Dr Lynsey Darby, Archivist at the College of Arms, writes:

I am often asked what sorts of archive material academic researchers from outside the College come here to study, particularly as heraldic and genealogical enquiries are handled by the Officers of Arms, not by the visiting researchers themselves. I hope, therefore, to showcase from across the vast range of the College’s collections some of the manuscripts consulted. I begin with one of the Arundel Manuscripts, simply because it is one of my favourite collections.

Arundel MS 1

Thomas Howard, 14th earl of Arundel, 4th earl of Surrey, and 1st earl of Norfolk (1585–1646) was an art collector, politician, and patron of antiquarians and scholars, who built up an incredible collection of artwork, sculpture, and manuscripts. Much of the marble statuary which greets visitors to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford today was ‘discovered’ by him on an archaeological dig in Rome – although apparently planted there by his Italian hosts for him to find! When it came to manuscripts his appetite was prodigious. He possessed one of the greatest libraries in Britain, possibly over 3,000 volumes. His grandson, Henry Howard, 6th Duke of Norfolk and Earl Marshal, inherited only a fraction of this collection, but it still contained some magnificent and important medieval volumes.

When the collection was disposed of in 1678, he modified his original intention to give it in its entirety to the Royal Society, and, mindful of his position as Earl Marshal, instructed the President of the Royal Society to allow manuscripts relating to heraldry, genealogy, and the office of Earl Marshal to be taken by Sir William Dugdale, Garter King of Arms, for the library of the College of Arms. Thus, while the majority of volumes were given to the Royal Society, 54 were acquired by the College of Arms. The Royal Society volumes were subsequently acquired by the British Museum, now the British Library – they include treasures such as Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, known as Codex Arundel. The College of Arms’ own collection was catalogued by William Henry Black in 1829.

Of those 54, the first on the list Sir William Dugdale compiled on removing the volumes from Arundel House is a 14th-century compilation of medieval chronicles. Written on vellum, each page divided into two columns in the usual medieval style, it begins with copies of well-known histories, some abridged. These are arranged to begin with world histories then scale down to accounts of individual peoples or parts of the world, as follows: Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, written in the first half of the 14th century; Honorius of Autun’s De Imagine Mundi; Jacques de Vitry’s History of Jerusalem; Geoffrey of Monmouth’s extremely popular History of the Kings of Britain; two works by unidentified authors, On the birth of the Irish peoples and A Brief History of the Franks from their origin to the year 1214, and William of Jumièges' Deeds of the Dukes of Normandy.

After these histories or chronicles comes a selection of shorter religious, philosophical, and historical works, including a book of Saints Joachim and Anne; a treatise concerning the birth of the Virgin Mary; a translation of an account of the destruction of Troy; an extract from St Jerome's Contra Jovinianum; works concerning Alexander the Great; a History of Apollonius, King of Tyre, and the Vision of St Thomas Becket, in which the Virgin Mary gave him the ampulla of oil with which the kings of England were to be anointed.


Whilst it is Higden’s Polychronicon that is the focus of interest of most scholars who consult Arundel MS 1, I recall one researcher who was studying the medieval illustration history of the Apollonius text and was kind enough to share information about the significance of two very small sketches of heads alongside the text: one with its eyes closed refers to a part of the story where a character is believed to have died in childbirth and is buried at sea; one with its eyes open refers to her regaining consciousness when she was washed up at Ephesus. 

Copies of Higden’s Polychronicon were sometimes illustrated with a mappa mundi, or world map, and we are fortunate that Arundel MS 1 contains one of these.  Adam and Eve appear at the head of the map, with the sinister figure of the serpent with a human head between them, indicating the position of Eden, which some mediaeval literature placed by the river Indus. It is fascinating to examine this map and see how learned people in the Middle Ages thought the world was arranged. The large body of water in the centre is the Mediterranean, with Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland on the lower edge, islands in the water that encircles the whole.

This section of the chronicle, with delightful illustrations, explains the division of the world into three parts and (near the bottom right of the left hand picture below) includes a little diagram of the structure of the map, now commonly referred to as ‘T-O’, with in this case as in the majority of cases, Asia at the top, Europe to the left (or dexter!) side, and Africa to the right.

                        two    three

And in the historiated initial on the right, the world with its ‘T-O’ structure is shown in the hands of its Creator. 

The other striking illumination in Arundel MS 1 is also to be found in the Polychronicon, and shows Julius Caesar consulting with learned men. The gold shield in the left margin is unexplained, and out of scale; Caesar’s attributed arms tended to be Or a double-headed eagle displayed sable.


Another interesting aspect of Arundel MS 1 is one of the men who owned it in the sixteenth century before it came into the possession of Thomas Howard. The hand of the large number of annotations made to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain was identified by William Henry Black as that of John Dee, the mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and antiquary who was fascinated by the occult and alchemy and was an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. His annotations to Geoffrey’s work are mostly simply the early modern equivalent of the highlighter pen, but given our knowledge of his interests certain passages which caught his eye are intriguing.

Here Dee notes the story of Merlin’s parentage – his mother was a nun, a king’s daughter, who was seduced by an incubus or demon.


And at the bottom of this page he writes: ‘Baladud rex necromantia[m] docuit’ (King Bladud taught necromancy’)


Bladud, father of King Lear, was the mythical king supposed to have built Bath, creating the hot springs by magic. He was said to have encouraged necromancy and by this means made himself some wings with which he tried to fly from the temple of Apollo in London – with the inevitable result. Dee also highlighted that passage and so far as we know never tried to fly.

This manuscript then has layers of interest for historians of a number of periods of mediaeval and early modern history. Like many manuscripts held by the College, it has the potential to be studied by specialists in a number of subject areas, as both has been, and I am sure will continue to be, the case.

(c) The White Lion Society 2018