What Is the Difference between a Coat of Arms & a Crest?

Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

For centuries, families have used special designs and emblems to identify and unite blood relatives. One such design used in heraldry is called a coat of arms and dates from the era of feudal lords and knights with swords and shields. The crest also dates from the epoch of heraldry, where it was a sculpture that topped the helm each knight wore to protect his head in combat.

Heraldry as Identification

Knights in early days wore armor to protect them, usually covering their entire bodies, including their faces. That meant that they were hard to identify. Heraldry is how knights identified themselves, by painting symbols and signs on banners, shields or helmets. By using crests and coats of arms, medieval warriors could be identified on the battlefield by friends and foes alike.

An excellent, early illustration of heraldry can be seen in the French work of art the Bayeux Tapestry. It is an illustration on fabric of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. You can see vivid designs on the shields and flags, as well as crests on the helmets.

Coat of Arms

In the days when knights battled each other in tournaments or on the great battlefields of Europe, they used swords to attack and shields and helms (helmets)to protect their bodies. Visual designs on the shields identified themselves in combat, and often the designs were used by an entire family.

A coat of arms was part of the heraldic visual design used on a shield or other armor in the 12th century. It was the part of the design found in the center of the shield and was sometimes accompanied by a motto. A coat of arms traditionally was unique to the knight and his family.

By the next century, coats of arms were no longer just designs carried into the battlefield. Instead, they were used as distinctive emblems for the aristocratic families of Europe. They were passed on from one wealthy generation to the next. In more modern days, the coat of arms is a design or emblem unique to a nation, an organization or a corporation that chooses to use it, thus evolving into the modern logo.


A crest is another element of heraldic display from the days of the knights. It started out as a decorative sculpture (for example, an eagle) on the top of the head covering called a helm. For the most part, crests were the heads of men, birds or animals. Over time, crests changed from sculptures to picture designs.