Military history


Some forms of helmet crest seem to have come into use towards the end of the 12th century and beginning of the 13th century, but it is not until the beginning of the 14th century that heraldic crests began to come into general use and take on a three-dimensional form. From this date on crests are often referred to as ‘true’ crests, in that they are free-standing, three-dimensional constructions.

These ‘true’ crests were rather splendid, often fantastic objects, made of a fairly lightweight material such as moulded leather, parchment, whalebone, beaten copper sheet, plumes and feathers, canvas stretched over a wicker frame, thin wood, or papier mâché. Leather was probably the most prevalent, in the form of cuir bouilli, that is leather soaked in hot wax and bent to shape while still hot. This had the advantages of being light yet strong, and could be shaped easily. (Cuir bouilli was also used to cover shields, with heraldic charges embossed upon it, and for making a form of body and horse armour.)

The feathers of cockerels, swans and peacocks were also used extensively. They were usually arranged as a panache, particularly in the earlier crests, that is rising in tiers to a point, as in the crests of Edmund Mortimer (1372), Fig 86, Sir Edward Thorpe (1418),Fig 87, and John, Lord Scrope, Fig 88; or as a plume, in which only one or two tiers were employed, as in the crest of the Earl of Hereford in 1301, Fig 89. The panache sometimes spread outwards instead of rising to a point, as in the crest of Sir Simon de Felbrigge, Fig 90, and that of John, King of Bohemia, Fig 91. On occasions feathers were also displayed in a cluster, as in the brass to Sir Thomas de St Quintin (1420), Fig 92. The feathers were occasionally coloured in the principal tinctures of the arms, as in the crest of the Comte de Namur, Fig 93, circa 1295, whose arms were Or, a lion rampant sable, armed, crowned and langued gules, overall a bend gules.


(80) The ermine of the Dukes of Brittany. (81) The porcupine of the House of Orleans. (82) The winged hart of the House of Bourbon. (83) The salamander of the House of Angoulême. (84) The serpent and child of the Dukes of Milan.(85) The knot of the House of Savoy.

Horns were another popular form of crest in Germany and to a lesser extent in England: Figs 94 and 95 show two German examples, Fig 96 the crest of Sir John Plessis (13th century). In the earlier crests these horns were simply curved and pointed—in their natural form—but in the later, more elaborate crests they are sometimes recurved (as Fig 95) and have an opening into which are sometimes inserted tufts or plumes of feathers. These horns are usually painted in the tinctures of the shield.

The human figure is another favourite crest in German heraldry, usually shown half-length and sometimes with the arms replaced by horns, as in Fig 97, the crest of the Count of Montbeliard. The hat is another common crest in German heraldry, Fig 98, the crest of the 14th-century knight, Casteln.

The heads of heraldic beasts such as lions, boars, hounds, and of heraldic birds such as eagles, swans and cockerels, accounted for many of the other crests. In some cases these consisted of a repetition of a charge in the wearer’s arms, but often the charges in arms did not lend themselves to use in crests, and consequently it became common practice for many knights to use a crest which was in no way linked with their arms.


The bronze effigy of Georg Truchsess von Waldburg (died 1467) in St Peter’s Church, Bad Waldsee in Württemberg, showing a crest of green peacock’s feathers in a panache and a second crest of a fir tree, as well as his banner and shield, bearing his arms, Or, three lions sable. The arms of the princes zu Waldburg had originally been Azure, three pine cones or, and this is probably the origin of the second crest.

Apart from Richard I, who is shown wearing a fan-shaped crest on his Great Seal of 1194, no English monarch wore a crest until Edward III, who wore a lion on a chapeau, Fig 99. He also had a ‘personal’ crest of an eagle. The crest of Henry V in Westminster Abbey is an uncrowned lion on a chapeau, Fig 100, the lion being passant: that of Richard II is an uncrowned lion, passant guardant, Fig 101. All other English kings have used a crowned lion, passant guardant, as in Fig 99. In Tudor times a crown was substituted for the chapeau, and this has been the English royal crest ever since. All other members of the royal family in England also bore a lion crest, with the single exception of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who wore a wyvern, Fig 102, circa 1347. This, combined with Edward III’s personal crest, is interesting in that amongst English chivalry in particular it is known that the crest was considered a personal rather than a hereditary device, and was therefore subject to change, different members of the same family normally using different crests.

Crests were worn primarily at the tournament, or other pageants and parades, and by the 14th century were not designed for the battlefield. It is believed that by this date the ‘true’ crest may have been a mark of special dignity, possibly only awarded to persons of rank and entitling them to take part in tournaments. Certainly in the 15th century the use of crests was almost entirely linked to tournaments, and as the armour and equipment had by this date become so elaborate and costly, only the wealthy could afford to participate. The jousting score-sheets kept by the English heralds of the time confirm this, the names of the same men recurring time after time. This situation had probably existed since the late 14th century. The elaborate and flamboyant crests worn by knights for the tournament were therefore heraldic status symbols which indicated both that the wearer was of tournament rank and that he could afford to participate! This explains why so few of the lesser gentry in England had crests before 1530, and it is mainly as crests that the more fabulous and chimerical creatures of heraldry appear.

In Germany and the Low Countries crests were regarded by the heralds as being of great importance from an early date (certainly by the early 13th century) and the crests used in these countries in the 14th and 15th centuries were also directly linked to the tournament and were often extremely tall and fanciful as a result. See Figs 95, 103 and 104; 103 being the crest of the lord of Baden-weiler in Baden, and 104 of the knight Aeschach.

Crests were seldom used in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, and in Spain especially examples of crests are almost unknown even amongst the greatest families. A rare example of an Italian crest is given in Fig 105, that of Mastino II (died 1351) of the della Scala family, from the tomb in Verona. Examples of French crests are also rare, and those which do survive usually belong to the highest in the land, for example Fig 106, crest of the King of France in the 14th century; Fig 107, that of the Due de Bourgognecirca1295; Fig 108, that of Philip IV, King of France 1285–1314; and Fig 109, the crest of Bertrand du Guesclin. (See also Fig 93, the crest of the Comte de Namur circa 1295.)

In Poland all nobles wore the same type of crest, three ostrich feathers, irrespective of family arms.

The Scarf

The scarf or contoise was a piece of cloth, possibly originating from a lady’s favour or in imitation of the turban, which presumably had some practical purpose, such as protection from the weather, although it is hard to see exactly what its value would have been. Illustrations of the scarf show it to have been of various lengths (see Figs 94 and 102), sometimes reaching only to the neck, other times capable of reaching halfway down the back. In some examples it is fastened to the top of the helmet, in others it emerges from beneath the edge at the rear of the helmet.

Although the scarf is believed to have originated during the crusades period, it does not appear frequently in illustrations until the early 14th century, and it was replaced soon after this date by the wreath and mantling described over.


See body of text for identifications; note details: (86) Blue feathers. (87) Peacock’s feathers. (93) A semé of gold hearts on the mantling. (96) Peacock’s feathers. (97) Gold hair, crown and ‘horns’, with red gown as mantling.


A horse armour, known as the Burgundian bard, probably Flemish, circa 1510. This bard is heavily embossed with the emblems of the Order of the Golden Fleece and reflects the extravagant fashion of having coats of arms engraved and gilded on armour after jupons had gone out of fashion.

The Wreath

The wreath developed from the scarf and appeared by the mid-14th century. Unlike the scarf, which had served a useful purpose, the wreath was purely ornamental. It was made of two skeins of silk or other material, in the tinctures of the field and principal charge of the wearer’s arms, twisted together to form a ring. The crest was laced or bolted to the helmet and the wreath was attached to the base of the crest to conceal this joint. Examples of the wreath appear in Figs 107 and 109.

A cap or chapeau, an ancient cap of dignity worn by dukes and made of scarlet fur with a turn-up of ermine, was worn instead of a wreath by the high ranking nobles. It is illustrated in the crests of the kings of England, Figs 99, 100 and 101. After the reign of Edward III a coronet was worn by dukes, princes and the king.

In a few examples a wreath is used as a ‘crest’, or crest-wreath, as Fig 110, that of Lord Willoughby d’Eresby, 1409. Sec also the cluster of feathers held by a brooch on the helmet of Sir Thomas de St Quintin, Fig 92.


The mantling was merely a larger version of the scarf, originally designed to protect the helmet and its wearer from the elements. It was mainly a form of decoration, however, and was probably only used for the tournament. The mantling was in the principal colour of the wearer’s arms, its underside the colour of the principal metal or fur. It was sometimes decorated with charges from the arms, or the wearer’s badge. For example, John D’Aubynge, circa 1345, had a semé of mullets on his mantling (Fig 111); George, Duke of Clarence, a semé of the white roses of York; Henry Bourchier, Earl of Essex (died 1485), billety, with the lining having a semé of water budgets. In some cases the material of the crest, especially if that material was a textile or feathers, was continued downwards to form the mantling, as in the crests of the German knights Badenweiler (Fig 103), Chur (Fig 112), Hevtler (Fig 113), and in Sir Simon de Felbrigge’s ermine panache (Fig 90). The black boar’s head crest of Sir Ralph Basset (Fig 114) also continues into a sable mantling.

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