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
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:
(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,
Silver or White Argent peace and sincerity
Orange Tawny or Tenne worthwhile ambition
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
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
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.