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Book of the Month

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February 2008


Heraldic manuscript

England?: c 1625 
Sp Coll Hepburn q23

This month our featured item is a manuscript containing over 1200 hand-drawn, coloured illustrations of coats of arms. They represent nearly 600 years of history, from the reign of William I, King of England (1027/8-1087) to the reign of Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland (1600-1649). Although the author is currently unknown and the accuracy of some of the representations is doubtful, it is an interesting work which usefully demonstrates some aspects of heraldry.

The heading on the first page of the manuscript

 The first page of the manuscript showing evidence of having been cut down and subsequent fire damage

The initial section of the manuscript is ordered chronologically; individuals of the rank of duke, marquess, earl, viscount or baron are grouped together under the monarch who granted them the title. The first page is headed 'The Armes of the Noblemen    
w[hi]ch King William Conqueror created'
. A similar heading is found on the pages marking each successive reign, concluding with 'The beginning of the noblemen w[hi]ch King Charles createth'. This phrase, and the absence of an ordinal number after Charles would suggest that the compiler was writing some time between the 1620s and before the accession of Charles II in 1649. (The handwriting suggests the same author throughout.) Subsequent sections are restricted to the nobility of Scotland, Ireland and the gentry of some northern English counties.

It is evident from looking at many of the pages that the original manuscript has been cut down; parts of words and sentences are missing, particularly at the top and right-hand sides. Dark brown marks at the edges of the paper attest to subsequent fire damage. As we have only limited information regarding the manuscript's history, it is not known at what date this event occurred or at what period before that the manuscript was cut down. It may have been re-bound a number of times; the current binding dates from the nineteenth century. A pencilled note on the flyleaf, 'Heraldic MS. 30' probably relates to the manuscript's last sale, to Charles Hepburn (1891-1971), joint founder of a firm of whisky blenders and a patron of the arts. He collected books, manuscripts, paintings, furniture, porcelain and Scottish arms and armour. This manuscript was given to Glasgow University in 1971 as part of the Charles Hepburn bequest.

Shields bearing various charges and ordinaries. The shield at bottom right bears the three-pointed 'Label' across the top, used to identify an eldest son.
The birds on this shield are known as martlets. They occur frequently as charges
and are always depicted without feet.

Coats of arms developed as a means of identification, it being crucial to distinguish between friends and enemies in battle. They also came to serve as a means of marking territory or property. Evidently, to avoid confusion, it was important that each person's 'arms' were unique. A system and language developed which standardised the colours and designs used and the means of describing them, known as 'blazoning'. In effect, this means that a coat of arms can be correctly drawn and coloured based on a written or verbal description alone. Some of the terms used are corruptions of early medieval French and descriptions of even very simple shields can appear archaic and difficult to make sense of, for example 'Azure a bend argent'. However, they can be broken down relatively easily and interpreted.

The most commonly used colours in coats of arms are Azure (blue), Gules (red), Sable (black) and, to a lesser extent, Vert (green). Yellow and white are ubiquitous but actually represent two metals: Or (gold) and Argent (silver). For reasons of contrast and visibility, a basic principle developed that a metal could be placed on a colour but not directly onto another metal; for example, a silver cross on a red shield stands out much more clearly than a silver cross on a gold shield. The same principle applies to placing colours. Together with 'furs', such as Ermine (white with black tufts), these colours and metals are known as tinctures. Objects and figures (a lion, for example) placed on a shield are known as charges. The earliest forms of these, simple shapes such as chevrons and diagonal bands (called 'bends'), are known as ordinaries.

In heraldic descriptions the colour of the shield is given first, followed by the name of the principal ordinary, or charge, and its colour. Descriptions of more complex designs will go on to include the other elements, such as lesser charges and their positions on the shield (dexter for right, sinister for left). 'Azure a bend argent' describes a blue shield with a silver diagonal band running top right to bottom left. (Right and left are given from the point of view of the person who would carry the shield, rather than the view from the front.)

Arms belong to individuals not families, though arms can be inherited (and by a daughter if her father has no sons). Children must 'difference' their arms to distinguish them from those of a living father, although the eldest son can remove his identifier once his father dies. Therefore, an individual's coat of arms may not remain the same throughout their lives.



Peacocke of Burnshall

Some coats of arms contain elements
which are a play on the name of the
bearer. They are known as 'canting arms'
or 'armes parlantes'. Some examples are
shown here.


Heron of Chipchase

Fetherston of Stanhop

Hawkesworth of Hawkesworth




Some coats of arms contain elements which reflect an individual's position or relate to the history of their predecessors. In his detailed, early eighteenth century work on heraldry, Alexander Nisbet (1657-1725) of Edinburgh, states that the type of charges found in the arms of 'ancient families' represent '...the Acknowledgements and Services they were obliged to perform to their Overlords and Superiors, as ... Bows and Arrows, Hunting Horns, Ships, [etc]. Upon which Account such Figures are frequent in Armories, all Europe over.'

On the subject of ships as charges, Nisbet writes that they '...are frequently carried for the Arms of Maritime Countries and Towns, and by Families upon the Account of their Situation, and Trading by sea, or for the services they were obliged to perform to their Kings...'


'Azure a ship under sail Or', for Caithness. An example from 'The Armes of the nobilitie of Scotland'.

Elsewhere, Nisbet refers to the arms of William Sinclair, son of William Sinclair (c 1407-1480). For a time, the latter was obligated to both the King of Scots, as first earl of Caithness, and the King of Norway, as third earl of Orkney, since Orkney was a Norwegian earldom. However, in 1470, Sinclair relinquished the earldom of Orkney to James III. In 1476 he resigned the earldom of Caithness in favour of his son whose arms are described as quartered (the shield divided into four equal parts). The fourth quarter of the shield is given as 'Azure a ship under sail Or, for Caithness.'

A ducal coronet for Richard, Duke of Gloucester, '& af[ter] king of England'
(as Richard III)

Many of the coats of arms in the first section of the manuscript have a coronet placed above the shield. There are different kinds, to indicate rank. The three examples shown here are in line with the standard representations for dukes, earls and viscounts. A ducal coronet has three 'strawberry leaves' showing above the rim; the coronet of an earl has five pearls showing, set on high points above the rim; the coronet of a viscount has seven pearls showing, set just above the rim.

The three coronets on the left indicate the rank of earl. The coronet on the right is that of a viscount. 
The blank shields on the left would suggest that pages of shields, with their particular coronets, were prepared in advance. The compiler appears to have run out of coats of arms of earls to illustrate
and has moved to the next page to begin on the coats of arms of viscounts.


These strange-looking devices are representations of battering rams, used in warfare for breaking down doors. The two protrusions are handles.

This coat of arms is labelled 'Girlinston'. Burke's
general armory lists coats of arms for the names of Girlington and Gerlinston, one with three bees, the other three butterflies. It is not clear which insect is represented here.

The manuscript contains examples of more unusual representations such as the use of the colour Vert (green). There are also some strange-looking creatures and implements, including battering rams and what might be bees or butterflies. It would be fair to say that the quality of the drawing is sometimes an obstacle to correct identification of the charges.

Throughout the manuscript there are examples of coats of arms which do not correspond with the descriptions given in various standard reference works. Some appear completely at odds, others contain relevant elements but perhaps have their tinctures inverted. One of the coats of arms illustrated here, showing three gold battering rams on a blue shield is labelled 'Barten, Lord Willoughby'. However, it is possible that the illustrator has been confused, or that the source from which they were working from was inaccurate. Papworth's Ordinary of Arms lists the coat of arms for 'Bertie', (Marquess of Lindsay, Lord Willoughby) as a silver shield bearing three battering rams 'proper' [used to denote that a charge appears in its natural colour, in this case probably gold], 'headed and garnished azure' [embellished with blue]. However, also listed is a silver shield bearing three blue battering rams for 'Bartey' and a gold shield bearing three blue battering rams for 'Eresby'.

There are inaccuracies in some of the titles given, which are not just a result of irregular spelling. Geoffrey de Mandeville was created Earl of Essex under King Stephen, but is listed in the manuscript as the 'Earl of Sussex'. Also in the section for King Stephen is 'Baldwin, Earle of Devonshire'. However, this title was not created until the early seventeenth century. Baldwin de Redvers (c 1095-1155) was created Earl of Devon in 1141, during the conflict between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. However, to be fair to the anonymous author there was contemporary confusion over the titles of Devon and Devonshire, the former being considered extinct in the seventeenth century. This may also explain the anomalous coat of arms illustrated.  


'Baldwin, Earle of Devonshire', listed under the noblemen created by King Stephen (c 1092-1154), should have been described as the Earl of Devon. The title of the Earl of Devonshire was created in the seventeenth century.

Extract from the index

At the end of the manuscript is an index, giving the names of those whose coats of arms appear in the preceding pages. Unfortunately, it is incomplete, only beginning at the letter F, and the entries under each letter are not in strict alphabetical order. 

It is possible that notes entered on the final few pages, regarding members of the Salvin family, may relate to the identity of the author, although they appear to be written in a different hand. There are a number of coats of arms alongside these notes, all impaled [the shield divided vertically in two] with the arms of Salvin. These are listed in Papworth as 'Argent on a chief sable two mullets or.' The various branches of the family have connections with the counties of Durham and Yorkshire and this may explain why the last part of the manuscript is concerned with the gentry in that part of England, although it is possible that other parts have not survived. However, the Salvin connection does not establish why the manuscript was compiled.

There are different types of surviving English heraldic manuscripts, dating from the thirteenth century onwards, many of them now held in the British Library and the College of Arms. Many are described as 'rolls' and some of these are, literally, rolls of parchment while others have been bound into books. Those classified as 'occasional rolls' relate to a particular event such as a battle or tournament and are a record of the coats of arms of those present. 'Institutional rolls' may have been compiled over a long period of time, recording the changing membership of an organisation. 'Regional rolls' list the bearers of coats of arms within a particular area. The latter were often compiled as a result of visitations by the Crown's heralds who were responsible for regulating the use of coats of arms. There was concern, particularly from the fifteenth century, about the proliferation of coats of arms and the political, financial or social advantage which might be obtained through unauthorised use. There was also the danger of individuals, knowingly or otherwise, assuming coats of arms identical to someone else and committing a form of 'identity theft'.

Impaled with the arms of Salvin: a silver shield bearing two gold five-pointed stars on a black chief. A 'chief' is an ordinary which occupies the top part of the shield. The gold colouring of the two stars appears to have degraded.

In its entirety, this manuscript does not resemble one of these types, but appears to be a compilation of information taken from various sources. Given the  increasing interest in antiquarian matters during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, perhaps the most likely explanation is that it was compiled by someone with a general interest in heraldry and in a particular region and family.

Evidently, given the errors it contains, it is not a wholly reliable or comprehensive reference tool for identifying coats of arms. However, it remains an intriguing and unusual item in our collections.



Notes on members of the Salvin family

Some early works on heraldry, held in Special Collections:

Edmund Bolton The elements of armories London: 1610 Level 12 Sp Coll BE6-f.17

John Guillim A display of heraldrie London: 1638 Level 12 Sp Coll RF 703

Robert Legh The accedence of armorie London: 1591 Level 12 Sp Coll 1673

A number of manuscripts held in Special Collections contain heraldic images, such as the coats of arms of previous owners. They include:

MS Hunter 12 (S.2.2)

MS Hunter 113 (T.5.15)

MS Hunter 203 (U.1.7)

MS Hunter 370 (V.1.7)

MS Hunter 390 (V.2.10)

The following were useful in compiling this article:

Gerald J Brault (ed) Eight Thirteenth-Century Rolls of Arms in French and Anglo-Norman Blazon London: Pennsylvania State University, 1973 Level 8 Main Lib History YR157 BRA

Sir John Burke Encyclopaedia of heraldry, or general armoury of England, Scotland and Ireland London: 1851 Level 12 Sp Coll BG53-c.15

George E Cockayne The complete peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom Stroud: 2000 Level 8 Main Lib History YS421 COK2

Stephen Friar Heraldry for the Local Historian and Genealogist London: Grange, 1997 Level 8 Main Lib History YR20 FRI

Sir Francis J Grant (ed) The Manual of Heraldry Edinburgh: 1937 Level 8 Main Lib History YR12 MAN

Ian Moncreiffe and Don Pottinger Simple Heraldry Edinburgh: Nelson, 1953 Level 8 Main Lib History YR20 MON

Alexander Nisbet A System of Heraldry Edinburgh: 1722-42 Level 12 Sp Coll f107 and f108

John W Papworth Papworth's Ordinary of British Armorials [Facsimile of 1874 edition] Bath: 1977 Level 8 Main Lib History YR1619 PAP

Anthony Richard Wagner A Catalogue of Medieval Rolls of Arms Oxford: 1950 Level 8 Main Lib History DD20 HAR

C F Wright English Heraldic Manuscripts in the British Museum London: British Museum Publications, 1973 Level 8 Main Lib History YR23 WRI

Website of the Court of the Lord Lyon, the heraldic authority for Scotland

Website of the College of Arms, the heraldic authority for England



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Sarah Hepworth February 2008