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Heraldry for All

Heralds, herald-painters, and professional scribes competed to produce manuscripts and printed books suitable for sale to the general public. The most popular type of heraldic manuscripts were "Baronages," short biographies and illustrations of the arms of the nobility from the time of William the Conqueror to the present. Even wider audiences were reached with printed guides to heraldry. These books were aimed at a readership that wanted to interpret the armorial landscape around them: the coats of arms, badges, mottoes, and other devices on buildings, banners, clothing, bookbindings, seals, paintings, utensils, and suits of armor.


Manuscript catalogs of the English nobility by such heralds as Robert Cooke found a very ready market. This Baronage, (image top right), one of eight versions at the Folger, has hand-colored shields, making it more expensive than versions done in black ink alone. The full achievement of arms at left is that of Henry VIII, underneath his royal badges of the red rose of the house of Lancaster, the fleur-de-lis of France and of the house of Plantagenet, and the portcullis, a latticed grille that fortifies a castle, of the Beaufort family.


William Grafton, the owner of this copy of John Ferne's heraldic manual, used it like one might use a family bible (image second right). Beneath a note of the birth of his first son, William, on 16 November 1587, he included a painting of his coat of arms. This would be described in heraldic terms as per saltire sable and ermine, a lion rampant or, armed and langued gules: in the top and bottom triangles, a gold lion rearing up on its hind legs, with a red tongue and claws, against a background of black; in the left and right triangles, black spots on white, representing the stoat's winter coat of fur.


Gerard Legh's heraldic manual was a popular introduction to the mysteries of heraldry (image third right). He provided simple step-by-step instructions, in the form of a dialogue, for decoding and interpreting all facets of coats of arms. In doing so, he made them accessible to a curious public, hungry for details on how to decode the heraldic environment in which they lived. The arms that he illustrated are all imaginary, perhaps because he did not wish to give offence to the heralds by seeming to enter their jealously-guarded territory.


This is part of the original rough draft for John Guillim's popular and monumental Display of Heraldrie , published in 1611 (image bottom right). It contains many more illustrations of arms and charges than are in the printed version, from which they were eliminated because of what Guillim describes on the last page as "the huge charge of cutting;" that is, the expense of making woodcuts. On the left are examples of "Fishes skynned," or soft fish, which could be incorporated into one's arms: the luce, eel, conger, plaice, sole, ray, tench, and trout. On the right are examples of "crusted," or hard fish: the small and great sea crab, cuttle fish, and lobster.

Cooke. An English baronage. Manuscript, 1572

Ferne. The blazon of gentrie: deuided into two parts. London, 1586

Legh. The accedence of armorie. London, 1591

Guillim. A display of heraldry. Manuscript, ca. 1610

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