The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Heraldic Colors

Yes, indeed. The letters in this month’s mystery image are B, O, and G, and they represent what is missing from the image: color! 

The mystery image is a detail of a coat of arms in Folger MS V.b.256, which is a compilation of coats of arms granted by Robert Cooke (Clarenceux King of Arms) and Richard Lee (a later Clarenceux King of Arms), and others, between about 1570 and 1600, when the manuscript was written. Here, you can see the detail as the upper right quarter of the arms of either Richard Barnaby himself, or someone closely connected to him. You can see a later hand note that the four quarters of the shield belong to the Barnaby, Acton, and Whitgreave families (1-4 correspond, in order, to the top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right quarters of the shield): 

Folger MS V.b.256, fol. 41r

Usually when we think of a coat of arms, we think of something in full, glorious color. And indeed, color is an integral part of heraldic devices. So what do you do when all you have is a pen and ink, with nary a pigment in sight? 

As we can see here, you abbreviate and notate what the colors should be and let your imagination do the rest. This is referred to as a coat of arms “in trick”.

Heraldry is full of specialized terms and conventions, including for the colors. Because English heraldry is derived from the French tradition, many of the terms are in Anglo-French. Here are the colors traditionally used: 

Images gratefully reused from our 2014 exhibition Symbols of Honor: Heraldry and Family History in Shakespeare’s England, curated by Heather Wolfe and Nigel Ramsay.

Once you know the names for the colors, the above image starts to make more sense: logically, G = gules = red and O = or = gold. The last one is a little tricky. There’s no official color term that begins with B. However, the terms for both blue (azure) and silver (argent) start with A. So what to do? In some instances, they’ll get abbreviated to “az” and “ar”; in other cases (like here), azure reverts to its English name and gets abbreviated B. So here, B = azure = blue.  

So, now can you picture this quarter of the shield a little better? It’s got a blue background with a gold cross and red chevrons (the ^ symbols). Here, with my truly terrible Photoshop skills: 

Makes a bit of difference, doesn’t it?  

There are, of course, conventions for describing these sorts of coats of arms in words alone (which is referred to as a “blazon”), and reams of paper have been dedicated to such.1 But when it comes to really understanding coats of arms, whether for identification purposes or for the sheer aesthetic of them, pictures are definitely the way to go. 

In addition to V.b.256 (which we’ll come back to in a bit), the Folger holds a number of heraldry manuals and collections of coats of arms. One particularly interesting pair is V.a.156 and V.a.350. 

V.a.156 is part of an extensive, bitter controversy between two high ranking English heralds around the turn of the 17th century. In 1602, the herald Ralph Brooke challenged 23 coats of arms granted by fellow herald William Dethick. In this manuscript, Brooke lavishly illustrates arms which he believes were incorrectly granted by Dethick to plasterers, embroiderers, stocking-sellers, soapmakers, fishmongers, and foreigners, among others. 

V.a.350 is a later (ca. 1700) copy of Brooke’s “ill-granted” list (although it was probably copied from a manuscript now held at the College of Arms in London, which itself was copied from V.a.156). 

You can learn more about this whole controversy in Heather’s 2016 post but for our purposes here, the really interesting thing about this pair of manuscripts is that V.a.156 is done in full color while V.a.350 is not. Which means we can do side-by-side comparisons of the same coat of arms, to really understand what a difference color can make. 

For instance, take this example, from the not-colored V.a.350. According to both manuscripts, this coat of arms was granted to “Robert Withens of London,” who is described as a vintner. In this case, Brooke’s objection does not seem to be the socio-economic position of Withens, but rather that Brooke claims that Dethick granted the arms after Withens was dead! 

The blazon (that is, the written out version) of Withen’s arms is as follows:

Grantees of arms named in docquets and patents to the end of the seventeenth century, in the manuscripts preserved in the British museum, the Bodleian library, Oxford, Queen’s college, Oxford, Gonville and caius college, Cambridge, and elsewhere, Joseph Foster (1915 edition, p. 283)

Quite the mouthful, isn’t it? And without a strong working knowledge of all of those terms, it’s not very evokative of what the arms might look like.

Here’s the Withens arms “in trick” from V.a.350:

V.a.350, p.20

There are a number of colors indicated here—“Ar” and “S” up at the top for argent and sable; there’s a small “O and “G” on either side of the crown; and a “gu” within the body of the shield. The 1 and 2 indicate a repeat of the bird. It’s much more accessible than the blazon, but it still takes some squinting and tilting of the head to try to guess what the full effect of this coat of arms is. 

Now look at it with the full color version done by Brooke: 

Left: V.a.350, p.20, Right: V.a.156, fol. 13r

Once again, color makes all the difference.  

Similarly, one of my favorite devices from these manuscripts involves some rather sad and pathetic leopards, one of which looks like it’s masquerading as a door knocker (yes, they’re leopards. I spent more time than I care to admit confirming that): 

Left: V.a.350, p.13, Right: V.a.156, fol. 6r

Only two colors are at play here: “A” (argent/silver) and “gu” (gules/red). But somehow the relative simplicity of the color scheme makes the contrast all the more dramatic. (Brooke’s objection to this one is that it is reportedly too similar to existing arms granted to “Chamerlaine.)2

Ridiculous leopards aside (do we need to start a #NotALeopard hashtag?), I hope you can see how much of a difference having a fully colorized version can make. But having the necessary skills and materials to create a colored manuscript wasn’t always easily available to everyone. It also took considerable time. More common are the pen-and-ink versions of coats of arms, as seen in V.a.350 and V.b.256 (see, I promised we’d come back to it!).  

While lacking color, the illustrations in V.b.256 are wonderfully detailed, bringing personality to the creatures inhabiting its pages: 

V.b.256, fol. 46v (left) and 47r (right) details.

Some day I hope to find color version of some of these, to see what they look like outside of my imagination. 

And as we started this post with a mystery, I’m going to finish with one. Does anyone know what this adorable critter surmounting the shield is? I have no idea (a dragon, perhaps? ostrich? Nessie?) but I kind of want a stuffed one. Gold colored, of course. 

  1. See, for example, Papworth’s 1200 pages of An alphabetical dictionary of coats of arms belonging to families in great Britain and Ireland or the massive 2500 pages of Rietstap’s Armorial général.
  2. He may have had a point. Papworth’s Alphabetical dictionary of coats of arms certainly records similar arms associated with the name Chamberlaine:

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