Heraldry and Coats of Arms

Did you ever wonder what all those cool symbols, signs and animals on a family’s heraldic Coat of Arms or a nation’s banner mean? They may appear to be the imaginative doodlings of a creative artist, but they are not. Heraldry is the art and study of creating a Crest or Coat of Arms in which specific symbols, objects, and colors have meanings that pertain to the family or families on whose Crest they appear.

There are literally thousands of terms, symbols and objects that are used in heraldry. These include trees, plants, insects, and real animals, as well as mythical beasts such as unicorns, mermaids and griffins. They may also contain human body part symbols such as arms and hands and legs, hands may be open or closed fisted. Commonly seen animals, such as the lion, are depicted in various poses, each of which has its own terminology; for example, a lion rampant is one that is standing on its hind legs either at an angle or upright as opposed to standing or reposing on all fours.

Coats of Arms and Crests on shields and banners are believed to have originated so that knights and other fighting men could determine who was friend and who was foe, since men in armor or peasants’ fighting clothing pretty much all looked alike. Today military uniforms, equipment, hats and helmets can distinguish one side from the other.

Noble and royal families and nations are not the only ones who may have a Coat of Arms or a Crest. They are often found for cities, states (the state Flags for each of the 50 states in the United States for example), universities and religious institutions including various cathedrals, diocese and bishoprics. These, however, or more commonly found in Europe than here in the ‘new world.’

The library system has a number of books on the topic of Heraldry which give very extensive explanations of all the terms and symbols used. A few examples of these are:

A Dictionary of Heraldry : Feudal Coats of Arms and Pedigrees by Joseph Foster

A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry by Henry Gough

The Heraldic Art Source Book by Peter Spurrier

A Complete Guide to Heraldry by Arthur Charles Fox-Davies

You can find a number of good websites which give lots of information on this topic. One site is International Heraldry

There is also a website that enables you to search your own family name to see if it has a Coat of Arms or a Crest. If you go to the top of the left-hand column where is says “NEW Family Crest Search” and click on it, you can enter your surname and see if anything comes up. What I like about this site is that some family names have different national origins and consequently different Coats of Arms or Crests. An example of this is the surname Oliver: there are origins in England, Ireland and Scotland and you can click on the country to see what the Arms or Crest looks like and the differences between them.

-Gary C.


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