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Heraldry - Coat of Arms, Family Crests, Armorials and Similar Family Identitas

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Armorial Bearings, Heraldry, Coat of Arms and Family Crests - OH MY!

The realm of family crests and Coat of Arms can be quite confusing, at best. You might find, upon closer research that "your" family Coat of Arms is, in fact, not something that actually belongs to you or "your" family after all.

There is a governing body, usually one in each country that utilizes a system supporting Armorial bearings, such as The College of Arms in the UK. Generally speaking, a "Coat of Arms' is something granted by this organization to an individual, for them to use during their life, and for them to bequeath to their first male born.

The Family Crest is actually something different than a Coat of Arms, although they are often combined, and historically have often been found to have been integrated into one element.

In fact, the whole subject and details related to Armorial bearings and Heraldry can be quite complex. After all, since genealogy in and of itself is quite complex (helllooo?), so follows the system that has been used to identify these families and integration as evolved over centuries.

So, having stated what, to some, may be obvious, and to others-like myself-I thought it would be nice to have a project solely dedicated to discussing, exploring, supporting, identifying and learning about our ancestral armorial bearings.

I hope many folks can contribute and make this a lively project, after all, the Coat of Arms and Family Crest are often the only visual element we have, in many cases, to attach to our ancestors. And, well, some of them are really quite beautiful.

If you'd like to assist in this project in a hands on manner, please let me know - the more the merrier..



The College of Arms

Excuse Me, But There's No Such Thing As A Family Crest

The Term "Family Crest" -- A Problem of Semantics?

Confusion over the term "family crest" probably arose from an understandable abbreviation of the terminology in heraldry for an important part of a coat of arms. One of the most respected sources for heraldry information is Fairbairn's Book of Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland, first published in 1859 and revised over the years in various reprints. (The current version is published by the Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. in Baltimore, Maryland.) It is not difficult to see how the use of the term "crest" could have become synonymous in common use with the term "coat of arms," since one is a part of the other (see A Brief History of Heraldry and the Parts of a "Coat of Arms" or "Family Crest".) Through time, "the crest" has been associated with family names, independent of the coat of arms, in such publications as Fairbairn's.

Gaelic tradition allows family members to use of the "crest" part of an entire coat of arms (that which appears above the shield) in a badge setting (a circular belt), thus all members of a given clan are entitled to use the clan badge. Indeed, the crest part of a coat of arms has been used on engravings, rings, bookplates, and other means of displaying one's heritage for many years. Perhaps this is due to their relative simplicity in relation to the full coat of arms. However, authorities claim that they were never intended to be used alone, without the remainder of the official coat of arms.

A previous editor of that esteemed "Fairbairn" book described the "crest" as "that part of the complete achievement which is placed upon and surmounts the coronet, wreath, or chapeau, which in its turn is above the mantling or lambrequin which it is supposed to attach to the helmet." For more information and an illustration, please see A Brief History of Heraldry and the Parts of a Coat of Arms.

'Coats of Arms and Crests Belong to Individuals, Not Surnames'

Coats of arms are not awarded to a family or a name, but to an individual. This is why there is no coat of arms or family crest for the family name "Hardin" -- only a coat of arms and crest granted to someone with that name many years ago. This is why there is often more than one coat of arms associated with a given surname. See the various Hardin arms from different countries and regions. In England, direct descent is required for any heir to have the legal right to bear his ancestor's coat of arms.

You can try to narrow the search by geographic region of origin, but there may also be more than one coat of arms awarded to several people in ancient Germany. Further complicating the issue is that the authoritative source information for most coats of arms only lists a city and/or county or origin, and sometimes only a country.

That is why, unless you can trace your family history to one individual, and unless the sources list that individual, then the best that you can hope for is to find a coat of arms that is the oldest for a given name from a given region or the one most frequently used. Coats of arms usually started out fairly simple in design, then subsequent generations added onto or made slight variations to the design to make it their own. Marriages often resulted in a combination of two different family lines' coats of arms.

You can also try contacting the College of Arms for the country you believe your ancestor is from, and for a fee they will search their records to see if a coat of arms was awarded to your ancestor.

The bearing of coats of arms is not regulated in most countries, including the United States, thus there has been a proliferation of "family name" companies offering histories and coats of arms for a given surname. While there is no reason we cannot enjoy the decoration of a coat of arms associated with someone centuries ago who shared our surname, we should be aware that this is all that it is -- a decoration.

- Fleur-de-lis Designs in Knoxville, TN'''