Symbols of Honor exhibition material

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This article offers a comprehensive and descriptive list of each piece included in the Symbols of Honor: Heraldry and Family History in Shakespeare's England, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

The Medieval Heritage

Beginning in the fourteenth century, the creation of genealogies and coats of arms had become the domain of a group of professional "heralds at arms" who established a set of rules which were part of the "law of arms." At the same time, biblical genealogies began to be depicted in graphic form, with scribes starting to use systematic interconnected roundels to explain inter-generational relationships. The items shown, on loan from the Rare Book Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia, are early examples of this innovation.

Peter of Poitiers is thought to have created the earliest genealogical chart, or family tree, recording the line of descent from Adam and Eve to Christ. These diagrams consisted of names inside roundels, connected by lines to indicate descent from one generation to the next. This final membrane of a thirteenth-century copy of the Compendium also includes miniatures of Christ’s birth, crucifixion, and resurrection.

A Genealogical Roll

Edward IV, King of England from 1461 to 1483, seized the throne toward the end of "the Wars of the Roses," the dynastic struggle between the noble houses of Lancaster and York. The Lancastrians (Henry IV, V, and VI) had the red rose as their badge, while the Yorkists (Edward IV and Richard III) used the badge of a white rose.

This elaborately decorated parchment roll was made to demonstrate King Edward IV’s royal ancestry all the way back to Adam, and includes depictions of the resurrected Christ, Old Testament patriarchs, Roman emperors, Anglo-Saxon kings, and an armored Edward IV astride a horse. His personal motto, Counfort et lyesse (Comfort and joy) appears in many places, indicating that the roll was made for Edward himself. It emphasizes his legitimacy as king and his hereditary rights to the crowns of England, France, and Castile.

Genealogical rolls like this adopted the same diagrammatic format as the biblical genealogies, but with names and texts in squares and rectangles rather than roundels. Fifty-four coats of arms identify key individuals in the genealogy.

Items included

The Order of the Garter and The Garter King of Arms

The Order of the Garter, founded by Edward III in 1348–9, was the first chivalric order of Europe. From 1415, it had its own herald, Garter King of Arms. The motto of the Order, Honi soit qui mal y pense (Evil be to him who evil thinks) is inscribed on the Garter surrounding the royal arms and the arms of all knights of the Order.

Every knight of the Order of the Garter was given a copy of the Order's statutes when he was elected to it. This copy has revisions and additions down to January 1559, and was probably written for Henry Manners, Earl of Rutland, who was elected a knight in 1559 and whose arms appear on the second leaf.

The royal arms encircled with the Garter appeared everywhere, including on bindings. King James I of England must have commissioned the binding of this copy of his Meditation upon the Lord's Prayer, since his own arms (as King of England, Scotland, and Ireland) are surmounted by a crown and inlaid in gilt on crimson velvet. He most likely intended this luxurious copy to be given away.

This collection of coats of arms of knights of the Garter was presented to James I in 1606 by William Segar, Garter King of Arms, who penned it himself. The arms, within a collar of the Order of the Garter, are intended to be those of Thomas FitzAlan, earl of Arundel, whose family history is recounted on the facing page. As a penciled note by a later owner remarks, Segar has unfortunately inverted the colors of this most celebrated coat of arms: by showing the lion as red and the field as gold, he has given the arms of the Charleton family, Lords Powys.

Items included

  • Order of the Garter. The statutes and ordinances of the Order of the Garter. Manuscript, 1517–59. Call number: V.a.86; displayed f. 3.
  • James I, King of England. Meditatio in orationem Dominicam. London: Bonham Norton and John Bill, 1619. Call number: STC 14385; displayed cover and LUNA Digital Image and Binding image on LUNA.
  • Sir William Segar, Garter King of Arms. Names and arms of the Knights of the Garter. Manuscript, 1606. Call number: V.b.157; displayed f. 16 and LUNA Digital Image.

French Influences

English heralds were greatly influenced by the French tradition of heraldry. French was the language in which heraldic terms were expressed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and the technical vocabulary of heraldry in England has continued to be partly in French ever since. Favored English noblemen were elected to the French King’s Order of St-Michel, just as the English Crown occasionally honored Continental monarchs by electing them to the Order of the Garter.

This collection of heraldic manuscripts, used by a series of English heralds, was perhaps compiled by William Harvey, Clarenceux King of Arms. It includes the statutes of the order of St-Michel, a French chivalric order which was modeled on that of the Garter.

In the 1530s, an English herald included in this reference guide a list of French marquesses, princes, cardinals, and bishops during the time of Henry VI of England (reigned 1422–61 and 1470–71), with sketches of many of their coats. The manuscript is full of densely-written lists and notes relating to both English and Continental kings and noblemen.

Claude Paradin’s massive work on the genealogies and coats of arms of the kings and queens of France provided inspiration for English heralds such as William Dugdale, who modeled his Baronage on it. This opening provides essential details about the reign and family of King Henry II of France. His arms are shown on the left. Those of his wife, Catherine de Médicis, are at right in lozenge (diamond) form, as is customary for women—her arms are France (three fleurs de lis, on the left) impaling Médicis (on the right).

Items included

  • William Harvey, Clarenceux King of Arms. La table des chapitres du livre de l'ordre de St Michel. Manuscript, ca. 1610. Call number: V.a.154; displayed f. 74.
  • Miscellaneous collection of heraldic material relating to European and English families. Manuscript, ca. 1540. Call number: V.a.337; displayed f. 12v–13r and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Claude Paradin. Alliances genealogiques des rois et princes de Gaule. Geneva: Jean de Tournes, 1606. Call number: 211- 622f; displayed p. 118–19.

Tournaments and Armor


Grants of Arms

Shakespeare's Grant of Arms


The Business of Heraldry

Badges, Mottoes, and Imprese

Disputes within the College of Arms

Heraldry for the Elite

Heraldry for All

Women's Heraldry

The First Amateur Genealogists