Family Crest 101: Interpreting Symbols on the Family Crest

Family Crest 101: Interpreting Symbols on the Family Crest

Family Crest 101: Interpreting Symbols on the Family Crest

Family crests (also referred to as coat of arms) vary in designs, images and colors used. Your ancestors most likely spent considerable time and effort in creating that family crest that you can still be proud of today. When you get hold of your family crest, you may wonder what the design is all about. Bear in mind that each and every part of the family crest has special significance and that the choice of ornamentation, colors and embellishments was made based on specific attributes that your forefathers valued during their time

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Colors in Family Crests

When you look at your family crest, the first to create visual impact are it colors. Colors were used most commonly as background of the shield.  The general characteristics of the colors in the coat of arms are:


Color                                       Tincture                       

(as we know it today)               (as described by heralds)                      Meaning


Black                                       Sable                                        grief and constancy

Blue                                         Azure                                       loyalty and strength

Gold                                         Or                                            generosity

Green                                       Vert                                         loyalty in love and hope

Maroon                                    Murray or Sanguine                  patient in battle and


Purple                                      Purpure                                    sovereignty, justice, and


Red                                          Gules                                        martyr, warrior, strength,

                                                                                                and military

Silver or White                         Argent                                      peace and sincerity

Orange                                     Tawny or Tenne                       worthwhile ambition      


Beasts in Family Crests

The animals depicted on the family crest symbolize certain traits some of which are as follows:


Bear – fierce protector


Boar – fierce fighter, fights until death

Boar’s Head - hospitality

Bull – magnanimity and valor; the image was also used as a charm to prevent injury during battles                  

Deer (or stag or buck) – politic, skillful or lover of harmony; used to represent all Celtic ancestors

Dog (usually the greyhound or the Talbot) – fidelity, courage or loyalty

Dolphin – charity or affection

Dragon – valiant defender

Fish – of high nature or regal; this animal is often used to represent gods

Fox – wisdom or wise defense

Griffin – a mythical creature signifying vigilance or a valiant soldier

Horse – symbolizing readiness for duty

Leopard – enduring and valiant warrior

Lion – fierce courage; often used to represent a great warrior or a chief

Rabbits (also known as hares or conies) – peace loving

Snake – wisdom; also a symbol of renewal and fertility in Ireland; long associated with lightning

Tiger – valor and fierceness

Tortoise – invulnerability

Wolf – perseverance in effort or siege

Birds in Family Crests

Family crests include not only mammals, reptiles and mythical creatures; rather, birds formed part of the design with each species denoting a distinct quality like:

Dove – considered the bird of God in Ireland; signifies peach and love

Eagle – representing a person of action, power, noble nature or strength; the protector

Peacock – for pride and beauty

Swallow (or Martlet) – usually used as the sign of the fourth son; indicative of a person who lost his land; the Martlet symbolized perpetual movement in Ireland

Swan – poetry, musical, harmony; the swan was believed to carry the spirit of dead Celtic Chieftains to the next life

Special Marks on the Family Crest Shield

The shield in the family crest also contains specific markings that have their own relevance like:





Two diagonal lines running from the upper left hand corner of the shield to the lower right hand corner.

represents the knight’s scarf, signifying defense


A smaller image of the shield within the shield.

a sign of honor; used to differentiate between family members bearing the same family crest


A small square located on the shield's upper left hand corner.

represents a flag added to the arms that have been possibly granted by a Sovereign


Two lines bent into right angles, forming a point in the center of the shield.

stands for the roof of a house, signifying faithful service and protection


A horizontal line at the top of the shield.

suggestive of authority, dominion, achievement in battle or wisdom


A large cross that covers the shield's whole width and length.

indicative of a Christian who served in the Crusades


Two horizontal lines running through the center of the shield.

signifies the military belt and represents honor


Two vertical lines in the center of the shield.

sign of fortitude and military might


A triangle whose apex is pointed downward (an inverted triangle).

represents wood for building bridges; signifies building or construction


A cross that looks like a big X and covers the whole shield.

represents St. Andrew's cross; signifies resolve and resolution

The foregoing are but a few of the features and ornaments most often used on family crests. If you do not find these particular colors, beasts, birds or markings in your family crest, it may be due to your ancestors’ efforts to really fashion a “one of its kind” coat of arms. Do not lose hope, though, if this is the case. With a little more time devoted to deeper genealogy research and with the use of some imagination,  you will eventually be able to unravel the meaning of your family crest as well as tell the story behind it.

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