British Library Acquires Dering Roll - A Who's Who Of Medieval Arms

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 02 September 2008
a close up photo of a parchment roll depicting row upon row of heraldic shields

The Dering Roll, the oldest extant English roll of arms dating from c. 1270-1280, depicts 324 coats of arms and is a vital record for the study of knighthood in medieval England. © British Library

The British Library has acquired the UK’s oldest known heraldic medieval manuscript following a successful fundraising campaign.

The Dering Roll, a painted register bearing medieval coats of arms from the last quarter of the 13th Century, represents a fascinating ‘Who's Who’ of medieval knights.

Focussing on knights from Kent and Sussex and produced in South East England between 1270-1280, probably in Dover, it is thought the roll was commissioned by Stephen of Penchester, the Constable at Dover Castle from 1268 to 1299.

It tells a fascinating story of medieval English knighthood, across an eight and a half foot (2.64 metre) long roll of parchment depicting 324 coats of arms from approximately one-quarter of the English baronage of the reign of King Edward I.

Culture Minister Margaret Hodge placed an export bar on the manuscript after it was offered for auction in 2007, the British Library then raised £194,184 to acquire it.

“The Dering Roll was identified as a priority acquisition for the British Library, and we are very pleased that we were able to secure the funding required to purchase the Roll and keep it in the UK,” said Claire Breay, the British Library’s Head of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts.

“The Library holds an extensive collection of outstanding historical and heraldic manuscripts and the acquisition of the Dering Roll provides an extremely rare chance to add a manuscript of enormous local and national significance, which will greatly strengthen and complement its existing collection.”

a photo of a parchment roll depicting row upon row of heraldic shields

The parchment roll measures 2.64 metres by 21cm and is the ‘Who's Who’ for medieval knights. © The British Library

Beginning with two of King John's illegitimate children, Richard Fitz Roy and William de Say the parchment roll contains 324 coats of arms arranged in 54 rows, with 6 shields assigned to each line. Above each shield is written the knight’s name in English cursive script, with the exception of five shields where the names have been omitted or erased.

Other fascinating details include an attempt by the notable 17th Century antiquary and politician Sir Edward Dering (1598–1644), who acquired the roll during his years of service as lieutenant of Dover Castle, to use it to forge his family history. Dering erased a coat-of-arms on the roll and replaced it with a coat-of-arms that bore the name of a fictional ancestor, Richard fitz Dering.

Beyond the 17th century forgery the roll is a key document for the study of medieval English knighthood, made at a time when a knight’s political allegiances and his status in feudal society were of paramount importance.

The Dering Roll is now on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library. The manuscript will subsequently be available to researchers in the British Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room.

The British Library was assisted in its fundraising campaign with additional funding from The Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Friends of the British Library, and Friends of the National Libraries and numerous individual benefactors.

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