A medieval crest is like a picture or symbol that sits on top of a helmet in a special kind of art called heraldry. Long ago, knights used to wear these crests on their helmets, especially during tournaments and sometimes in battles. However, after the 16th century, people began to draw these crests instead of making real ones for their helmets.
In heraldry, you usually have a few things. There’s a shield, a helmet on top of the shield, and then the crest, which is like a symbol, on the helmet. The base of the crest is wrapped in a special twisted cloth called a torse. But, in more recent times, especially during what heraldry experts call the ‘paper heraldry’ era, people sometimes used the words ‘crest’ to talk about the symbols on the shield or the whole set of heraldic things, which isn’t quite right.
Crests held a significant place in heraldry, serving as symbols that represent the history, values, and identity of families, clans, and groups. Originally, they were used to distinguish soldiers and knights on the battlefield and to honor family accomplishments and heritage. These crests also showed typical qualities related to the family, like strength, wisdom, leadership, agility, and resilience. The design of a crest could provide valuable insights into a family’s past and legacy and the inclusion of a crest added to a family’s sense of pride and heritage.
Origin of a Crest
The term ‘crest’ finds its origins in the Latin word ‘crista,’ which means ‘tuft’ or ‘plume,’ possibly connected to ‘crinis,’ meaning ‘hair.’ Crests have had various forms throughout history. Roman officers, depending on their rank, wore fans made of feathers or horsehair either longitudinally or transversely. Viking helmets often featured wings and animal heads as decorations. In a heraldic context, crest-like metal fans were worn by knights during the 12th and 13th centuries. While they served a decorative purpose, these crests might have also provided some practical protection by reducing or deflecting blows from opponents’ weapons, perhaps explaining the serrated edges. These early fans were typically monochromatic but later started to incorporate elements from the arms displayed on the shield.
The fan crest evolved as a three-dimensional sculpture during the late 13th and early 14th centuries, created by cutting out the figure on it, forming a metal outline. These sculptures were typically made from materials like cloth, leather, or paper stretched over a wooden or wire framework. They often took the shape of animals, wings, horns, human figures, or feathered plumes. They were likely worn in tournaments rather than battles because they added considerable weight to the helm and could be used by opponents to grab and pull the wearer’s head down.
Crests were attached to the helm using laces, straps, or rivets, concealed by a twisted cloth band called a ‘torse’ or wreath, or by a coronet for high-ranking nobles. The regular use of torsos in Britain didn’t become common until the 15th century and is still rare on the Continent, where crests are usually shown as extending into the mantling. Sometimes, crests were mounted on a furred cap known as a ‘chapeau,’ as seen in the royal crest of England.
By the 16th century, the era of tournaments had come to a close, and physical crests became increasingly scarce. Instead, their illustrated representations began to be regarded as two-dimensional images. A revival of interest in heraldry occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to the elimination of many of the inconsistencies present in previous centuries. Nowadays, crests are typically only granted if they can be practically used on a physical helm. Additionally, the strict adherence to rules governing the direction of helms is no longer the norm.
Usage of Crests
In the past, crests were limited to individuals of ‘tournament rank.’. However, in contemporary times, nearly all personal coats of arms incorporate crests. In continental Europe, crests held a greater significance than in Britain, and it was common for a person to display multiple crests alongside their arms. Certain high-ranking nobility would have as many as seventeen crests. This practice was not prevalent in Britain until the modern era.
Starting in the 16th century, it became commonplace for armigers to detach the crest and use them as badges. This practice led to the misconception of using the term crest interchangeably with arms, which has gained popularity in recent times. In contrast to the badge, which can be used by numerous relatives and retainers, the crest itself remains personal to the armiger, and its use by others is considered inappropriate.
In English heraldry, it is widely recognized that no two families may employ the same crest. This differs from Scottish practice, where crests have less significance and are often shared in the same form by unrelated individuals. As a result of this reduced need for differentiation, Scottish crests tend to be less ornate than their English counterparts.
Generally, marks of cadency are not associated with crests, although it is not incorrect to do so. The British royal family continues this practice. The customary torse around the crest is sometimes replaced by a ‘crest-coronet.’ The standard form is a simplified ducal coronet, consisting of three fleurons on a golden circlet.
Orders of Chivalry
Today, physical crests are primarily found in the chapels of Britain’s orders of chivalry, such as the Order of the Garter’s St George’s Chapel, the Order of the Thistle’s Thistle Chapel, and the Order of the Bath’s Henry VII Chapel. In these chapels, there are rows of stalls designated for the knights, each adorned with the knight’s sword and crested helm placed above. These crested helms are meticulously crafted from lime wood, then painted and gilded by Ian Brennan, the official sculptor of the royal household.
To sum it up, crests possess a profound and lasting heritage within the realm of heraldry. Over time, they have transformed from pragmatic items wielded by knights into emblems of lineage, personal identity, and aristocracy. Whether adorning a helm or elegantly exhibiting as a symbol, crests persist as treasured icons of family lineage and personal triumph.