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Family Crest Coat of Arms - What exactly is it?

The term "family crest coat of arms" requires a bit of explaining. There are really three terms combined in this phrase.

 

The terms are "family crest", "crest" and "coat of arms". One of the terms, "family crest" is a misnomer. It is often erroneously used to mean a "coat of arms'. Don't be embarassed, it's a very common mistake. Let me explain.

When people say "family crest" they really mean "coat of arms".  A coat of arms belongs to or was granted to an individual and passes down in a direct male line to his sons. Coats of arms do not belong to families, they belong to individuals. A crest, to be exact, is part of what is called an "achievement of arms".

An achievement of arms typically includes the coat of arms, a shield with a unique design placed upon it, the helmet, which is placed above the shield, the mantling, originally a cloth worn on the helmet to protect it from the elements, the wreath, a twisted cloth placed on top of the helm to hold the crest in place and finally the crest, perched on top of the helm. Sometimes there are also supporters placed on either side of the arms, usually men or heraldic beasts, as if supporting the achievement.

Family Crest Coat of Arms

The illustration is an achievement of arms. You can pick out the shield, helmet, mantling, wreath and the crest on top of the helmet. This coat of arms was granted to a man with the surname Ashton, not his entire family.

In short, there is no such thing as a family crest.