Anonymous, William Segar, Garter Principall King of Arms, pen, ink and bodycolour on vellum touched with gold, 1616-1707, (British Library, Harl 2024, f. 69).

The manuscript remains of the Randle Holmes, herald antiquaries of the 17th century

Nigel Llewellyn explores the manuscripts of Randle Holme, a name shared by four successive generations of herald painters and genealogists hailing from Chester.

The heralds and antiquaries of Tudor and Stuart England were members of an expanding class of intellectuals, who used their scholarly skills to further their careers. These school-masters, university tutors, natural philosophers, clerics and lawyers have left behind them manuscripts that throw a strong light on their working methods and are unique sources of information about a world that would otherwise have been lost. Although other important public and private archives exist, the British Library contains the most important series of these manuscripts in existence.

What did heralds and antiquaries actually do? The heralds had their origins in medieval chivalric and martial practice. The rules of warfare needed trained and trusted men to carry messages between warring parties but by the late Tudor period heralds were more likely to be encountered in a library than on the field of battle. They no longer proclaimed challenges but now spent their time settling matters of genealogical argument: working out who was related to whom, who was descended from whom and who had precedence in the complex rankings of the nobility. Finding authoritative answers required heralds to undertake historical research, which was an interest shared with the antiquaries, who also came to prominence in the Elizabethan age. In fact, many individuals operated across both of these the two fields of study and practice.

Much of their work was done 'on the road': the antiquaries covered huge distances searching for historical evidence, sifting through the uncatalogued and chaotic manuscript collections that had survived from the monastic libraries dissolved under Henry VIII, and examining material remains such as monumental inscriptions and church furnishings. Their labours were written up in note-books, pages from which form much of the material preserved in the British Library. Frequently, these researches were undertaken when a herald made a 'visitation', a formal visit to a county or region to undertake genealogical research and, in the name of the monarch, to check that only correct heraldic displays were in use. On these visitations the heralds would also authorise new armorial designs for the increasing numbers of ambitious individuals and families keen to signal their new social status in the display of coats-of-arms over front doors, mantelpieces, on coaches, tableware, bed hangings or their servants' liveries.

The antiquaries also used heraldic knowledge in their work but were not allowed to issue new armorial bearings unless they were officially appointed as heralds and appointed by royal command to be members of the College of Arms, which still operates from premises in the City of London. The antiquaries focussed their attention on what they called 'antiquities'. This term covered not only manuscripts but any kind of material remains from the past, including things that today we might expect to be dug up by archaeologists: bones – preferably those of someone famous – utensils, ceramics and architectural fragments and, of course, coins. Antiquaries were compilers of history and tended to choose bulk over quality: they rarely threw away their predecessors' notes, preferring to merge all known facts accumulate bodies of opinion rather than create a sharply focused argument. The challenge of managing their material meant that the stereotype of the antiquary was of someone living in unworldly squalor. But, in fact, they were often engaged in topical business and could get their papers into order to write the history of a prominent individual, family, institution or county. Indeed, the 17th century saw the beginnings of a long tradition of published county histories by antiquaries like Aubrey, Ashmole or Norden, who wrote on Cornwall and Middlesex and whose papers are still in the British Library.

The unique nature of these notebook recordings of journeys made or as working materials for longer studies becomes clearer if we apply to them the term 'Heraldiquarian Art'. Although the endless sheets of notes that survive have been used and re-used largely for the names, facts and figures that they communicate, these works give equal emphasis to visual as to verbal qualities. Typically 'heraldiquarian' notes combine verbal and visual texts neither of which are open to analysis or understanding without reference to the other.

Amongst the ranks of the herald-antiquaries there are many great names but none carries more weight than that of “Randle Holme”, partly because the name was taken in succession by no fewer than four generations of painter-herald-antiquaries. The first Randle (1571-1633) was active in Chester in Elizabeth I's last years and the last, his great grand-son, died in 1707 when Queen Anne was on the throne. The manuscripts of the Randle Holmes at the British Library are an astonishing survival and throw light on important areas of early modern culture like the circulation of information and of printed books and the varied uses made of prints and drawings but because they have never been comprehensively edited and in their bulk and complexity they represent a huge challenge for scholarship. The Holme collection is found in a set of bound volumes in the British Library's Harleian series of manuscripts (numbers 1920-2180, that is, a total of 260 folios) and many of them containing hundreds of pages. Such is the scale of this collection that short descriptions of its contents occupy 200 pages in Volume 11 of the printed catalogue of the Harleian manuscripts. Furthermore, there may well be other Holme manuscripts in other collections. The way that the material is now bound into the different Harleian folios may or may not relate to their original arrangement but a few words on a selection of some of these pages will give a glimpse of the vast scope of the whole collection.

Drawings from Randle Holme III’s manuscripts for the Academy of Armoury

Sketch of various tools

Holme created a wealth of drawings of the tools and instruments found in the shops of Chester to use as illustrations for An Academy of Armory.

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The legal documents in Harl. 1938 remind us that antiquaries often pursued their historical enquiries to help settle disputes about ownership. Furthermore, Harl. 1941 collects together materials about the Scriveners, professional draftsmen of contractual agreements and bonds. By contrast, Harl. 1945 is a collection of drawings, which have never been identified but which were perhaps useful to Randle Holme III in the writing of his magnum opus, a book entitled An Academie of Armory, A Store House of Armory and Blazon. This enormous compendium of knowledge, the most comprehensive heraldic encyclopaedia in early modern England, was published in 1688 in Chester, the Holme's home city and is lavishly illustrated with hundreds of woodcuts. Harl. 2001 and 2024 contain collections of mounted prints and original drawings and paintings for the use of heralds and probably supplement the material related to An Academie of Armory in 1945.

Harl. 1968 reminds us that the Holmes were also practising painters and includes a contract (item 14) to paint decorations in Chester. The visitation of nearby Shropshire (in Harl. 1983), contains many pedigrees of the leading families in that county and Harl. 1996 includes material that throws light on its local history (items 4-6 are about the Guild of Carvers). One of the key roles of the heralds, who were working in the days before the undertakers profession had become properly established, was to conduct funerals and Harls. 2039 and 2129 describes arrangements for a funeral conducted in 1658. A great many of the surviving pages contain the notes made as the Holmes toured local churches, collecting material about family histories (for example, the prominent Chester family of Cotes in Harl. 2091) and noting down inscriptions; church interiors (Harls. 2073, 2113, 21292, 2149 and 2151); and finally their links with other heralds, antiquaries and even print-makers such as the references to Sylvanus Morgan (Harl. 2146).

Notes taken in Ecclestone church in 1572

Anonymous, Notes taken in Ecclestone church in 1572, 1572, pen and ink, (British Library, ).

The inscriptions, armorial bearings and other decorations reproduced on this page related to the medieval Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Eccleston, Cheshire.

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The range of media in the Holme collection is equally broad and complex. In a single volume (Harl. 2073) we find a view of Hatfield in Hertfordshire, which looks if it might be by the contemporary topographical artist Daniel King, who was apprenticed to an elder Randle Holme for 10 years. Later on in the folio there is an anonymous cityscape and drawings after the Italian architectural theorist Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) amongst pen and ink and brush drawings in several different hands.

Finchalense Cœnobium in Episcopatu Dunelmensi

Daniel King (about 1616-about 1661), Finchalense Cœnobium in Episcopatu Dunelmensi, about 1655-56, etching (British Library, Harl 2073, f. 51).

This plate showing Finchale Priory in Durham was published in Daniel King’s The Cathedrall and Conventuall Churches of England and Wales (1656).

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The Corinthian Order

Anonymous, after Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554), The Corinthian Order, 17th century, pen and ink over graphite, (British Library, Harl 2073, ff. 134v and 135r).

These drawings are copies after two illustrations from the Regole generali di architettura (1537) by Italian architect, painter and theorist Sebastiano Serlio.

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Perhaps the richest of all the Holme manuscripts is Harl. 2024, with its series of sepia pen and ink drawings cut out from other documents altogether and stuck to its pages as well as its many examples of small engraved ornamental details. Many of these come from Robert Pricke's Ornaments of Architecture (1672), for example, the representations of perfect human proportion, lifted from Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). What is fascinating is the way that the Dürer/Pricke patterns are continued in the hand of one of the Randle Holmes. This album also illustrates the increasingly international style of artistic and intellectual exchange in the later 17th century. There is an engraving by the Bolognese print-maker Agostino Mitelli (1609-60) dedicated to Count Zambeccari, a member of a prominent Bolognese family of library founders, opera impressarios, patrons of art and religious houses and early balloonists. In addition, there are very competent pen and wash drawings, which may be by one of the Holmes or perhaps more likely, collected by them, as well as a magnificent coloured (or “tricked”) plate showing the coat-of-arms of Sir William Segar, Gart-King-at-Arms, that is, the senior herald and the most distinguished of the herald painters of his day.

The proportion of a mans body of tenne faces

Anonymous, after Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), The proportion of a mans body of tenne faces, 1598, etching and engraving (British Library, Harl 2024, f. 42v).

This print appeared in the English version of Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo’s Trattato dell’arte della pittura (1584), translated by Richard Haydocke and published as A tracte containing the artes of curious paintinge carvinge & buildinge (Oxford, 1598).

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After Agostino Mitelli (1609-1660), Capriccio, etching, between 1636 and 1660 (British Library, Harl 2024, f. 57).

This capriccio, or fanciful combination of fragments of sculpture, architecture and archaeological ruins, is inscribed with a dedication to count Francesco Maria Zambeccari and is a copy after the title-page for a series of cartouches made by Agostino Mitelli.

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William Segar, Garter Principall King of Arms

Anonymous, William Segar, Garter Principall King of Arms, pen, ink and bodycolour on vellum touched with gold, 1616-1707, (British Library, Harl 2024, f. 69).

After becoming Garter King of Arms in 1607, William Segar (about 1554-1633) was granted arms in 1612 and knighted in 1616.

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To tell the full story of the Randle Holmes, as is the case with heraldiquarian manuscripts, will be a demanding task. First, each of the hundreds of sheets making up each volume will have to be measured and the bindings examined to understand the history of each of the manuscript folios. This will require the historian to establish a balance between attention to minute detail and general problems of interpretation and also to be a historian of museum practice since we will need to understand why these ancient sheets of paper were assigned by their former curators to the Manuscripts Department of the British Library rather than to the Prints and Drawings Department of the British Museum; probably on the grounds of value or quality as it was then conceived. As they are now the Holme papers seem fixed in a permanent form but the likelihood is that for most of their lifetime they were in flux, not bound into formal volumes but kept loose, to be moved and reused as need arose. To gain insights into the sequences of Holme images researchers will have to identify the many and varied written hands of the various contributors and compilers. Questions will then have to be answered not only about the meaning of the Holme papers generally but also of each sheet individually in the context of the Holmes' 17th-century practice as heralds, herald-painters and antiquaries. Has a particular image entered the collection because of its antiquarian value, or, because it was part of heraldic business, or, to build a print collection, or, to compile a history of Chester?

Perhaps most important is the fact that these manuscripts remind us that in the study of material culture we should not complacently reuse familiar or traditional categories. These manuscripts span the fields of history, literature and art history and if we do not understand the inter-relations of the texts and the images, if we look at one but not at the other, we will fail to understand the significance of the whole. In 17th-century England there was very little distinction between the arts and the sciences or between the artistic and scientific when it came to manuscript collections. A fully finished and framed drawing might indeed be what the experts term a “presentation” drawing but once it is inserted into a folio it takes on another life and can easily become a working sketch. Turning the pages of a set of uniform, framed and mounted prints in the Holme folios we should not be puzzled by a scrappy fragment of woodcut gummed into place, part-painted over and embroidered by an exploratory ink drawing. As with so much material culture, it is in the nature of 'heraldiquarian' manuscripts to be deeply layered.

Further Reading

Randle Holme, The Academy of Armory, or a Storehouse of armory and blazonry (Chester 1688)

J.P. Earwater, The Four Randle Holmes of Chester (Chester 1892)

Thomas Downing Kendrick, British Antiquity (London: Methuen, 1950)

Anthony Wagner, Heralds of England. A history of the Office and College of Arms (London: College of Arms, 1967)

N.W. Alcock and N. Cox (eds), Living and working in seventeenth century England : an encyclopedia of drawings and descriptions from Randle Holme's original manuscripts for the academy of armory, CD-ROM, British Library, 2000.

Anne Wing, 'CD technology brings new life to Holme's academy of armory', The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc. (March 2000)

Martin Myrone and Lucy Peltz (eds), Producing the Past: Aspects of Antiquarian Culture and Practice 1700-1850 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000)

Nigel Ramsey (ed.), Heralds and Heraldry in Shakespeare's England (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2014)

  • Nigel Llewellyn
  • Nigel Llewellyn is an independent art historian and former Head of Research at Tate.