The use of special marks or symbols has long been used since ancient times to identify one’s specific family lineage. Even before Christianity, the Greeks as well as African warriors were already marking their shields with signs of their identification. The use of these markings as emblems in the coat of arms or as family crests gained popularity during the time of the Crusades in the twelfth century.
Need for the Family Crest
The family crest is viewed nowadays as a novelty item in recognition of one’s ancestry and as a romantic link to the past. It is interesting to note, however, that the reason for creating the family crest was one of pure necessity and a matter of survival. With the Crusaders coming from different countries, and considering that almost everyone wore almost similar suits of armor and closed helmets, it became necessary to develop a quick, visual means to distinguish one from the other.
If only to avoid fighting with countrymen and kin, English knights started marking their armor with their own symbols. The practice was soon picked up by the other Crusaders and spread widely throughout Europe. Eventually, the knights began using surcoats or pieces of cloth worn over the armor to protect them from the heat of the sun. The family crest, which included the special marks and symbols then referred to as “arms,” was then embroidered on the surcoat thereby giving rise to the phrase “coat of arms.”
The Birth of Heraldry
The widespread use of family crests required the assignment of particular individuals to chronicle the growing number of symbols and variations in design. Known as heralds, these persons were tasked to memorize the “arms” of each knight for announcement during special events and other public gatherings. The heralds served as the masters of ceremonies at all tournaments and in time, heraldry became court-appointed positions.
Heralds as Peace Keepers
With more and more families adopting their own family crests, there was bound to be some duplication in design ideas and symbols used in the coat of arms. In-fighting among the knights became common as each tried to protect his right over his “arms.” To stem the growing divisiveness and to keep his troops united to better protect his crown, the king had to call on the heralds to settle any disputes regarding the use of “arms.” Henry V of England issued a royal regulation in 1419 empowering the heralds to verify and record all coats of arms and to deny the use of particular “arms” to those without rightful claims to them.
A Unique Language
In time, the heralds developed a unique language to describe the scores of symbols used in the family crest. These symbols, referred to as the Blazon of Arms, were explained and recorded using the heraldic language in the world-wide College of Arms. These are historic records and are acknowledged to have the same binding claim on the registered entries as in any other legal and official deeds. In fact, these records can still be researched for use and interpretation by anyone who can understand and decode the language of the heralds.
To illustrate: the Blazon of Arms for the Tierney family crest was described by the heralds as “Azure two lions rampant or, supporting a sword proper.” Translated to present day English, this would mean that the Tierney family crest is a shield with a blue (azure) background and that there are two gold (or) lions standing on its hind legs (rampant) with its forelegs raised to hold a sword. By themselves, the colors and symbols have their own significance. Azure or blue corresponds to loyalty and truth; gold denotes generosity and elevation of the mind; while the lions epitomize strength and courage.
Other Uses of the Family Crest
Other than the battlefield, the family crest was used in normal day-to-day life during the medieval period. For one, the family crest served to identify the family as the symbols were far more recognizable than the written word. The family crest was most helpful during that time when the general populace did not know how to read and write. It was thus customary for the family crest to be engraved in a ring, which was then used as an official seal to documents in the same manner that modern people affix their signature.
The coat of arms was also given traditional prominence during wedding ceremonies. To establish the importance of the two families, both the bride’s and the groom’s family crests were exhibited and showed to friends and relatives their long traditions and lines of heritage. This practice may also be observed even in the present day.
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