The tradition of heraldry, the art of designing and preserving family crests, dates back to the 12th century in northwestern Europe. The armour of the time covered mounted knights entirely, making them difficult to identify. Artists painted colourful crests on a knight's shield to identify the armour-clad individual. Eventually the tradition expanded beyond nobility, and even working-class families developed their own family crests. Heraldry developed conventions and meanings for common colours and symbols found on crests. Learning the common meaning of colours in heraldry allows you to better understand your family's crest.
Traditional terms for the colours in family crests are more ornate than the common name of the colour. However, using the traditional colour names identifies that particular colour as used in heraldry. Gules is the more poetic name for the colour red, and identifies a warrior. By extension, the colour red on a family crest symbolises military prowess and greatness of spirit.
Azure, or blue, is a colour often associated with loyalty. A blue crest indicates that the family strongly honours any ties of loyalty to a leader or even to principles. By extension, blue in a family crest represents truthfulness and honesty.
Popular with chivalric knights of the 12th century, the use of the colour green in crests demonstrates the trait of loyalty in love. Vert also carries the traditional meanings of the Roman Catholic liturgical colour green, which symbolises hope and joy in renewal.
Although Hollywood images associate black knights with formidable evildoers or rogue knights, the colour black in a family crest represents the virtue of constancy. Sable crests can also carry the connotation of grief or mourning.
Western tradition associates the colour purple with nobility and wealth as far back as the 18th century B.C., when the high cost of the rich Phoenician dye made the colour accessible to only the wealthiest. Through its use as the colour of royalty, purpure, or purple, gained the additional meanings of justice and sovereignty.
Named after the material, gold refers to colours ranging from true gold to yellow. When family crests were painted on shields, artists would paint all the other colours of the crest onto a shield made of gold if the family had the means. The colour symbolises generosity and elevation of the mind.
Similar to or (gold), argent also represents white as well as silver. The clean, brilliant appearance of this colour lends to its meaning of peace and sincerity.
Historians and heraldry scholars debate over whether tawny and sanguine held separate meanings on crests. Some believe that these two colours were added by later scholars in an attempt to increase the number of colours from seven to nine. They hold that tawny and sanguine (orange and maroon) were different shades of gules (red). Those that think tawny is a distinct heraldic colour associate it with ambition.
Sanguine shares part in the same debate as tawny. Scholars cannot agree on whether it is a separate heraldic colour or just a shade of red. The school of thought that finds sanguine to be its own colour associate it with patience in battle.