Medieval Crests

Unveiling Medieval Crests: Symbols of Nobility

The Middle Ages, a period of knights, castles, and grandeur, gave birth to a symbol system that remains an object of fascination today – the Medieval Crests. These emblematic devices were not mere decorative elements on shields or banners. They served as profound symbols of noble lineage, valor, and authority. Every element of a crest, from the patterns to the colors, revealed a story about its bearer, creating an intriguing visual language that transcended the boundaries of the written word. In this comprehensive exploration, we will unravel the mystery behind these powerful insignias, their evolution, and their enduring influence on heraldic practices today.

Why Medieval Crests Hold a Special Place in History

Medieval Crests serve as a remarkable testament to the complex societal structures and customs of the Middle Ages. Intricately woven into the fabric of the period, they continue to fascinate historians, artists, and enthusiasts alike, serving as an enduring link to our past.

The Origins of Medieval Crests

Crests’ origins can be traced back to the Norman Conquest of England in the 11th century, coinciding with the emergence of the Feudal System. Originally, these were simple designs marked on the shields and surcoats of knights, enabling identification in battle and tournaments. However, as heraldry – the practice of designing, displaying, and recording coats of arms and heraldic badges – developed, these signs became more elaborate, reflecting the noble lineage, alliances, and deeds of their bearers.

Evolution from Heraldic Shields

As heraldic practices evolved, the designs marked on shields gradually developed into more intricate and individualized heraldic devices known as crests. Crests were traditionally displayed atop the helmet in a coat of arms, becoming a central element in heraldic achievements. While initially, crests served a practical purpose, identifying knights on the battlefield, they transformed into complex symbols of nobility and honor, often inherited and modified over generations. This transformation from practical heraldic shields to symbolic Medieval Crests marked a significant point in the evolution of heraldry.

Exploring the transition from shields to crests

The shift from simple shield markings to elaborate crests was a gradual one, reflecting the complex dynamics and cultural changes of the medieval period. This transition was influenced by various factors, including the feudal system’s social stratification, religious symbolism, and the desire for unique identity among nobility.

Influence of Feudal System on Crest Development

The Feudal System, a hierarchical social structure prevalent in Medieval Europe, played a pivotal role in crest development. As lords granted lands to their vassals in return for military service, the need for identification symbols became paramount. These symbols, initially simple markings on shields, eventually morphed into elaborate crests. The design of these crests often indicated the rank and status of the bearer within the feudal structure. For instance, sovereigns and high-ranking nobles could incorporate crowns or coronets into their crest, signifying their authority.

Elements of Medieval Crests

A typical medieval crest comprises several elements, each contributing to its overall meaning. The central motif is the ‘charge,’ a figure or symbol occupying the field or background. Charges were incredibly diverse, ranging from animals and mythical beasts, representing qualities like bravery or wisdom, to inanimate objects like stars, crescents, or castles, often bearing religious or symbolic connotations.

Above the shield was the helmet, its style, and orientation indicating the bearer’s rank, with the mantling or cloak representing protection. Atop the helmet sat the actual ‘crest,’ often a repetition or variation of the main charge or a different symbol altogether.

Lastly, the motto, typically written on a scroll beneath the shield, encapsulated the family’s ethos or ambitions in a few words. It is these various elements, each with its unique significance, that contribute to the rich tapestry of medieval crests.

Shields: The Foundation of Crest Design

Shields, originally created for protection in warfare, became the canvas upon which the artistic and symbolic vocabulary of heraldry was crafted. They formed the foundation for crest design, with their shape, color, and the placement of elements adhering to strict heraldic rules. From animals and mythical beasts to crowns and helmets, each symbol bore an integral meaning, collectively shaping the narrative of the crest.

Animals and Heraldic Beasts

Animals and mythical beasts were common charges in Medieval Crests, each symbolizing different qualities or values. The lion, often referred to as the ‘king of beasts’, symbolized bravery, nobility, and royalty. Eagles were associated with strength, courage, and immortality, reflecting the influence of Roman iconography.

Mythical creatures also found their place in heraldry. The dragon, a symbol of power, protection, and wisdom, was a popular choice among noble families. The Griffin, with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, represented a combination of intelligence and strength. The Unicorn, on the other hand, embodied purity and grace.

Crowns and Helmets: Representing Nobility

Crowns and helmets in Medieval Crests were more than decorative embellishments; they were potent symbols of rank and nobility. The style, metal, and color of the helmet often indicated the rank of the bearer. For instance, gold helmets, shown in profile, were reserved for kings and sovereigns, while silver, shown affronté (facing the viewer), was for knights.

Crowns, on the other hand, served as unequivocal symbols of authority and power. The inclusion of a crown or coronet in a crest indicated a high rank within the social structure. Each type of crown was strictly associated with specific noble ranks, from the ornate imperial crowns of emperors and kings to the more modest coronets of lower nobility. This careful distinction served as a visual guide to the hierarchy within the nobility, underlining the importance of status in the feudal system.

Heraldic Colors and Patterns

Heraldic colors and patterns are intrinsic to the design of Medieval Crests, contributing to their symbolic richness. Each hue, known as ‘tincture’ in heraldic terminology, carries a specific connotation, while patterns and motifs add depth to the narrative the crest intends to convey.

Color Symbolism in Medieval Crests

In heraldry, the choice of colors is far from arbitrary. Each of the primary heraldic colors, or ‘tinctures’, holds a particular significance. Gold (Or) symbolizes generosity and elevation of the mind, while Silver or White (Argent) represents peace and sincerity. Red (Gules) stands for military fortitude and magnanimity, Blue (Azure) for loyalty and truth, and Green (Vert) for hope, joy, and loyalty in love.

Black (Sable) is associated with constancy or grief, and Purple (Purpure) with royal majesty, sovereignty, and justice. The use of these colors in the design of a crest further enhanced its symbolic complexity and individuality.

Patterns and Motifs in Heraldry

Patterns and motifs in Medieval Crests, known as ‘ordinaries’ and ‘charges’, were equally important in creating a unique and meaningful design. Ordinaries were simple geometric patterns that occupied a significant part of the shield. These included the ‘fess’ (a horizontal stripe), the ‘pale’ (a vertical stripe), the ‘bend’ (a diagonal stripe), and the ‘chevron’ (an inverted ‘V’), among others.

Charges, on the other hand, could be any object or figure, from animals and plants to celestial bodies and geometric shapes. They were often used to symbolize a family’s origins, occupations, or a memorable deed of an ancestor.

The creative interplay of colors, patterns, and motifs within the heraldic rules resulted in an astonishing variety of Medieval Crest designs, each telling its unique story.

Interpreting Medieval Crests: A Guide to Heraldic Symbolism

Interpreting Medieval Crests is akin to reading a story, one that unfolds layer by layer as we unravel the web of heraldic symbolism. This section will guide you on an enlightening journey, illuminating how to decode these intricate emblems of the past.

Understanding Heraldic Beasts and Their Symbolism

Animals and mythical beasts in heraldry are rich with symbolism. For instance, lions often denote bravery, courage, and royalty, while eagles are emblematic of strength, power, and authority. Understanding these creatures’ symbolism can provide a glimpse into the virtues the crest’s original bearers held dear.

Decoding Heraldic Colors and Patterns

Color, or ‘tincture’, in a crest, is far from decorative; it carries a unique meaning. For instance, gold (or) symbolizes generosity, while blue (azure) stands for loyalty and truth. Similarly, patterns, or ‘ordinaries’, like the ‘fess’ or the ‘bend’, have their unique connotations. Recognizing the significance of colors and patterns can help you grasp the narrative that the crest seeks to convey.

Interpreting Heraldic Motifs

Motifs in a crest, or ‘charges’, could range from celestial bodies to geometric shapes, each carrying a particular significance. Often, they are indicative of the family’s origins, professions, or memorable achievements. Learning to identify and interpret these motifs provides a deeper understanding of the family or institution the crest represents.

Recognizing Placement of Elements and Its Importance

Placement of elements in a crest is critical. The location of a symbol, whether in the upper or lower part of the shield, or its direction, can influence its meaning. This aspect of heraldry, known as ‘attitude’, is crucial in interpreting the full message of the crest.

Putting It All Together

After understanding the significance of individual components, you’re ready to interpret the crest as a whole. Remember, the crest tells a story, and every element, color, and symbol contributes to that narrative. By considering each aspect and its interaction with others, you can gain a comprehensive understanding of the crest’s message.

Through this step-by-step guide, we hope to make the complex field of heraldry accessible, helping you delve into the fascinating world of Medieval Crests with newfound knowledge and appreciation.

Crests of Noble Families

Over centuries, crests became crucial identity markers for noble families. They served to underscore lineage, alliances, and distinguished deeds, all meticulously depicted through intricate heraldic symbolism.

Famous Medieval Crests

There are several famous Medieval Crests that stand the test of time. The House of Plantagenet, which ruled England for over 300 years, carried a crest featuring three golden lions on a red field. The enduring image of the three lions continues to be associated with England, appearing on the England national football team’s crest.

In contrast, the House of Tudor displayed a crest that perfectly captured the dynasty’s history. The green and white Tudor rose incorporated both the white rose of the House of York and the red of the House of Lancaster, reflecting the union that ended the War of the Roses.

Crests of Knightly Orders and Guilds

Crests were not only used by noble families but also knightly orders and guilds. The Order of the Garter, one of the oldest and most prestigious knightly orders, uses a crest featuring a garter encircling a shield. Guilds, associations of craftsmen and merchants, often had crests that symbolized their specific trades, helping to identify and differentiate them.

The Legacy of Medieval Crests

Even centuries after the Middle Ages, the influence of Medieval Crests is pervasive, visible in the modern heraldic traditions and connections to the present-day coat of arms.

Influence on Modern Heraldic Traditions

The traditions and rules developed during the creation of Medieval Crests form the bedrock of modern heraldry. Contemporary coats of arms, whether belonging to individuals, families, or institutions, still abide by these rules. The use of symbolic colors, specific patterns, and meaningful charges remain integral to crest design, honoring the rich heritage of this symbolic language.

Connections to Modern Coat of Arms

Medieval Crests are the forebears of the modern coat of arms used by countries, cities, and institutions worldwide. They inform the designs of national flags, military badges, and university crests. Even corporate logos borrow from heraldic principles to convey their brand values, underscoring the enduring relevance of these age-old symbols.


Medieval Crests are captivating symbols that echo the grandeur of a bygone era. They are profound visual narratives that shed light on the societal structures, values, and ambitions of the Middle Ages. Despite the passing of centuries, their influence remains etched in our collective memory, seen in the myriad ways we continue to use and reinterpret these symbols. As we delve into the symbolism, origins, and evolution of these crests, we unveil not just the nobility’s emblems but a rich, enduring strand of human history.