- The word crest is often mistakenly applied to a coat of arms. For further information see Heraldry. For Japanese usage, see mon (badge).
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A crest is a component of an heraldic display, consisting of the symbol or device borne on top of the helmet.
The earliest heraldic crests were painted on metal fans, and usually repeated the coat of arms painted on the shield, a practice which was later discontinued. Later they were sculpted of leather, wood, and other materials, and attached to the helm by straps or rivets.
Knights rarely wore crests in actual battle; a helmet was already incredibly heavy without the additional weight (and impracticality) of a sculpture. Their usage was generally limited to tournaments and ceremonial occasions.
As the use of traditional helmets declined, heralds, now no longer confined to the bounds of reality, began creating crests of ever-increasing impracticality. Many modern crests are actually incapable of being borne on a physical helmet due to the presence of various elements which defy gravity.
Various kinds of coronet may take the place of the usual torse, though in some unusual circumstances the coronet sits atop a torse, and is defined as either all or part of a crest. The most frequent coronet is a simplified form of a ducal coronet, with four leaves rather than eight. Towns often have a mural crown, i.e. a coronet in the form of embattled stone walls.
Objects frequently borne as crests include animals, especially lions, normally showing only the fore half; human figures, likewise often from the waist up; hands or arms holding weapons; and bird's wings. In Germany and nearby countries, the crest often repeats the liveries in the form of a tall hat, a fan of plumes in alternating tinctures, or a pair of curving horns. The horns may have a hole in the tip to hold a cluster of plumes or flowers, and because of this have been imported to English heraldry at least once as elephant's trunks.
Crests are not normally borne by women or bishops, because they did not participate in war or tournaments and thus would not have a helm on which to wear it. An exception is the reigning queen of the United Kingdom, whose armorial display is identical to that of a man.
Though in the past it was sometimes stated that no one below the rank of knight was entitled to use a crest, in modern times all grants of arms include one, regardless of the grantee's rank. Indeed, it is regarded as improper for a person to be granted arms without a crest. This is not the case in grants to companies or corporate bodies, in which case it is perfectly acceptable for a crest to be omitted and a shield alone granted.
Some armigers used their crest as a personal badge, leading to the erroneous use of the word "crest" to describe a shield or full coat of arms. Such badges are often used by members of Scottish clans. These Scottish crest badges can be used where clan members, who are not armigerous, wear a badge consisting of a clan chief's crest and motto/slogan encircled by a belt and buckle. These crest badges are often erroneously called "clan crests". Even though clan members may purchase and wear such badges, the crest and motto/slogan remain the heraldic property of the clan chief.
Occasionally coats of arms may feature more than one crest. This is especially common in Germany, in which there have been cases of arms featuring as many as thirteen. The general practice in these cases is for the arms to have as many helmets as are required, with the most important crest placed on the central helmet.
There is a widespread misconception, due in part to Victorian stationers' marketing of engraved letterheads, that a crest and a coat of arms belong to everyone with the same family name; but usage by persons not descended from the original grantee constitutes usurpation and should be seen as heraldic fraud. Bogus "family crests" continue to be sold to the misinformed by heraldic "bucket shops".
In the United Kingdom
Today, the crests of new Knights of the Garter and Bath are carved from lime wood by the Orders' official sculptor, Ian Brennan. These carved insignia are displayed above the knights' assigned choir stalls in the Orders' respective chapels: St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle (Garter) and the Henry VII Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey (Bath).
In the Roman Military
Legates and centurions wore crests mounted on their helmets (galeae). Most of the helmets used by legionaries had a crest holder. The crests were usually made of plumes or horse hair. There is some evidence (Vegetius writings and some sculptures) that legionaries had their crests mounted longitudinally and centurions had them mounted transversally.
- Media related to Heraldic figures at Wikimedia Commons