Crest (heraldry)

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A knight with an eagle crest at the Saracen Joust in Arezzo, Tuscany. Cavalieredicasata.JPG
A knight with an eagle crest at the Saracen Joust in Arezzo, Tuscany.

A crest is a component of a heraldic display, consisting of the device borne on top of the helm. Originating in the decorative sculptures worn by knights in tournaments and, to a lesser extent, battles, crests became solely pictorial after the 16th century (the era referred to by heraldists as that of "paper heraldry").


A normal heraldic achievement consists of the shield, above which is set the helm, on which sits the crest, its base encircled by a circlet of twisted cloth known as a torse. The use of the crest and torse independently from the rest of the achievement, a practice which became common in the era of paper heraldry, has led the term "crest" to be frequently but erroneously used to refer to the arms displayed on the shield, or to the achievement as a whole.


Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, with fan crests displaying his arms on both his helmet and his horse's head. From the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1330. Lutrelll.jpg
Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, with fan crests displaying his arms on both his helmet and his horse's head. From the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1330.

The word "crest" derives from the Latin crista, meaning "tuft" or "plume", perhaps related to crinis, "hair". [1] Crests had existed in various forms since ancient times: Roman officers wore fans of feathers or horsehair, which were placed longitudinally or transversely depending on the wearer's rank, [2] and Viking helmets were often adorned with wings and animal heads. [3] They first appeared in a heraldic context in the form of the metal fans worn by knights in the 12th and 13th centuries. These were primarily decorative, but may also have served a practical purpose by lessening or deflecting the blows of opponents' weapons (perhaps why their edges came to be serrated). [4] These fans were generally of one colour, later evolving to repeat all or part of the arms displayed on the shield.

The fan crest was later developed by cutting out the figure displayed on it, to form a metal outline; this evolved in the late 13th and early 14th centuries into a three-dimensional sculpture. [5] These were usually made of cloth, leather or paper over a wooden or wire framework, [6] and were typically in the form of an animal; also popular were wings, horns, human figures, and panaches of feathers. These were probably worn only in tournaments, not battle: not only did they add to the already considerable weight of the helm, they could also have been used by opponents as a handle to pull the wearer's head down. [7]

Laces, straps, or rivets were used to affix the crest to the helm, [8] with the join being covered by a circlet of twisted cloth known as a torse or wreath, or by a coronet in the case of high-ranking nobles. [9] Torses did not come into regular use in Britain until the 15th century, [10] and are still uncommon on the Continent, where crests are usually depicted as continuing into the mantling. [11] Crests were also sometimes mounted on a furred cap known as a chapeau, as in the royal crest of England.

Later development

By the 16th century the age of tournaments had ended, and physical crests largely disappeared. Their illustrated equivalents consequently began to be treated as simply two-dimensional pictures. Many crests from this period are physically impossible to bear on a helm, e.g. the crest granted to Sir Francis Drake in 1581, which consisted of a disembodied hand issuing from clouds and leading a ship around the globe (representing God's guidance). [12]

In the same period, different helms began to be used for different ranks: sovereigns' and knights' helms faced forwards (affronté), whereas those of peers and gentlemen faced to the right (dexter). In the medieval period crests would always have faced the same way as the helm, but as a result of these rules, the directions of the crest and the helm might be at variance: a knight whose crest was a lion statant, would have the lion depicted as looking over the side of the helm, rather than towards the viewer. [13] Torses also suffered artistically, being treated not as silken circlets, but as horizontal bars.

Heraldry in general underwent something of a renaissance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many of the illogicalities of previous centuries were discarded. Crests are now generally not granted unless they could actually be used on a physical helm, [14] and the rules about directions of helms are no longer rigidly observed.


Arms of the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, with fifteen crested helms. Wappen Brandenburg Ansbach Kulmbach Bayreuth.jpg
Arms of the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, with fifteen crested helms.

The use of crests was once restricted to those of 'tournament rank', i.e. knights and above, [8] but in modern times nearly all personal arms include crests. [14] They are not generally used by women (with the exception of reigning queens) and clergymen, as they did not participate in war or tournaments and thus would not have helms on which to wear them. Some heraldists are also of the opinion that crests, as personal devices, are not suited for use by corporate bodies, but this is not widely observed. [14]

In continental Europe, particularly Germany, crests have a far greater significance than in Britain, and it is common for one person to display multiple crests with his arms; certain high-ranking noblemen are entitled to as many as seventeen. [15] This practice did not exist in Britain until the modern era, and arms with more than one crest are still rare. In contrast to Continental practice, where a crest is never detached from its helm, a Briton with more than one crest may choose to display only one crested helm, and have the other crests simply floating in space. [16] Though usually adopted through marriage to an heiress, examples exist of secondary crests being granted as augmentations: after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, Robert Ross was granted, in addition to his original crest, the crest of an arm holding the US flag with a broken flagstaff. [17]

Crest-badge of a member of the house of Douglas. Douglas crest.png
Crest-badge of a member of the house of Douglas.
British crests in an 1817 book. British crests - containing the crests and mottos of the families of Great Britain and Ireland; together with those of the principal cities; and a glossary of heraldic terms (1817) (14597248368).jpg
British crests in an 1817 book.

After the 16th century, it became common for armigers to detach the crest and wreath from the helm, and use them in the manner of a badge, displayed on crockery, carriage doors, stationery, etc. This led to the erroneous use of the term "crest" to mean "arms", which has become widespread in recent years. Unlike a badge, which can be used by any amount of relatives and retainers, a crest is personal to the armiger, and its use by others is considered usurpation. In Scotland, however, a member of a clan or house is entitled to use a "crest-badge", which consists of the chief's crest encircled by a strap and buckle inscribed with the chiefly motto. [18]

Marks of cadency are generally not used with crests, though it is not incorrect to do so, and the British royal family continue this practice. [19] It is, however, widely observed in England that no two families may use the same crest. This is in contrast to Scottish practice, in which crests are less significant, and are often borne in the same form by a great many unrelated people. As a result of this lack of need for differentiation, Scottish crests tend to be less ornamental than their English counterparts. [20]

The usual torse around the crest is frequently replaced by some kind of coronet, known as a "crest-coronet". The standard form is a simplified ducal coronet, consisting of three fleurons on a golden circlet; these are not, however, indications of rank, though they are not generally granted nowadays except in special circumstances. [21] In some modern examples, the crest features both a crest-coronet and a torse, [21] though this practice is deprecated by purists.

Orders of chivalry

Perhaps the only places physical crests are still seen are the chapels of Britain's orders of chivalry: the Order of the Garter's St George's Chapel, the Order of the Thistle's Thistle Chapel, and the Order of the Bath's Henry VII Chapel. Within each chapel are rows of stalls for use by the knights; above these stalls are placed each knight's sword and crested helm. These are carved out of lime wood and painted and gilded by Ian Brennan, the official sculptor to the royal household. [22]

Related Research Articles

Heraldry Profession, study, or art of creating, granting and blazoning arms and ruling on questions of rank or protocol

Heraldry is a discipline relating to the design, display and study of armorial bearings, as well as related disciplines, such as vexillology, together with the study of ceremony, rank and pedigree. Armory, the best-known branch of heraldry, concerns the design and transmission of the heraldic achievement. The achievement, or armorial bearings usually includes a coat of arms on a shield, helmet and crest, together with any accompanying devices, such as supporters, badges, heraldic banners and mottoes.

Royal arms of England Royal arms of England

The royal arms of England are the arms first adopted in a fixed form at the start of the age of heraldry as personal arms by the Plantagenet kings who ruled England from 1154. In the popular mind they have come to symbolise the nation of England, although according to heraldic usage nations do not bear arms, only persons and corporations do. The blazon of the arms of Plantagenet is: Gules, three lions passant guardant in pale or armed and langued azure, signifying three identical gold lions with blue tongues and claws, walking past but facing the observer, arranged in a column on a red background. Although the tincture azure of tongue and claws is not cited in many blazons, they are historically a distinguishing feature of the arms of England. This coat, designed in the High Middle Ages, has been variously combined with those of the Kings of France, Scotland, a symbol of Ireland, the House of Nassau and the Kingdom of Hanover, according to dynastic and other political changes occurring in England, but has not altered since it took a fixed form in the reign of Richard I of England (1189–1199), the second Plantagenet king.

Order of the Thistle Order of chivalry associated with Scotland

The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle is an order of chivalry associated with Scotland. The current version of the Order was founded in 1687 by King James VII of Scotland who asserted that he was reviving an earlier Order. The Order consists of the Sovereign and sixteen Knights and Ladies, as well as certain "extra" knights. The Sovereign alone grants membership of the Order; he or she is not advised by the Government, as occurs with most other Orders.

Torse Exterior ornament of the shield, depicted as a roll of fabric laid about the top of helmet and base of crest

In heraldry, a torse or wreath is a twisted roll of fabric laid about the top of the helmet and the base of the crest. It has the dual purpose of masking the join between helm and crest, and of holding the mantling in place.

The Naval Crown was a gold crown surmounted with small replicas of the prows of ships. It was a Roman military award, given to the first man who boarded an enemy ship during a naval engagement.

Prince of Waless feathers

The Prince of Wales's feathers is the dexter heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales. It consists of three white ostrich feathers encircled by a gold coronet. A ribbon below the coronet bears the German motto Ich dien. As well as being used in royal heraldry, the badge is sometimes used to symbolise Wales, particularly in Welsh rugby union and Welsh regiments of the British Army.

Portuguese heraldry

Portuguese heraldry encompasses the modern and historic traditions of heraldry in Portugal and the Portuguese Empire. Portuguese heraldry is part of the larger Iberian tradition of heraldry, one of the major schools of heraldic tradition, and grants coats of arms to individuals, cities, Portuguese colonies, and other institutions. Heraldry has been practiced in Portugal at least since the 11th century, however it only became standardized and popularized in the 16th century, during the reign of King Manuel I of Portugal, who created the first heraldic ordinances in the country. Like in other Iberian heraldic traditions, the use of quartering and augmentations of honor is highly representative of Portuguese heraldry, but unlike in any other Iberian traditions, the use of heraldic crests is highly popular.

Lion (heraldry) Element in heraldry

The lion is a common charge in heraldry. It traditionally symbolises courage, nobility, royalty, strength, stateliness and valour, because historically the lion has been regarded as the "king of beasts". The lion also carries Judeo-Christian symbolism. The Lion of Judah stands in the coat of arms of Jerusalem. Similar-looking lions can be found elsewhere, such as in the coat of arms of the Swedish royal House of Bjelbo, from there in turn derived into the coat of arms of Finland, formerly belonging to Sweden.

Crown (heraldry)

A crown is often an emblem of a sovereign state, usually a monarchy, but also used by some republics.

Heraldic flag

In heraldry and vexillology, a heraldic flag is a flag containing coats of arms, heraldic badges, or other devices used for personal identification.

Attitude (heraldry) Orientation and pose of a creature in heraldry

In heraldry, an attitude is the position in which an animal, bird, fish, human or human-like being is emblazoned as a charge, supporter or crest. It always precedes any reference to the tincture of that being or its various parts. Many attitudes apply only to predatory beasts and are exemplified by the beast most frequently found in heraldry—the heraldic lion. Some other terms apply only to docile animals, such as the doe. Other attitudes, such as volant, describe the positions of birds, mostly exemplified by the bird most frequently found in heraldry—the heraldic eagle. The term naiant (swimming) is usually reserved for fish but may also apply to swans, ducks or geese. Birds are often further described by the position of their wings. The term segreant is usually applied to the griffin, but this approximation of rampant which is more appropriate for them has also been applied to the dragon.

English heraldry

English heraldry is the form of coats of arms and other heraldic bearings and insignia used in England. It lies within the so-called Gallo-British tradition. Coats of arms in England are regulated and granted to individuals by the English kings of arms of the College of Arms. An individual's arms may also be borne ‘by courtesy' by members of the holder's nuclear family, subject to a system of cadency marks, to differentiate those displays from the arms of the original holder. The English heraldic style is exemplified in the arms of British royalty, and is reflected in the civic arms of cities and towns, as well as the noble arms of individuals in England. Royal orders in England, such as the Order of the Garter, also maintain notable heraldic bearings.

Helmet (heraldry) Heraldic device

In heraldic achievements, the helmet or helm is situated above the shield and bears the torse and crest. The style of helmet displayed varies according to rank and social status, and these styles developed over time, in step with the development of actual military helmets. In some traditions, especially German and Nordic heraldry, two or three helmets may be used in a single achievement of arms, each representing a fief to which the bearer has a right. For this reason, the helmets and crests in German and Nordic arms are considered to be essential to the coat of arms and are never separated from it.

German heraldry Tradition and style of heraldic achievements in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire

German heraldry is the tradition and style of heraldic achievements in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, including national and civic arms, noble and burgher arms, ecclesiastical heraldry, heraldic displays and heraldic descriptions. German heraldic style is one of the four major broad traditions within European heraldry and stands in contrast to Gallo-British, Latin and Eastern heraldry, and strongly influenced the styles and customs of heraldry in the Nordic countries, which developed comparatively late. Together, German and Nordic heraldry are often referred to as German-Nordic heraldry.

Achievement (heraldry) Full display of coat of arms

An achievement, armorial achievement or heraldic achievement in heraldry is a full display or depiction of all the heraldic components to which the bearer of a coat of arms is entitled. An achievement comprises not only the arms displayed on the escutcheon, the central element, but also the following elements surrounding it:

Royal badges of England

In heraldry, the royal badges of England comprise the heraldic badges that were used by the monarchs of the Kingdom of England.

Eastern crown Heraldic crown in the form of a circlet with sharp tines

The Eastern Crown is a gold heraldic crown surmounted with a variable number of sharp spikes. It is so called because of its origin in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Eastern Crown is one of the oldest crowns, and so for this reason it has also been known as the Antique Crown.

Celestial crown

The celestial crown is a modified version of the Eastern crown. The celestial crown is a representative badge or headdress consisting of a gold fence usually adorned with pointed points or rays topped with stars of the same metal. It usually has eight points, five in the representations that are not in relief, although the number of these is variable.

Thistle Chapel chapel in Edinburgh, Scotland

The Thistle Chapel, located in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland, is the chapel of the Order of the Thistle.

Coat of arms of the Prince of Wales

The coat of arms of the Prince of Wales is the official heraldic insignia of the Prince of Wales, a title traditionally granted to the heir apparent to the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, formerly the Kingdom of Great Britain and before that the Kingdom of England.



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  2. Dickson, Iain. "Legionary Helmets of the Roman Period". Illustrated History of the Roman Empire. Archived from the original on 2015-09-14. Retrieved 2015-07-21.
  3. Barron 1911 , p. 314
  4. Fox-Davies 1909 , p. 327
  5. Scott-Giles 1954 , pp. 150–1
  6. Eve 1907 , p. 126
  7. Eve 1907 , p. 120
  8. 1 2 Fox-Davies 1909 , p. 336
  9. Scott-Giles 1954 , p. 154
  10. Barron 1911 , p. 315
  11. Fox-Davies 1909 , p. 385
  12. Drake, Charles. "The Arms of Sir Francis Drake". A Genealogical and Heraldic Memorial of the Ancient Gentle Family of Drake of Drakenage. Archived from the original on 2012-05-19.
  13. Fox-Davies 1909 , p. 321
  14. 1 2 3 Scott-Giles 1954 , p. 161
  15. Fox-Davies 1909 , p. 343
  16. Fox-Davies 1909 , pp. 322–3
  17. "Battle of Bladensburg". The Man Who Captured Washington: Major General Robert Ross.
  18. "Crests". Court of the Lord Lyon.
  19. Scott-Giles 1954 , p. 160
  20. Fox-Davies 1909 , p. 419
  21. 1 2 Scott-Giles 1954 , pp. 154–5
  22. Brennan, Ian. "Creating a crest/arms". Contemporary Sculptor.