Heralds and Heraldry in Shakespeare’s England, edited by Nigel Ramsay, published by Shaun Tyas (Donington), 2014. Hardback, 352 pages, 85 illus., many in colour, £40.
Among the first depictions of heraldry in stained glass were the arms of the king and the count of Provence at Rochester Castle, which were as early as 1247. Although this glass is now lost, rare survivals from slightly later in the same century can be seen at Chetwode (Buckinghamshire) and at St Edmund’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Far more numerous schemes can be found in churches and monastic spaces in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, including those at Bristol and Gloucester cathedrals and the splendid scheme in the great hall of Ockwells Manor (Berkshire) commissioned by Sir John Norreys around 1460.
This splendidly produced book consists of a collection of twelve essays about heralds and heraldry in late sixteenth-century England, the period following the religious reformations of the earlier decades. While religious imagery was smashed and discredited, heraldic imagery flourished as courtiers, landowners and the newly rich flaunted their lineage, wealth and social standing by filling windows in their palaces, manor houses and lesser homes with dazzling displays of armorial glass. Excellent survivals can be seen at Gilling Castle (Yorkshire), where the windows of a richly decorated great chamber created in the 1580s by Sir William Fairfax included a scheme (in the south window) devoted to the heraldry and genealogy of his second wife, Jane Stapleton, and a second scheme (in the main bay window) devoted to his own lineage. Both windows were created by the Bohemian-born Bernard Dininckhoff, who left his signature with the date 1585 in the bottom right-hand light of the south window. Another important scheme, of c.1600, can be seen at Montacute House (Somerset), where a stained-glass window in the great chamber (now called the Library) was glazed with forty-two painted shields representing the arms of the Phelips family, their neighbours and allies. Although such schemes are accorded only brief mention in this volume, this is no way detracts from the book’s value to historians and enthusiasts interested in this fascinating branch of stained-glass studies.
Context is the key to understanding many glazing schemes, and these essays, often in quite different ways, provide considerable light on the wider process. Subjects covered include the lives and careers of the heralds responsible for the grants of arms; how arms were granted; the so-called ‘heraldic visitations’, in which senior heralds would undertake periodic surveys – usually every 20 to 30 years – to every county, registering the descendants of the local gentry and recording their legitimate arms; Tudor pedigree rolls and their uses; the spectacle of heraldic funerals, the depiction of heraldic decoration in homes; the use of heraldry in portraits; and the place of heraldry in the work of different Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, including Shakespeare himself.
Along the way we learn of the state of total disarray at the College of Arms in the 1590s, and contemporary complaints about painters producing inaccurate designs – the residue of which still challenge stained-glass historians today!