#39: Creating my family’s Coat of Arms

Posted by Megan on February 9th, 2012

I’ve always been enamored with medieval history. Once I went to Medieval Times in Chicago and ate two giant turkey legs while desperately yelling inappropriate lust comments at the Green Knight, whose face you couldn’t even see under his armor, I might add. I was 14, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do the same thing today.

HEY GREEN KNIGHT! SHOW ME HOW TO JOUST!

One aspect of medieval history I’m particularly drawn to is family crests.  I occasionally see crests in particularly dignified settings (like castles, or Burger King) and immediately interpret them as a symbol of honor and royalty. I’ve always dreamed of having one in our family living room displaying our family bond.

Too bad I’m American and most of my family heritage is lost. Not to mention I come from Scandinavian ancestry where family crests are not as common as they are in England and Scotland.   

By accident, I ran across a news story that encouraged me to start my own quest for a family crest. The news article spoke about how Kate Middleton’s family had to hire historians to create a family crest as one was needed, if she was to marry Prince William. The historians spent thousands of hours researching the Middleton’s ancestry and eventually created a new crest for the family.

This was Kate Middleton’s coat of arms before she married Prince William. It is diamond shaped because unmarried women cannot use the standard shield design because it is thought to be too warlike and violent.

 

I found this piece fascinating and started doing more research about heraldry (the study of coats of arms). First, I listened to a podcast from HowStuffWorks.com that gave a nice overview of heraldry. Apparently coats of arms are nearly 900 years old!

I learned that although “family crest” and “coat of arms” are now used interchangeably to describe the shield design that is unique to a family, a crest is technically a small element of the coat of arms: the helmet or crown that is affixed to the top of the shield.

I also learned that coats of arms change with each generation; so even if I knew what my ancestors looked like 900 years ago, I would have to update it for each iteration of our family line. You can’t just pick up an old crest and start using it. Also, contrary to popular belief, there is not one coat of arms for the “Johnsons” or the “Petersons.” In accordance to heraldry rules, each family line would have their own coat of arms.

Coats of Arms were originally used to recognize who was who on the battlefield. Obviously when everyone is running (waddling?) around in full suits of armor it’d be nearly impossible to determine who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and who is just the tin man.

“George is that you? Yes it is, I can tell from your Coat of Arms. Can you cover for me? I need a bathroom break!”

 

In many countries, registering a new coat of arms is extremely difficult. InEnglandyou have to go through an extensive vetting process and have evidence to support your usage of certain characters. You also cannot use the same design as another family, thus making it pretty slim pickings at this point.

Here inAmericawe can do whatever the heck we want. Since we don’t have a historical connection to coats of arms, we have a blank slate. You can register any crest online and it’s “yours.” Since there are only a few thousands registries at this time, there is a lot of flexibility. I even saw one that had, what I believe to be, tetris pieces as the main charges. (i.e. main ornaments on the shield)

 

After several hours of research, I began to create my parents’ crest. Since elements of this crest would need to be incorporated into my family crest – it was a good place to start.

First I selected the colors. According to heraldry rules you may select one color and one metal. I selected green and gold. I choose green, because it represents joy and youthfulness. I selected gold, because it represents generosity. 

Next it was time to determine the Ordinary (how the shield is separated). I chose to separate the shield with a chevron. This is a somewhat unusual way to divide a shield, since it’s typically reserved for dignitaries and literally means “chief.” Since my father was chief of police before he retired, I figured this was an appropriate choice.

Now it was time for a big decision. What charges to add to the coat of arms. As I mentioned, charges are the visual elements on the shield. There are hundreds of traditional choices ranging from animals, to crosses, to weapons. Each one means something different. Understandably most of the elements represented military inspired characteristics like bravery, fierceness and even death. These don’t fit my family values, so I continued searching for a more appropriate symbol.

I finally came across a combination I liked: crescents and a swan. The crescents represent enlightenment and hope for future glory. The swan was used to depict grace and chivalry.

Once I completed the main elements of the coat of arms, all I needed to do was add the decorative wreath and create a crown for the helm.

After creating the main family crest, creating my sister’s family coat of arms and my family coat of arms were much easier.

Erin’s coat of arms uses the color blue to represent protection and service to God. I also added passive crosses (instead of war-like cross) and lion supporters just to look awesome.

My coat of arms has a bad-ass dragon on it. I’m hoping he doesn’t get too hungry and go for the swan.

So after many hours of research and many, many more creating the art in Adobe Illustrator, my families now have joined the 15th century cool-kid crowd. At least I’m cool in one century!

Note to all heraldry buffs: I am not, and don’t claim to be an expert. While these may not be perfectly correct, I did my best to maintain the rules of traditional heraldry.

 

  • © 2011 Megan Steil