Decoding Your Family Crest

By: Marie Christianson

Discovering the design of your family crest is an exciting moment. But, what exactly do those colors and images mean? Believe it or not, every part of the coat of arms has a specific symbolic meaning. Therefore, your family probably put a great deal of time and thought creating the family crest you are still enjoying today.

Family Crest Colors

The first thing you will likely notice is the colors of your family crest - more specifically, the background colors of the shield. The following is a list of colors commonly found on the coat of arms and their meaning:

- Black (known as sable) - grief and constancy
- Blue (known as azure) - loyalty and strength
- Gold (known as or) - generosity
- Green (known as vert) - loyalty in love and hope
- Maroon (known as murray or sanguine) - patient in battle and victorious
- Purple (known as purpure) - sovereignty, justice, and regal
- Red (known as gules) - martyr, warrior, strength, and military
- Silver or white (known as argent) - peace and sincerity
- Orange (known as Tawny or Tenne) - worthwhile ambition

Family Crest Animals

A number of different animals may also be found on your family crest, each with its own unique meaning such as:

- Bear - fierce protection
- Boar - fights to the death or fierce fighter
- Boars Head - hospitality
- Bull - magnanimity and valor; the symbol was also worn during battles as a charm against becoming injured
- Deer (or stag or buck) - politic, skillful, or lover of harmony; representative of 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; Gods are often represented by fish
- Fox - wisdom or wise defense
- Griffin - vigilance or valiant soldier
- Horse - ready for duty
- Leopard - enduring and valiant warrior
- Lion - fierce courage, can be used to represent someone who was 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 and long associated with lightening
- Tiger - valor and fierceness
- Tortoise - invulnerability
- Wolf - perseverance in effort or siege

Family Crest Birds

You may discover that your family crest includes birds rather than mammals, reptiles, or imaginary animals. These birds also have their own unique meaning, including:

- Dove - peach and love; considered the bird of God in Ireland
- Eagle - a person of action, power, noble nature, or strength; the protector
- Peacock - pride and beauty
- Swallow (or Martlet) - the sign of the fourth son, representing a person who has lost his land; the Martlet was considered a symbol of perpetual movement in Ireland
- Swan - poetry, musical, harmony; the swan was thought to bear the spirit of dead Celtic Chieftains as they carried them to the next life

Markings of the Family Crest Shield

The markings of the shield in the family crest also have a significant meaning, such as:

- Bend (characterized by 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
- Bordure (characterized by a smaller image of the shield within the shield) - representing honor and used to differentiate between family members bearing the same family crest
- Canton (characterized by a small square in the upper left hand corner of the shield) - representing a flag that has been added to the arms that may have been granted by a Sovereign
- Chevron (characterized by two lines bent into right angles and forming a point in the middle of the shield) - representing the roof of a house and signifying faithful service and protection
- Chief (characterized by one horizontal line toward the top of the shield) - authority, dominion, achievement in battle, wisdom
- Cross (characterized by a large cross covering the entire width and length of the shield, the lines are horizontal and vertical) - one of Christian faith who served in the Crusades
- Fess (characterized by two horizontal lines running through the middle of the shield) - signifying the military belt and representing honor
- Pale (characterized by two vertical lines in the middle of the shield) - fortitude and military strength
- Pile - (characterized by a triangular image with the point of the triangle pointing downward) - representing wood used to build bridges and signifying building and construction
- Saltire - (characterized by a cross looking like a large X covering the entire area of the shield, running from corner to corner) - St. Andrew's cross signifying resolve and resolution

These are just a few of the symbols and shapes commonly found on the coat of arms. There may be different symbols and colors used on your own personal family crest aside from those mentioned because many families sought to find a family crest that was truly unique. Through a little research and imagination, you just might be able to decode your family crest as well!

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Marie Christianson is a senior business analyst at Visit the Family Crest Info Center for more articles and resources!

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