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 fol. 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 fol. 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 fol. 74.
  • Miscellaneous collection of heraldic material relating to European and English families. Manuscript, ca. 1540. Call number: V.a.337; displayed fol. 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

Heralds played an important role in the staging of tournaments—elaborate and extravagant occasions for displaying one's skill in the martial arts. Clarenceux King of Arms or another herald proclaimed the occasion, recorded coats of arms, and kept score. Sir Henry Lee, who was Elizabeth I's self-styled "Queen's Champion" in the 1580s, organized the Accession Day Tilts. These were tournaments held on each anniversary of the Queen's Accession Day, November 17. Elizabeth favored men who excelled at the tilts, and her courtiers spent an enormous amount of money to create customized armor, decorated with their arms, badges, or imprese for these tournaments.

The Almain Armourer's Album, on loan from the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, is a collection of designs for plate armors, now attributed to Jacobe Halder, the German (Almain) in charge of the royal armor workshops at Greenwich from 1576 until shortly before he died in 1608. Plate armor was worn in tournaments and on the parade ground. The armors were made for the Crown and leading courtiers, and were extremely costly. The plate displayed in the exhibition is of the subsidiary pieces that were made for Sir Christopher Hatton's full outfit. They include his horse's shaffron, and saddle steels for the horse's pommel and cantle, as well as two stirrups. Also shown is Hatton's armet with extra visor piece.

For more on arms and armor visit the page on our exhibition, Now Thrive the Armorers: Arms and Armor in Shakespeare.

Items included

  • LOAN courtesy of Collections Access, Loan & Management Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Facsimile edition. An Almain Armourer's Album. Greenwich: English Royal Armory, 1557–87. London: W. Griggs, 1905. LOC Call number: NK6604 .A4 FT MEADE; displayed plate XXIV.
  • LOAN courtesy of Private Collection. Half-shaffron armor belonging to the armor of Friedrich of Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick. English, Greenwich, 1610–13. Steel, etched, blued, and gilt, with polychromy.


From 1530 to 1680, heraldic visitations were one of the primary means to record descents, marriages, and births, to confirm and grant arms, and to resolve uncertainties over arms. The formal nature of official visitations reflected the Crown's concern for maintaining records of the significant families in all parts of the kingdom. The two provincial Kings of Arms, Clarenceux and Norroy, or more typically, their deputies, carried out regular visitations of every county in their provinces.

Formal county-by-county visitations were instituted in 1530. Before that time, heralds collected regional genealogies in books such as this one, the earliest known copy of a regional collection of pedigrees for northern England, begun in the 1480s. The undulating lines, lack of dates, and many blank roundels, make it difficult to follow. In this opening, the Conyers pedigree from the previous opening comes to a conclusion, and the Aske pedigree begins. The limitations of the book format for lengthy family trees is obvious - the lines of descent would be much easier to read if they were set out on a long scroll.

Visitations were a lucrative business for the heralds, who collected a fee for every registration. This is a rare example of a surviving receipt from a visitation, signed by Thomas May, Chester Herald, and Gregory King, Rouge Dragon Pursuivant. It records the Mayor of Warwick's payment of thirty shillings for the registration of the arms of the Corporation of Warwick during the 1682 visitation of Warwickshire. Towns as well as individuals were required to show their right to arms, even if their usage had been continuous for three or four hundred years.

This 1619 visitation record of Warwickshire, made by a professional scribe, is in a more typical format, with rectilinear tabular pedigrees. The opening shows the genealogy of the Lucy family, of Charlecote, near Stratford-upon-Avon.

It was quite common to include one’s coat of arms on a seal ring or seal matrix, used to seal letters or official documents. This silver seal matrix was most likely produced as evidence by John Halsted of Pidley, Huntingdonshire, at the heraldic visitation of his county in 1684. The Folger Conservation Lab has made a new impression from the original matrix. Within the shield are an eagle displayed, that is, with its wings spread. Above the eagle is a chief chequy, a checkered band along the top of the shield. Since seals are a single color, the colors of the arms are not represented. This seal matrix of the Halsted family is on loan by the courtesy of Professor Sir John Baker.

Items included

  • LOAN courtesy of Professor Sir John Baker. Pedigree of Wilson, examined and approved by William Segar, Garter King of Arms. Manuscript vellum roll, ca. 1620.
  • William Jenings, Lancaster Herald of Arms. Pedigrees of some noble families. Manuscript, ca. 1525. Call number: V.b.163; displayed fol. 79.
  • Receipt from Chester Herald and Rouge Dragon Pursuivant to the Mayor of Warwick. Manuscript, 1682. in a Collection of items relating to the Borough and Parish of Warwick. England 1551–1791. Call number: X.d.2 (37) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Henry Chitting, Chester Herald of Arms. Visitation of Warwickshire. Manuscript, 1619. Call number: V.b.52; displayed fol. 100.
  • LOAN courtesy of Professor Sir John Baker. Seal matrix of the Halsted family. Silver, ca. 1620–80.

Grants of Arms

If an individual or family wanted to create, modify, or confirm a coat of arms, they would have to apply to a King of Arms for the right. If they met the requirements, the grantee would pay roughly twenty pounds (the equivalent of $15,000 or more in today's money) and commission a large parchment grant or letters patent, written or engrossed by a professional scribe, with the new coat of arms described or blazoned and professionally painted. The drawing up of letters patent for the granting of arms was a phenomenon that was common to all of Europe by the fifteenth century. These grants typically recounted a person's right to demonstrate with a coat of arms their wisdom, learning, knowledge, virtuous life, noble courage, integrity, and discretion.

Written in Latin in a careful italic hand, this confirmation of arms to Stephen Powle is signed at the bottom by Garter King of Arms, William Dethick. Along the top border are the badges of Queen Elizabeth: the white rose, the red and white double rose, as well as the Garter, and the royal arms. Powle's arms have a distinctive crest of a blue unicorn with a gold horn, mane, hooves, and tail. The arms themselves come from both paternal and maternal sides of the family. Powle's father's arms are three gold lions passant guardant on a blue background: that is, the lion strides to the viewer's left with its head facing the viewer. His mother's arms are described as three gold bends, or diagonal bands, on a blue background. The patent's artist, however, incorrectly depicted the bends in silver.

This example of a draft confirmation, confirms the arms of Thomas Pecke, alderman, justice of the peace, overseer, and former mayor of the city of Norwich. Like new grants, confirmations describe the grantee's status and his arms, and declare his right to display them on shields, swords, seals, rings, signets, buildings, utensils, tombs, monuments, and other surfaces.

This is a formal grant of arms and crest to Robert Horsseman, of Ripon (Yorkshire), by Robert Cooke, Clarenceux King of Arms, on May 26, 1590. The coat is described as "the field gold, three Gantlets Sable" with the crest "a burning Castell gold," that is, three black gauntlets (metal gloves used in combat) on a gold background, with a crest above consisting of a gold tower with flames coming out of it.

The language and format of grants of arms has changed very little over the centuries. There is no American herald today, but individual Americans, as well as American towns and other corporate bodies, can obtain honorary grants from the English College of Arms. As part of their bicentennial celebrations in 1976, Hampden-Sydney College, in Hampden-Sydney, Virginia, received a grant for an official coat of arms. The arms include two blue pheons, or spearheads, taken from the arms of the Sidney family of Penshurst, and two blue eagles against a silver background, from the Hampden arms.

Items included

  • Robert Cooke, Clarenceux King of Arms. Grant of arms to Robert Horsseman of Ripon, Yorkshire. Manuscript, May 26, 1590. Call number: Z.c.40 (5) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • William Camden, Clarenceux King of Arms. Confirmation of arms to Edward Lyster, doctor of physick of London. Manuscript, April 20, 1602. Call number: Z.c.22 (1) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • LOAN courtesy of the Rare Books and Special Collection Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. King Philip II grant of arms. Grant or confirmation of arms to Alonso y Hernando de Mesa. Manuscript, Nov. 25, 1566. LOC Call number: Kislak MS 1014 Kislak Coll and LOC Digital Copy.
  • William Dethick, Garter King of Arms. Confirmation of arms to Stephen Powle, citizen of London. Manuscript, March 15, 1588. Call number: Z.c.22 (41) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Gilbert Dethick, Garter King of Arms. Draft confirmation of arms to Thomas Pecke, Esq., late mayor of Norwich. Manuscript, ca. 1580s. Call number: X.d.280; displayed recto.

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