-soldiers who fought for the Greek Empire) had insignia on the wooden shields they held. Additionally, the Romans, as with many of the Greek attributes, followed suit with insignia on their shields. For the Romans, they used this design to identify different military groups and units.

Ultimately these designs and insignia came to represent wealthy families in various parts of Europe during the feudal and medieval periods of history between 500 – 1500 AD. The family crest, which is the image on top of the shield would celebrate some great accomplishment and in many cases, could be handed down from generation to generation. Feudal lords would fly flags with their crest on the tops of their stone castles. It became an emblem, even a brand, for the families.

Japanese KamonsAdditionally, in Japan, family emblems were used in the Heian period between 794 and 1185 AD and continue to exist today. China briefly used family emblems but relied predominantly on a clan’s book of their family tree. Remember, the Chinese invented paper long before it’s use in the West.

How were they Used in Battle.

The Middle Ages were an incredibly violent, unstable, and uneasy time. Without one dominant nation in Europe, dozens of families fought for control and sovereignty over their competitors. While many of the nations in Europe came that are so prized today came out of that period, being a person back then would have been no fairy tale.

In battle, the family crest would be emblazoned on flag carriers as they marched against their rivals. The designs of successful families could intimidate rivals and allies alike. When a castle was sieged and taken, the emblem of the victor would fly from its fortifications for all the peasants and feudal servants to see that there was a new leader.

How the Designs Evolved over Time.

The Middle Ages rolled into the Renaissance and with it brought some changes to both uses and designs of the coat of arms. Many nations utilized the concept like a crude identification like a modern social security number. Countries such as England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain, Slovakia, Germany, Russia, and many others created new emblems as families grew. They adopted a family motto in most cases and their crest represented not only accomplishments from a bygone time but also aspirations for the family’s future.

In Asia, China had emblem for its prominent families as well. However, many of the families were killed over time in wars and the tradition was altered all together in modern times. Japan called their crests Kamon and every family, regardless of prominence possessed one of these beautiful symbolic designs. Japanese nobility in both the kingdom and the West would put their Kamon on various goods and clothing. Often resembling a flower in a circular form, these simple and elegant patterns number over 5,000 different family names!

They generally include a shield, a helmet, a motto, and an object depicting or representing an act of great significance. They often have an animial on them as well representing some facet of the family’s story. The use of real and imaginary animals such as dragons, unicorns, deer, boar, eagles and lions help illustrate a family’s historic associations.

a coat of arms on wood

Modern Day Examples

In today’s world, family crests are used more as a celebration of our heritage and a recognition of our histories. People find their family’s coat of arms in order to learn more about their ancestry and to explore the rich tales of a time nearly forgotten. In this way, we are able to carry our story forward on the shoulders of what preceded us.

In a very real way, however, the concept of the coat of arms has lived on in our nations flags and our military decorations. A nation’s flag flies over every important building, wavers near beautiful monuments, keeps guard at precious memorials, and even walks to the grave with our soldiers.

As the world grew smaller with technology and high speed travel, the flag became the family and the history of our countries became the history of the family. The crest became the flag. Perhaps some day in the far future, as our universe gets smaller due to even more incredible technology, the world itself will have a flag and all the people in it will be the family. It is powerful symbolism born out of our tribal nature, our family nature, that as time progresses we become closer knit such that our accomplishments represent the accomplishments of the many. Represented on a flag that stands for shared history and shared attributes.

Love Your Story.

My take away from all of this is simple. History is fascinating! Living in the United States, everywhere I go I see this incredible and intricate patchwork of people whose ancestry traces back across the globe. While we choose our friends our loves, and our allies throughout life, we are born into a family. Each of us has a string that reaches back thousands and thousands of years telling a story of successes and failures, triumphs, tragedies and everything in between.

I love having the knowledge of my ancestors woven into the fabric life. I am fortunate that I come from a family with emblems, crests and arms.  Check out the About page to learn more about me. When I look at them, I imagine the individuals current and past who share their stories. I wonder how much like my family I am or if I have deviated from our rich heritage into new and different inspirations. Either way, it keeps me awake to the fact that as history unfolds the stories continue forever.





2 Replies to “A Family Crests – History of the Coat of Arms”

  1. Thank you for this well researched and informative article. History is where we all come from and those of us that take the time to research will find richness in knowing exactly who our direct ancestors were and how they were identified through family crests/coat of arms.
    For myself, I too found our history along with the coat of arms dating back to the 1400’s thanks in most to my father who wanted to know. Great job!

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