For many visitors to the Folger’s Heraldry exhibit, “Symbols of Honor,” the stars will be the three original draft grants on paper of Shakespeare’s coats of arms. These belong to the English heralds’ long-established institution, the College of Arms in London, and they have never before been out of England.
the three drafts of the grants of arms to Shakespeare’s father
The Shakespeare grants can be seen to be in the hand of the herald William Dethick. It is surely more than probable that they represent what he discussed with William Shakespeare and wrote down at the time, when the two men were together one day at the College of Arms.
Of course it’s a pity that the resultant formal grants—calligraphically-written parchment documents that would each have had a painting of the Shakespeare arms—no longer survive. Shakespeare’s own archive disappeared centuries ago. Just what the parchments looked like can easily be imagined, however, by looking at some of the contemporary examples of such documents that are in the show. (See, for example, this grant of arms to Stephen Powle.) We can also be absolutely sure that William Shakespeare did use the coat of arms that is the subject of the first two drafts, since this coat appears on his funerary monument in the parish church in Stratford-upon-Avon.
a sketch of Shakespeare’s coat of arms by Peter Le Neve, ca. 1700
Here, I would just like to consider the other party to the transactions: the herald William Dethick. In many ways he is a far from attractive character. Admittedly, the fact that he fell out with his fellow-heralds over his personal and professional behavior says nothing much, since the College of Arms in the 1590s was a deeply divided society, split into factions and riven by lawsuits that were brought by one of its own members. As his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography explains,
In 1573 he attacked the Chester herald’s wife, pushing her head into the fireplace with his boot, and pouring hot ashes, alcohol, and the contents of her chamber pot over her head, and was only prevented from killing her by his cousin Richard Dethick of Polstead, Suffolk. According to Brooke, he punched his own father (who cursed him for it), wounded his brother with a dagger at Windsor Castle, and beat and slandered many of his fellow heralds . . . . He interrupted the funeral of Sir Henry Sidney at Penshurst by hitting the minister, and that of the countess of Sussex in Westminster Abbey by striking two people with his dagger . . . .
But it was not only his fellow heralds who were offended. When Dethick bribed a clerk and interfered with another herald’s rights, the offense that Dethick caused by his own behavior was so extreme that no less a figure than Lord Burghley intervened, requiring him to surrender his patent of office into Burghley’s keeping.
I have a deep prejudice against Dethick, for he was the bitterest opponent of the learned and skilled herald Robert Glover (died 1588, as Somerset Herald), about whom I have written a book. The two men were contemporaries, and Glover in many ways was far more worthy of appointment to the most senior heraldic office, Garter King of Arms, which instead went to Dethick (perhaps partly for the weak reason that his father Gilbert Dethick (d. 1584) had previously held the Gartership).
But a case should also be made for the defense. For one thing, Dethick was the organizer of the first English regular gathering of antiquaries, who met at his house and by his invitation to hear and discuss papers on historical topics—on a sufficiently regular basis that modern historians often call this group the first English Society of Antiquaries.
Dethick has also the claim on our gratitude that he was the first herald to keep his papers in an ordered and thoroughgoing way. He clearly made it a regular practice to put together a dossier on each major piece of business—grant of arms or heraldic funeral—that came his way (and the heralds, it should be stressed, were in effect all freelances, responsible for making the bulk of their income by their own abilities). A herald’s papers were his own private property, and Dethick’s got scattered after his death, doubtless being bought, at least in part, by other heralds. The two Shakespeare draft grants of 1596 only came to the College of Arms because they were acquired by a herald called Vincent, and the Vincent collection was later purchased and given to the College. Another bundle of Dethick papers was acquired for the Folger, and is the source of a draft that is also in “Symbols of Honor.”
What remains puzzling is that Dethick—a learned man—made a nonsense of Shakespeare’s motto, writing “Non, sanz droict” (“No, without right”) before he corrected it and put “Non sanz droict” (“Not without right”) without a comma. Shakespeare must have been infuriated. Another of the few things that we know for sure about his life is that he was once paid 44 shillings in gold by the Earl of Rutland for devising a motto or impresa for him, for a tournament. Shakespeare was an acknowledged master of mottoes. Was Dethick trying to tease him or irritate him?
For a closer look at Shakespeare’s arms, as well as more on the fractious herald behavior and the popularity of heraldry in Shakespeare’s age, come visit our exhibit—open at the Folger from July 1–October 26, 2014—or explore it online.