Shakespeare Coat of Arms Discovery

Folger Curator Finds New Evidence

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s Curator of Manuscripts Heather Wolfe has discovered previously unknown depictions of Shakespeare’s coat of arms from the seventeenth century that cast new light on William’s status as a gentleman-writer. 
 
These depictions provide documentary evidence that while the heralds at the College of Arms in England made the grant of arms to his father, William Shakespeare himself was intimately involved in the application and the ensuing controversy over their legitimacy.
 
"This new evidence really helps us get a little bit closer to the man himself,” Wolfe shares. “It shows Shakespeare shaping himself and building his reputation in a very intentional way.”
 

Why this matters

Existing biographies and research that paint a picture of Shakespeare are full of conjectures that try to fill in many gaps. For over a century, Shakespeare biographers have based their accounts of the grant of arms on four documents at the College of Arms, two at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and one at the Bodleian Library. 
 
Wolfe’s recent finds have added thirteen documents to this group, opening exciting new opportunities for Shakespeare biographers. The last time any new depiction of Shakespeare’s coat of arms was discovered was in 1908.
 
 
Speaking about the significance of the discoveries to The New York Times, Shakespeare scholar and Columbia University professor James Shapiro said, “It’s always been clear that Shakespeare of Stratford and ‘Shakespeare the player’ were one and the same. But if you hold the documents Heather has discovered together, that is the smoking gun.”
 
"But we don’t believe additional smoking guns are necessary when it comes to the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays," wrote Wolfe and Folger Director Michael Witmore in a blog post on The Collation about the significance of the discoveries. "We know that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him, and that some of these reflect the collaborative working process inherent in writing for performance." 
 

How the discoveries happened

Wolfe is one of the world’s leading experts on early modern English manuscripts and curator of the online exhibition Shakespeare Documented, a repository of images, descriptions, and transcriptions of documents and printed texts that refer or allude to Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s works, and Shakespeare’s family in their lifetimes.
 
In January 2015, while preparing for Shakespeare Documented and an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Shakespeare, Life of an Icon, Wolfe encountered a sketch of Shakespeare’s arms that had been forgotten by biographers.
 
The rediscovered sketch was part of an original volume of manuscripts that held the 1599 grant of arms, a grant which was removed from the volume in 1933. 
 
Inspired by this rediscovery, Wolfe hypothesized that more new discoveries were likely lurking in manuscript volumes of early modern English coats of arms known as Alphabets and Ordinaries. 
 
Alphabets and Ordinaries can contain upwards of 10,000 coats of arms and were maintained by heralds, heraldic painters, antiquaries, and others as a way to keep track of the designs of all previously granted arms—since no two coats of arms can be alike. The Folger holds more than a hundred heraldic manuscripts, which Wolfe has called an “untapped treasure.”
 
 
During quick visits to the College of Arms, the Bodleian Library, and the British Library in April 2016, Wolfe discovered an additional twelve previously unrecorded descriptions of the Shakespeare coat of arms.
 

Newly found: Early example of Shakespeare’s coat of arms in America

One of Wolfe’s most important discoveries, in May 2016, is a manuscript entitled Promptuarium Armorum (“Storehouse of Arms”), compiled by William Smith, Rouge Dragon Pursuivant (one of the 13 heralds of the College of Arms) between 1602 and 1616. Now located at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, the manuscript is thought to have been brought to New England by the herald William Crowne in the seventeenth century and is possibly the earliest example of Shakespeare’s coat of arms to arrive in America. 
 
 
 
 

About Heather Wolfe

Heather Wolfe, one of the world’s leading experts on early modern English manuscripts, is Curator of Manuscripts and Archivist at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She is principal investigator for EMMO (Early Modern Manuscripts Online), a project to create a free and searchable database of images and transcriptions of early modern manuscripts created in England or written in English, and curator of the online exhibition, Shakespeare Documented. She teaches paleography (the study of early modern handwriting) across the US, and has published widely on the intersections between manuscript and print in the period.
 

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