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  Home >> Heraldry >> Crests

Composition Tinctures Charges Blazon Beasts of Charge Heraldic Beasts Design Structure Interpretation Crests Supporters

The shield is the essential element of heraldic composition. In the strict sense of the word, it bears the arms. In the course of time, however, accessories were added to this shield, some purely decorative (helmets, coronets, mantling), others serving to indicate the identity, rank, office or dignity of the owner. But on the Continent these external elements were never governed by rules (though they were in England), unlike the tinctures and charges on the shield proper.

The earliest external ornament is the crest on the upper part of the helmet. Its origins go back as far as classical antiquity, where its function was military: to frighten the enemy, to make the combatant look bigger and to attract beneficial forces towards him. At the end of the Middle ages it became mainly a ceremonial piece of decoration: worn at tournaments, rarely at war, it was a fragile structure of wood, boiled leather, canvas and plumes. When depicted on paintings or monuments, the crest above the shield was never represented realistically; sometimes it took on considerable proportions; sometimes it grew in number. For example, during the Baroque period, a shield divided into four quarters were even given four different crests.

Over the centuries, in fact, the crest decoration on the helmet, which at first was individual and could be changed at will depend on circumstances or the whim of the user, tended to stay the same and become hereditary within one family. It could then repeat a charge displayed on the shield or, more frequently, consist of another charge.

In Germanic countries, family crests became established very early on and were often an essential part of the shield. In Poland and Hungary the crest often acquired a totemic function, with all the members of a family group using the same crest and the name of that crest being used as the surname of the entire dynasty.

Elsewhere, crests were used more flexibly and intended for display purposes, although many of them eventually became hereditary. 

In England, for example, shields became so heavily charged and complex in the 18th and 19th centuries that the crest was often used more frequently than the arms.

"Supporters", collars, and mottos

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