- 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. Later they were sculpted of leather, wood, and other materials, and attached to the helm by straps or rivets. This join was covered by a torse, i.e. a circlet of twisted cloth, usually in the livery colours.
Knights rarely wore crests in actual battle; a helmet was already heavy and uncomfortable without a crest's additional weight and impracticality. 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, decorated with strawberry leaves. Towns often have a mural crown, i.e. a coronet in the form of embattled stone walls. A cap of maintenance may also be used, such as in the medieval arms of the Kings of England.
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 an opening 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. Exceptions are made for reigning queens, whose armorial displays are identical to those of men.
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".
Crests are not a necessary part of the arms but they may be granted by Letters Patented. Crests are often used as Badges and according to the United Kingdom's College of Arms", are separate heraldic devices. They may be petitioned for separate from arms, or with arms.
"While arms and crest are personal to their bearers the badge may be used by others wishing to show connection or allegiance to the individual or corporation to whom it belongs. Thus it is appropriate for the employees of a company to wear a tie bearing the company's badge, but not the company's arms. The grandchildren in the female line of a man entitled to arms may not use his arms or crest but can quite properly wear his badge, and often do so in the form of a brooch".
In the United Kingdom
Today, the crests of new Knights of the Garter, Thistle 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, the Thistle Chapel at St Giles' Cathedral and the Henry VII Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey.
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.
- "Richard Bodéüs" (archived link)
- "Carver of the Month: Ian G. Brennan", Woodezine. Vol. II, No. VI. June 2004.
- Crests atop helmets in St George's Chapel
- Media related to Heraldic figures at Wikimedia Commons