The Scots Roll in Thomas Wriothesley’s heraldic collections

Grant Lewis examines the 16th century collections of Sir Thomas Wriothesley and how his ownership of the Scots Roll illustrates how heraldic illustrations were used.

The Scots Roll

A page from the Scots Roll showing Scottish coats of arms

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Sir Thomas Wriothesley (or Writhe, d. 1534) was in many respects the archetypal 16th-century herald. Born in Wiltshire to John Writhe (d. 1504), Garter King of Arms, he entered the College of Arms in 1489 as Carrick Pursuivant, and in 1504 succeeded his recently deceased father as Garter, remaining in post until his own death four decades later. During his long and by many accounts successful career he designed and granted countless new arms, carried out heraldic visitations, researched pedigrees, led diplomatic missions, and oversaw state ceremonies, including the funeral of Henry VII, the coronation of Henry VIII, the Westminster tournament of 1511, and the crowning of Anne Boleyn. Moreover, in addition to his official duties he was also active as a limner, operating an industrious workshop which specialised in heraldic documents, especially armorials and rolls intended to commemorate specific events, such as the Westminster tournament and the parliament of the following year. Naturally, all of these duties and commissions required reference material, and throughout his life Wriothesley amassed a considerable bank of heraldic and genealogical documents for this purpose, parts of which survive today in a well-used, unpolished state that gives the historian a particularly vivid insight into the working lives of heralds at the beginning of the 16th century. A number of the items owned by Wriothesley are in his own hand, by-products of official engagements that he evidently thought worth keeping, but the majority is formed of a remarkably broad array of material relating to English and European heraldry from the 14th to the 16th centuries, ranging from ancient to contemporary documents, armorials and pedigrees to portraits, and rough notes and tricks to fine presentational manuscripts.

Sometime after Wriothesley’s death his collection was dispersed, and today surviving fragments can be found in several libraries across England. By accident as much as design, and over a period of several centuries, a sizeable portion has been reunited in the British Library. This process received a major boon in the 1930s and 40s with the acquisition of four volumes of miscellaneous heraldic material (Add MSS 45131-3, and 46354) which had once belonged to William Smith (c. 1651-1735), antiquary and Rector of Melsonby in North Yorkshire. All four contain material that is either by Wriothesley or annotated in his hand, and this recurrence evidently led Smith to believe that his entire collection, a total of some 700 sheets, had once belonged to Wriothesley. With the exception of one or two obvious additions his suspicions are probably correct: despite the variations in date found throughout all of Wriothesley’s collections there is a strong concentration of material from his lifetime and no items later than the 1530s. One or two lists end in 1534, the year of his death. Nevertheless, the collection did not stand still after Wriothesley: insertions and annotations by Elizabethan and Jacobean heralds suggest that his documents remained in regular use for at least the remainder of the 16th century, and possibly into the 17th.

Rather than a personal, curated collection, to some extent it is more useful to think of Wriothesley’s notebooks as a loosely defined resource that continued to grow and fragment under multiple professionally connected associates. While Wriothesley was the most significant contributor to this archive, he was by no means the first. Many of the items he owned bear the hallmarks of earlier owners, notably his father John, his father’s friend Roger Machado (d. 1510), and his godfather Sir Thomas Holme II (d. 1493), also Clarenceux King of Arms, whose own extensive heraldic resource appears to have been partly absorbed into Wriothesley’s. Indeed, this professional resource was very much a family affair, and on the basis of the age of some of the material it would seem that its roots go back much further still, to early 15th- and even 14th-century collections which had passed down through generations of heralds.

The collection displays a broad geographical as well as a chronological range. This is particularly inescapable in the third of his volumes (Add MS 45133), which contains items owned and annotated by Holme, Wriothesley, and later heralds like Thomas Dawes, Rouge Croix Pursuivant (r. 1569-80). Beginning with an assortment of apparently random heraldic material from all over England, including only part of the celebrated ‘Military Roll’ (ff. 17-25b), the heraldic traveller is eventually sent overseas with sections of a large genealogical table (before 1525) listing the descendants of the likes of Duke Albert I of Bavaria (f. 38v), Albert II of Austria (ff. 39-40) and Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan (f. 45v), which would no doubt have proved invaluable during certain diplomatic visits and embassies.

After this gradual progression south the focus abruptly turns north once more, to Scotland, which is represented by a handsomely executed roll (‘The Scots Roll’) of one hundred and fourteen arms of the monarchy and nobility (ff. 46v-50v, illustrated). This is one of the finest, most visually arresting items in the collections, and one of the most historically significant, with a strong claim to being the first surviving armorial to be produced in Scotland itself. Nevertheless, it was largely overlooked by scholars until relatively recently, and much remains unclear: while it was clearly created as a fine, presentational document, for some unknown reason it was left unfinished, and there are also no clear pointers to the identity of its author(s) or intended recipient, or any evidence that it ever reached the latter. Despite the amount of historically specific information contained in the Roll its date has also caused some confusion, with estimates varying from c. 1454-8 to c. 1490-1500, complicated by the possibility that it contains deliberately retrospective elements, or that it is a copy of an earlier, lost armorial. If this last date is correct the Roll cannot have remained in Scotland for very long, for, it was definitely in the possession of an English herald by the early 16th century at the latest, and given the setting in which it has been preserved this herald was in all probability Wriothesley.

With its reputation for simplicity and scientific accuracy, it is unsurprising that an academic and visually sensitive herald like Wriothesley should have been attracted to Scotland’s heraldry, and to the Scots Roll in particular. A routine designer of arms like Wriothesley would have had no difficulty in appreciating the skill with which the arms illustrated in the Roll have not only been composed but also distinguished from each other, usually with a clarity and effortless fluency that betrays total command of the heraldic rules.

Yet the precision with which Scotland’s heralds devised new arms was also a practical necessity in a country with an unusually large number of cadet branches descended from the same noble families, each with an entitlement to a variant of the same ancestral arms. The illustrated sheet (f. 49r) alone illustrates the blazons of multiple branches of some of Scotland’s most distinguished families, several of them difficult to trace, including the mysterious Ogilvies of Bolshan (?) (top left), the Bruces of Clackmannan (top right), and two branches of the house of Stewart: of Dalswinton (bottom left) and Ralston (bottom row, second from left), two of no fewer than twelve Stewart arms illustrated in the Roll, including, of course, those of the King of Scots, which occupy the entirety of the opening page (f. 46v).

This sensitivity was the product of an interest in heraldry and ancestry which according to Bishop John Leslie (1527-96) was shared ‘by the haill people, nocht only the nobilitie’. With this enthusiasm came close control, and as in England the right to bear arms in Scotland was regulated by a heraldic executive, the Court of the Lord Lyon, which was also responsible for designing new blazons. In a sign of the importance attached to the office, the Lord Lyon was a both Privy Counsellor and a Minister of the Crown, while the authority and even the practice of his court was eventually enshrined into law. Concerned about the continuing need to control and differentiate arms, a piece of legislation from 1592 ordered heralds to ‘distinguische and discerne’ arms in the same manner so fluently displayed in the Scots Roll, and ‘thaireafter to matriculate tham in their bukis and Registeris’. This last instruction was also a reiteration of longstanding practice of the Lyon Court, and in order to ensure accuracy the compiler of the Scots Roll must have made extensive use of earlier ‘bukis’ of approved arms, plus other heraldic collections that probably resembled Wriothesley’s in scope and content.

The involvement of the Lyon Court surely explains how the unfinished Roll soon ended up at the English College of Arms. Throughout this period heralds from both kingdoms maintained contacts, even friendships, with their opposite numbers in Edinburgh or London, and these links could easily have served as conduits for the exchange of gifts and resources. The political climate of the later 15th century also encouraged frequent interaction between members of both heraldic courts. Both Kings James III and IV concluded truces and alliances with their southern neighbours, and after brief hostilities in the early 1480s and 90s the younger James’ reign saw a steady improvement in Anglo-Scottish relations, which reached a zenith in 1502 with the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and James’ marriage to Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England. In ceremonial as well as diplomatic matters these events required the close cooperation of both kingdoms’ heralds, and it is not difficult to imagine armorial and genealogical documents changing hands on such occasions, particularly the more celebratory ones. Given the number of individuals involved in organising these events it is impossible to be more precise about who brought the Roll south.

This rapprochement did not last, however. In 1513 James broke his alliance and invaded England with an army that was dealt disaster at Flodden Field, where Scottish and English heralds met once more under very different circumstances. This rapid deterioration in relations is also commemorated in Wriothesley’s collection: immediately after the Scots Roll is a page of (f. 51r) of rudimentary tricks of a shield and three captured Scottish standards from Flodden, probably executed shortly after the battle, which a 16th-century hand has labelled ‘ij standartz taken by S Willm molyneux [i.e. Sir William Molyneux, d. 1548] at the batayll of branxton more [Flodden]’. While this addition postdates the Roll by several decades at least, it was undoubtedly intended to accompany it, for the tricks were drawn onto a sheet that had already been marked up for use as an additional page of the Roll.

After all the fragmentations and dispersals suffered by this collection it is fortunate that this early pairing has survived. It demonstrates how changes to the presentation of an item could alter its meaning and use. The appendage of the Flodden tricks must have tempered any lingering memories of the goodwill with which the Roll presumably reached England, but it also changed its very character. Set against a rough trick, the fine, presentational manuscript was itself transformed into a sketch, no more than one part of a working entry on a topic that was susceptible to alterations as new information emerged and circumstances changed. In fact, for some later users the Roll became little more than a set of sheets that could be reused, and as if to illustrate this lack of sentimentality a later contributor filled the blank side of its first page (f. 46r) with a crudely drawn and still more crudely coloured diagram of the heraldic ordinaries (colours and metals), apparently with complete disregard for the resplendent depiction of the Scottish royal arms on the verso.

Further Reading:

For The Scots Roll see C. Campbell, The Scots Roll: A Study of a Fifteenth Century Roll of Arms, Edinburgh, 1995 (dated c. 1454-1458), and A.R. Wagner, A Catalogue of English Medieval Rolls of Arms, London, 1950, p. 95 (dated c. 1490-1500, under ‘Sir Thomas Holme’s Book’, pp. 92-7).

  • Grant Lewis
  • Grant Lewis is Cataloguer of the King's Topographical Collection.

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