An Elizabethan Armorial

This armorial was compiled in England around 1597, and in over four hundred entries it  chronicles the coats of arms of British royals and nobles up to the reign of Elizabeth I.

MA 960 fol. 1r

Each entry begins in the left margin, with shield painted with arms. Next to each shield appears a short account of the bearer's entry into England, notable achievements, famous ancestors or descendents, and investiture into peerage or gentry. Below many of the shields, another later scribe has penned a blazon (a formal description of the coat of arms).1

The descriptive entries are written in English secretary hand, a style of handwriting that was commonly used by scribes in the 16th and 17th centuries. Documents written in secretary hand appear almost illegible to our eyes today, but in the entry shown below (which is one of my favorite in the book, depicting the arms of a knight as three light blue battering-rams), you might be able to pick out the date "16th of Januaryie 1580" near the middle of the second line:

MA 960, fol. 63v detail

Another interesting entry (shown below) is for a knight named John Mountanye (possibly an early spelling of the surname Montanye). Below the painted shield, the later scribe has penned the blazon "Sapphire a bend Topaz surmounted of a fillet Ruby." The scribe uses non-standard language to indicate the colors (normally, they would be azureor, and gules), but what he is describing is a sapphire-blue shield cut diagonally by a yellow-topaz band, over which the ruby-red fencepost-like design has been laid. Curiously, he leaves out all mention of the six birds that are clearly visible on either side of the yellow band. 

MA 960 fol. 6r

We know almost nothing about John Mountanye, except that he was granted these arms, and annotated armorials (or "rolls of arms," as they are also called) such as this one are interesting and useful in part because they document, however minimally, the lives of otherwise unknown Englishmen.

 For more information about this armorial, click here.

As noted in Pimbley's Dictionary of Heraldry, the word blazon comes from the German word blasen, to blow as with a horn, because in the age of heraldry the style and arms of each knight were so proclaimed on public occasions.

The Leon Levy Foundation is generously underwriting a major project to upgrade catalog records for the Morgan's collection of literary and historical manuscripts. The project is the most substantive effort to date to improve primary research information on a portion of this large and highly important collection.

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