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History of the family crest

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The most important accessory of the arms is the crested helm representing the family crest. Like the arms it has its pre-heraldic history in the crests of the Greek helmets, the wings, the wild boar’s and bull’s heads of Viking headpieces. A little roundel of the arms of a Japanese house was often borne as a crest in the Japanese helmet, stepped in a socket above the middle of the brim.

The 12th-century seal of Philip of Alsace, count of Flanders, shows a demi-lion painted or beaten on the side of the upper part of his helm. Crests, however, came slowly into use in England,. Of the long roll of earls and barons sealing the famous letter to the pope in 1301 only five show true crests on their seals. Two of them are the earl of Lancaster and his brother, each with a wyver crest like that of Quincy. One, and the most remarkable, is John St John of Halnaker, whose crest is a leopard standing between two upright palm branches. Ralph de Monthermer has an eagle crest, while Walter de Moncy’s helm is surmounted by a fox-like beast. In three of these instances the crest is borne, as was often the case, by the horse as well as the rider. Others of these seals to the barons’ letter have the fan-shaped crest without any decoration upon it. But as the furniture of tournaments grew more magnificent the crest gave a new field for display, and many strange shapes appear in painted and gilded wood, metal, leather or parchment above the helms of the jousters.

The Berkeleys, great patrons of abbeys, bore a mitre as their crest painted with their arms, like crests being sometimes seen on the continent where the wearer was an advocate of a bishopric or abbey. The whole or half figures or the heads and necks of beasts and birds were employed by other families. Saracens’ heads topped many helms, that of the great Chandos among them. Astley bore for his crest a silver harpy standing in marsh-sedge, a golden chain fastened to a crown about her neck. Stanley took the eagle’s nest in which the eagle is lighting down with a swaddled babe in his claws. Burnell had a burdock bush, La Vache a cow’s leg, and Lisle’s strange fancy was to perch a huge millstone on edge above his head. Many early helmets repeat the arms on the sides of a fan-crest. Howard bore for a crest his arms painted on a pair of wings, while simple bushes or feathers are seen in great plenty. The crest of a cadet is often differenced like the arms, and thus a wyver or a leopard will have a label about its neck. The Montague griffon on the helm of John, marques of Montague, holds in its beak the gimlet ring with which he differenced his father’s shield.

Ralph de Monthermer

It is often stated that a man, unless by some special grace or allowance, can have but one crest. This, however, is contrary to the spirit of medieval armory in which a man, inheriting the coat of arms of another house than his own, took with it all its belongings, crest, badge and the like. The heraldry books, with more reason, deny crests to women and to the clergy, but examples are not wanting of medieval seals in which even this rule is broken. It is perhaps unfair to cite the case of the bishops of Durham who ride in full harness on their palatinate seals;family crest example but Henry Despenser, bishop of Norwich, has a helm on which the winged griffon’s head of his house springs from a mitre, while Alexander Nevill, archbishop of York, seals with shield, supporters and crowned and crested helm like those of any lay magnate. Richard Holt, a Northamptonshire clerk in holy orders, bears on his seal in the reign of Henry V a shield of arms and a mantled helm with the crest of a collared greyhound’s head. About the middle of the same century a seal cut for the wife of Thomas Chetwode, a Cheshire squire, has a shield of her husband’s arms parted with her own and surmounted by a crowned helm with the crest of a demi-lion; and this is not the only example of such bearings by a woman.

Shield and crested helmut

Before passing from the crest let us note that in England the juncture of crest and helm was commonly covered, especially after the beginning of the 15th century, by a wreath of silk, twisted with one, two or three colors. Coronets or crowns and hats of estate often take the place of the wreath as a base for the crest, and there are other curious variants. With the wreath may be considered the mantle, a hanging cloth which, in its earliest form, is seen as two strips of silk attached to the top of the helm below the crest and streaming like pennants as the rider bent his head and charged. Such strips are often displayed from the conical top of an uncrested helm, and some ancient examples have the air of the two ends of a stole of a bishop’s mitre. The general opinion of antiquaries has been that the mantle originated among the crusaders as a protection for the steel helm from the rays of an Eastern sun; but the fact that mantles take in England their fuller form after the crusading days were over seems against this theory.

When the shield and crested fashion for shattering the edges of helm with hat and clothing came in, the edges of the mantle of Thomas of mantle were slitted like the edge Hengrave (1401). of the sleeve or skirt, and, flourished out on either side of the helm, it became the delight of the painter of armories and the seal engraver. A worthless tale, repeated by popular manuals, makes the slitted edge represent the shearing work of the enemy’s sword, a fancy which takes no account of the like developments in civil dress. Modern heraldry in England paints the mantle with the principal color of the shield, lining it with the principal metal. This in cases where no old grant of arms is cited as evidence of another usage. The mantles of the king and of the prince of Wales are, however, of gold lined with ermine and those of other members of the royal house of gold lined with silver. In ancient examples there is great variety and freedom. Where the crest is the head of a griffon or bird the feathering of the neck will be carried on to cover the mantle. Other mantles will be powdered with badges or with charges from the shield, others checkered, barred or paled. More than thirty of the mantles enameled on the stall-plates of the medieval Garter-knights are of red with an ermine lining, tinctures which in most cases have no reference to the shields below them.