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The Business of Heraldry

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The Business of Heraldry

Alphabets and Ordinaries


In order to satisfy the growing demand for new coats of arms, heralds needed to have at their fingertips all the thousands of coats that had ever been used. They relied on two main organizational approaches: Alphabets and Ordinaries. Alphabets consisted of an A-to-Z listing and illustration of the arms of every arms-bearing family and institution, organized by surname. Ordinaries consisted of arms arranged by ordinaries, the simple geometric shapes and figurative designs that serve as the basic structure of almost all coats. These books were updated as fresh grants of arms were made, and were passed down through generations of heralds. Alphabets and Ordinaries served as reference books for creating meaningful and aesthetically-pleasing arms, and for avoiding the duplication of previously-granted arms.


The heavily-used pages in this Ordinary (image top right), part of a two-volume set, are arranged by the type of geometric design or image that appears within the shield. It is open to a section of coats of arms that include a bend engrailed, a diagonal band with very wavy edges. Mostly written in the later sixteenth century, it was soon after acquired and added to by Ralph Brooke, York Herald.


This collection of several Alphabets (image second right) gathered from various sources is thought to have belonged to Ralph Brooke, York Herald. It is open to coats of arms belonging to families whose surnames begin with the letter D, starting with "Davillers of Suffolke" and ending with "Demorby."


Not all armorial collections were organized alphabetically or by ordinary. Richard Mundy, an arms painter rather than a herald, made this collection of five hundred coats of arms and crests granted by Robert Cooke and Richard Lee, successive Clarenceux Kings of Arms (image third right). The range of popular Elizabethan designs is evident in this opening. On the left are scallop shells, cinquefoils (five-petaled flowers), and a pole-axe-wielding arm; on the right, a heart belonging to Edmund Scambler (d. 1594), Bishop of Norwich, and a smoking pistol belonging to Thomas Walle of Stonepit, Kent.


Funeral Processions


Heralds were paid meager salaries by the Crown, but they increased their incomes through a range of activities, including conducting heraldic funerals, making pedigrees, and verifying armorial bearings, and, for the Kings of Arms,
granting arms. Funerals were particularly lucrative. Two or more heralds were often involved, and, in addition to their basic fee they received perks such as generous clothing and travel allowances.


In this reproduction of the funeral procession for Sir Christopher Hatton (ca. 1540-91) (image bottom right), six heralds are visible, identifiable by their tabards. Hatton was a favorite courtier of Queen Elizabeth and a Knight of the Order of the Garter. Three of the heralds in the procession carry Hatton's achievements - the helm and crest of a golden hind (deer), the shield of arms and sword, and the heraldic surcoat, or literally, the coat of arms. The senior herald walks behind the coffin.


Hatton's arms, visible on the shield, appear within the garter. Although not shown in color on this manuscript roll, they consist of a blue background with a golden chevron between three golden garbs, or sheafs of wheat. His arms are quartered twelve times in the large banner that preceeds the heralds, and in the surcoat carried by the third herald.

Ordinary of arms. Manuscript, ca. 1604

Alphabet of arms. Manuscript, ca. 1600

Mundy. Coats of arms. Manuscript, ca. 1600

Selected panels from the funeral procession of Sir Christopher Hatton. Drawing, 1591

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