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Contrary to popular belief, English Renaissance heralds did not play trumpets. Think of them as the earliest professional brand consultants, genealogists, and trademark protectors. They had the singular power to bestow enduring and easily recognizable symbols of status and honor upon individuals and institutions who had the proper lineage, reputation, and wealth.


These symbols formed a “coat of arms” that could be displayed on buildings, clothing, armor, monuments, rings, utensils, cups, plates —virtually anywhere the individual wanted to assert his or her status. Heralds created coats of arms that reflected the values, life story, and sometimes the last name, of the commissioning

individual—such as Shakespeare’s “spear”on his arms. Heralds guaranteed that an individual’s arms were unique and regulated how they could be used by other family members.


The heralds suffered from a poor reputation because of the unstructured nature of the College and the quarrelsome ways of some of its members. Without these heralds, however, we would not have the modern family tree format, or access to rich caches of biographical material relating to families of English descent—information that plays such an important role in genealogical research today.


The Folger has a unique collection of the working papers of the most influential heralds from Shakespeare’ time. These manuscripts reveal the astonishing growth and importance of heraldry in the period, and the ways in which early modern

heralds shaped modern genealogy.


Explore selections from this exhibition, case by case, by clicking the links below:

Smith. Alphabet. 1597.

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