Fortunately, today there are several websites that offer free family history crests. This was not the case in the not-too-distant past. There was once a time when to you're your family crest and name meanings, you would have to dig through dusty old volumes in the back room of a library. Many of these websites offer family crests that are "free to view" while some offer actual graphics of the crest that are free to download. Family crests and histories are important because they help us learn about our family surname's origins.
What is Heraldry?
Heraldry sprang from the early practice of armory or the science of armorial bearings. It is an ancient practice of using symbols to identify families, chieftains, tribes and even nations. These symbols were often on the shields of warriors and on wax seals. From Native American tattoos to European shields and the earliest totem poles, heraldry has been common among all the ages and races of mankind. You could be killed for your family crest.
One historical instance is when a son of the 3rd Duke of Norfolk (Thomas Howard) emblazoned the royal lions on his coat of arms, made a few proud boasts, and was imprisoned and beheaded by King Henry VIII for treason. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Seymours (Jane Seymour's family) insisted to the king that the Howards (both father and son) were planning to set Prince Edward aside and assume the throne. This Howard line had the legal right to bear the royal lions through their descent from Lady Anne Mowbray Howard back to King Edward I.
According to The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, the oldest documented example of a coat of arms on a shield is that of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, and son-in-law of King Henry I. In 1127 A.D. his shield sported four gold lions rampant. By 1400, coats of arms had become status symbols in Great Britain.
Symbol Meanings on Family Crests
Once you get into the study of heraldry, you will want to discover what the symbols mean on your family crest. Even though it is a painstakingly detailed science, you can learn the basics in a short time. One website that you may find helpful is Fleurdelis.com. This website gives a comprehensive listing of the most common meanings for colors, furs, heraldic lines and ordinaries, as well as heraldic symbols.
Quartering is the practice of incorporating the arms of other families acquired through marriages. Each coat of arms is made up of several parts, including:
- Crest (however, not all arms have crests)
Another important part of the coat of arms is the motto. While usually very somber and eloquent, the family motto is sometimes lighthearted.
Free Family History Crests Online
- House of Names is a retail website where you enter your last name into the search box and locate your family crest. This is an excellent reference, even though as with all information you find on genealogy, you may find errors and omissions. As with all genealogical reference sites, use it as a reference only and then go to the original sources for verification. There are a wide variety of heraldry-related products you may purchase.
- 4Crests offers free family crests graphics to anyone. The only requirement is that the graphics must be for web use only. The website you place the graphic on must provide a link-back to their site giving them credit for the free coat of arms.
- All Family Crests offers crests that are "free to view" and printable. This is valuable since it can give you a mental picture of what your crest looks like, so you can study it or research it further. This is a very large database with worldwide graphics and names of Irish, Welsh, Canadian, American, Australian, Scottish, United Kingdom, Italian, German and Spanish origin.
Just as valuable as the graphic, the history and surname meanings that accompany most of these free family history crests may give you new insights on your heritage.