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Heraldry for the Elite

Noblemen under Queen Elizabeth and King James went to great expense to commission elaborately illustrated pedigrees and family records. These documents established the proper ancientness of their English descents and displayed their coats of arms in glorious fashion. Unethical heralds would occasionally create fictional ancestors to provide additional honor and respectability, but this was not the norm.


William Bowyer presented this exquisitely written and illustrated manuscript to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in November 1567 (image top right). Although not a herald himself, Bowyer's records-based scholarship helped raise the standards of pedigree making to new levels of accuracy and detail. The calligraphic passages are in the hand of Jean de Beauchesne, co-author of the first writing manual to be published in England. The volume consists of copies of grants and deeds concerning Robert Dudley's estates, interspersed with eulogies in verse of previous earls of Leicester and the kings who granted the various charters. Shown here is Leicester's achievement of arms, with sixteen quarterings. The crest at the top - the bear and ragged staff - was also used by Leicester as his badge. This item is on loan courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.


The Genelogies of the Erles of Lecester and Chester, created in 1573, shows the descent of the two earls from ancestors dating back to the time of William the Conqueror (image bottom right). Robert Dudley was particularly conscious of his family's claims to a long noble lineage. The original ancestors are depicted with branches emerging from their bodies: they are the roots of the tree that grows through each page of the book, passing through heraldic shields and roundels with the names of principal family members. The tree motif is not merely decorative. The Leicester branch has oak leaves, and the Chester branch has elm leaves. The page on the left explains that roundels with two overlapping leaves signify direct descendants, while roundels with one overlapping leaf are the "colaterall children."

Heroica Eulogia (William Bowyer's book). Manuscript, 1567. Detail, f. 11

The Genelogies of the Erles Lecestre and Chester. Manuscript, 1573. Detail, f.2

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