Pedigree Rolls

29 July 2014

In the middle of 2013, a project was begun to locate, rehouse and list comprehensively the large collection of rolled material held at the College.

Pedigree rolls make up the most significant proportion of this collection. These pedigrees (genealogies, or 'family trees') take a surprisingly wide variety of forms. They range from highly ornate medieval pedigrees produced by specially commissioned scribes, to less spectacular twentieth-century works-in-progress in biro. The origins of some are clear; others not so. Some have not worn well, and are torn and patched, whereas others have been carefully preserved. Often, those on vellum are much more robust than those on paper.

Some of the most visually exciting rolls are the biblical pedigrees, showing the descent of a family from a biblical figure, such as Adam or Noah. The beautiful manuscript seen below (MS 20/26) details the descent of King Harthacnut, son of King Cnut (or Canute), from the Saxon Kings of England. It is incomplete, and presumably was designed to continue to further generations of rulers of England.

College of Arms MS Schedule 20/26

In an interesting example of vellum, a precious material, being re-used in the creation of a manuscript, sections of the reverse of the roll feature chess problems, as shown here:College of Arms MS Schedule 20/26 reverse


College of Arms MS Schedule 9/58Another example of a biblical pedigree roll is this 14th-century manuscript (MS 9/58) showing the descent of Christ from Adam. The drawing shows Christ at the centre, and beneath Him Adam and Eve, with the intriguing figures above Him appearing to show both a male and female scribe. The man, on the left of the picture, is tonsured and is shown preparing the parchment by scraping the surface. The woman, also in Holy Orders, leans her head rather disconsolately on her hand as she views the blank parchment on the stand in front of her. The four winged creatures around Christ represent the four Evangelists, the authors of the four Gospels.

In the course of the roll, biblical figures and scenes are illustrated, including one of the Nativity, seen below, showing in the background a tiny Christ child sharing the manger (placed somewhat incongruously atop a pillar) with the oxen.

College of Arms MS Schedule 9/58 detail of male scribeCollege of Arms MS Schedule 9/58 detail of female scribeCollege of Arms MS Schedule 9/58 Nativity Scene

Pedigrees of royal and noble families sometimes included their descent from mythical figures. A pedigree of the Earls of Warwick, apparently dating from the Renaissance period (MS 6/33, below), shows their descent from the mythical king Dunvallo, King of Cornwall and one of the descendants of Brutus, who according to Geoffrey of Monmouth won the Civil War of the Five Kings.

College of Arms MS Schedule 6/33

Other pedigrees of noble families, which more often show descent from the first ancestor to come to England with William the Conqueror, are sometimes beautifully illustrated, and show the coats of arms of the families which make up the pedigree. The roll created for the Heveningham family in 1509 (MS 13/7), to which an addition was made in 1597, is one such.

College of Arms MS Schedule 13/7College 0f Arms MS Schedule 13/7 border detail

Naturally these precious and often delicate items require careful preservation and conservation. Thanks to the generosity of Mr Mark Pigott, KBE, the newly-appointed Pigott Library has now been fitted out with archival shelving and environmental controls, and the rolls housed in custom-made acid-free boxes. Some 1,126 rolls are now listed on a searchable database, which takes as its basis the cataloguing work undertaken by Mrs V. Lamb around 1960. Due to several moves of material over the years, some errors and duplication of reference numbers had crept in, which have now been corrected. More detailed descriptions of some items have been added to the database; this work (along with conservation work to clean and rewrap the rolls) is ongoing.

The Piggott Library during the reboxing of the rollsThe boxes in the Pigott Library today

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