The Edward IV Roll

Anyone who has struggled to follow the argument at the beginning of Shakespeare's Henry V or the plot of the next four history plays can tell you that the royal family tree of fifteenth-century England is impossible to follow — from its gnarled roots to its many intertwined branches.

The equally confusing period called the Wars of the Roses (from about 1450 to 1487) takes its name from the dynastic struggles of two factions of the family — the Yorkists, whose emblem was a white rose, and the Lancastrians, who later became associated with the red rose.

This magnificent genealogy of the first Yorkist king, Edward IV (1442–1483) was probably created to celebrate his accession to the throne in 1461 after defeating the forces of Henry VI in battle, and is as much a propaganda tool as a commemorative document. In it, the supporters of Edward IV harness legend, prophecy, superstition, words, and visual images to offer a compelling propaganda statement to an increasingly literate public.

More about the History View the full manuscript

The Manuscript

Part 1

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The manuscript opens with a portrait of an armed equestrian Edward IV. Right of conquest, right of descent, the sovereignty of England, and the Hand of God are all represented in this initial image.

The armed and mounted figure hearkens back to Edward's spectacular victories at the battles of Mortimer's Cross and Towton just a few months before. The closed crown of England, unlike the open crowns of France and Castile/Leon on the shields flanking Edward, signifies the sovereignty of the English monarch. The arms on the horse's trappings — England (red with three gold lions) and France (blue with fleur-de-lys) quartered with Castile (red with gold castle) and Leon (white with red lions) — reinforces the Yorkist claim of legitimacy of descent through the female line.

The horse-trapper's central escutcheon with its three crowns of Brutus, legendary founder of England, foreshadows the three crowns of England, France, and Spain, as well as the three suns seen in the sky at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross, a weather-related illusion called parhelion.

The Hand of God is quite literally evident in the divine hands emanating from nebuli with the inscriptions "Si deus nobis cum, quis contra nos" (If God is with us, who can be against us?), "Dextra domini fecit virtutem" (The right hand of God gives strength"), and "A domino factus est istud" (This is the Lord's doing).

The gold letter inscription under Edward is from the first chapter of the Gospel of St. John: In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum hoc erat in principio ("In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and God was the Word. The same was in the beginning...")

Next, a brief history of the world flanks roundels depicting the Creator enthroned, the Fall of Man, and, shown in part at the bottom, Noah and the Flood. The elaborate initial I on the left is balanced on the right by two white roses and Edward's motto, "Comfort et liesse," comfort and joy. Edward IV was known as "the Rose of Rouen" in propaganda poems of the period in reference to his birthplace, and the white rose became a dominant icon for the Yorkist dynasty.

The caption surrounding the roundel, whose figure may represent the Father or the Son, reads "Ego sum alpha et o[mega] dixit dominus deus omnipotens" (I am the beginning and the end, says the Lord God almighty), a condensation of Revelations 1,8. This is a highly unusual subject for a pedigree manuscript, and may have been chosen both to emphasize divine approval of Edward's accession and to echo the imagery in the two Yorkist badges, the rose-en-soleil and the sun in splendor.

The roundel illustrating the Fall of Man is introduced by the caption "prothoplaustus Adam et Eva" (the first man, Adam, and Eve). Less accomplished in illustration than similar roundels in other genealogies, it is different in its emphasis. The caption surrounding the roundel is a paraphrase of Genesis 3, 13-14, in which God curses the serpent and promises to create "inimicitas ponam inter te et mulierem ipsa conteret caput tuum" (enmity between you and the woman, and the woman will bruise the serpent's head). Both the caption and the imagery, with the serpent being driven headlong into a black pit by divine intervention, serve to reinforce the divine judgment that Edward should be king and divine retribution on his opponents.

Beneath the Fall of Man, three small roundels show Abel, Cain, and Seth, followed by the names of Seth's sons and a roundel showing Lameth, the father of Noah.

Edward's links with a glorious past are signaled in the first four banners of this manuscript, shown here: to the left, the banner of St. George, followed by the arms of Brutus, legendary founder of England, impaling those of Pandrasus, whose daughter Brutus married. To the right we see the banners of King Sebbi and the Duke of Cornwall.

St. George, Brutus, Pandrasus, and the Dukes of Cornwall are all logical candidates for top billing in the manuscript. St. George was the patron saint of England and thus of the Order of the Garter, and one to whom the Yorkists were particularly devoted. The Duchy of Cornwall was a traditional holding of the heir apparent. Brutus and Pandrasus are a venerable part of the founding legends of Britain.

It is difficult to explain the choice of Sebbi, one of hundreds of Saxon kings, to be noted on this manuscript opposite St. George. Sebbi led a virtuous and saintly life, but so did many others. The answer may lie in the stories of his death. Shortly before he died, according to the Venerable Bede, Sebbi saw a vision of three men in bright clothing, who foretold the time and manner of his passing. Sebbi thus shared with Edward IV (who saw three suns before the battle of Mortimer's Cross) a vision that can be interpreted as a vision of the Trinity. And, there may have been an additional reason. When Sebbi died, the sepulcher brought for him was found to be too short but then miraculously stretched to fit. Perhaps Sebbi is mentioned less for his piety or his vision than for his height — a worthy ancestor for Edward IV, who at six feet four was larger than life.

Part 2

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A roundel commemorating the Flood shows Noah and his wife in an ark that resembles a fifteenth-century ship. Above the ark we see the departure of the raven, who did not return, and the arrival of the dove with the olive branch. Assorted couples people the ark. The surrounding caption meticulously records the number of years Noah lived after the flood — 350 — and his [imagined] place of burial. ("Noe post diluvium vixit [350] annos mortuus et sepultus est in Phaleth.")

The first of two rows of roundels beneath the Flood show the sons of Noah — Sem, king of Asia, Japhet, king of Europe, and Ham, king of Africa — together with a diagrammatic tau map of the world (A tau map is a graphic device that divides the known world, a circle, into three continents by the use of a tau, the Greek letter T). All these Old Testament figures are dressed in the height of mid-fifteenth century fashion, a common practice in medieval illustrations.

The second row of roundels shows the sons of Japhet, king of Europe, followed by British (green borders) and French (blue) lines of descent, and short histories of the seven Saxon kingdoms (yellow). Either through scribal error or deliberate omission, the French line does not show a linear connection to any of Japhet's sons, unlike the British and Saxon lines. (Those familiar with the "Salic law" speech in Shakespeare's Henry V may be interested to note that the French line begins with "Faramundus," better known to Shakespeareans as Pharamond.)

The lines of descent are decorated by three Yorkist symbols in regular rotation — the sun in splendor, the fetterlock, and the rose-en-soleil, while the white rose image continues to alternate with the banners on either side of the manuscript.

The makers of this manuscript adhered faithfully to the list of kings shown in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain — a listing so exhaustive that it was necessary to assign them two full columns on the manuscript. The line descends vertically for several feet and then begins again in a second green column.

Part 3

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This section continues the British and French lines of descent and the histories of the Saxon kingdoms through the reigns of Cadwallo for the British, Alfred for the Saxons, and Rollo for the Normans. Arthur appears in the line of British Kings (green box in one of the rows near the round map).

The diagrammatic map of the seven Saxon kingdoms in the shape of a rose suggest that even those ancient kingdoms were a foreshadowing of the Yorkist dynasty.

The gold-letter text is from Luke 4,30, "[Jesus] autem transiens per medium illorum ibat." (But Jesus, passing through the middle of them, went his way"). It refers to Christ's safe passage through a group of hostile Pharisees who had sought his destruction. Its placement between the banners of the Cinque Ports (the port towns of southeastern England) and Calais would evoke memories of Edward's flight to Calais in 1459 and his return in summer 1460 and would suggest that Edward's flight and triumphal return were preordained.

A series of seven charming miniature half-portraits introduces the second section of the manuscript, which presents Edward's descent from seven ancient lines. On the left the armored prince of Wales is in conversation with the green-robed Duke of Cornwall; the blue-robed King of France strokes his beard while the red-robed King of England holds orb and scepter, followed in order by the king of Castile (in purple now faded to mauve), the duke of Aquitaine in green again, and the duke of Normandy in fashionable black armor.

The genealogy resumes again with lines of descent beginning with Cadwallo for Britain (green boxes on the left); Obertus in the white boxes, leading to William Marshal and the incorporation of the Clare line, Radalphus of France in blue; King Alfred, representing a unified Saxon England, in yellow; and Rollo of Normandy in red. Because of some graphic devices used by the creators of this document to create space for additional lines of descent, it is not possible to "read across" to find contemporaries.

Part 4

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Some of the more interesting imagery in this section can be found on the left and right borders. Where the previous section contained banners alternating with white roses, we now see shields alternating with standards held up by heraldic beasts.

Left to right: white hart, black bull, white lion

The choice of beasts, like everything else in this manuscript, was calculated to emphasize the legitimacy of Edward IV's claim to the throne. The white hart, emblem of the deposed Richard II, would have reminded a fifteenth century audience of the injustice of that deposition. The black bull of Clare is a pointed reminder of Edward's descent from Lionel of Clarence, Edward III's second son. Finally, the white lion, the emblem of the Mortimer earls of March, who married into the Clare line, is an emblem that Edward IV retained as his own throughout his reign.

At the beginning of this genealogical section (see previous screen), although there are seven half-portraits of kings and dukes, there are only five lines of descent shown. In this section of the manuscript the Norman line shifts to create a space for the dukes of Aquitaine; the Spanish line will be included in similar fashion later. Note also the blending of the Norman (red) and Saxon (yellow) lines just below Harold, defeated at the Battle of Hastings and surrounded by a green-brown border instead of Saxon yellow; and the union of the British/Welsh and Mortimer lines, red and green, toward the bottom of this section.

The French line (blue) has split, about two-thirds down this section. The left split leads to Isabella of France, who will marry Edward II of England, and the right split eventually leads to Katherine of Valois, who will marry Henry V.

white and red dragonTwo images toward the bottom of this section also bear mentioning. A pair of small roundels containing a red dragon, representing the Welsh, and a white dragon, representing the Saxons, are visual reminders of Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of a prophecy by Merlin. This prophecy describes a struggle in which the Welsh, defeated by the Saxons at first, would ultimately prevail. For the Yorkists the red dragon represented Edward IV, and the white dragon the Lancastrians. The identification of Lancastrians and Saxons is made further along in the manuscript, where Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI are all bordered in Saxon yellow alone. The dragon images celebrate the blending of the Welsh and the Mortimer lines (green and red) when Ralph de Mortimer, lord of Wigmore, married Gwladys Ddu, daughter of Llewelyn the Great, prince of Gwynedd — thus linking the Mortimers, and by extension Edward IV, to Cadwaladr, Arthur, and Brutus.

Finally, this section includes a charming miniature of a peacock — a symbol of immortality, and one connected with Edmund the Martyr, whose banner appears nearby.

Part 5

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This section brings together the royal lines of England, France, and Spain in the persons of Richard, duke of York (multicolored rectangle toward the bottom) and Edward IV (large interlaced squares just visible at the bottom). Toward the top appears a closed crown near the entry for Henry III, from whom a Plantagenet "Tree of Jesse" springs in another propaganda roll created for Edward IV. [See Similar Manuscripts].

Just to the right of the closed crown is an image combining a number of Yorkist symbols in one — a falcon, badge of Edward's father Richard, duke of York, sits atop the fetterlock of Edmund of Langley, which encloses a white rose (silver, now tarnished) with a cross of St. George at its center. A little further down, a crown set with suns introduces the Spanish line.

Other images of note include the Percy crescent, the Stafford and Bourchier knots, and the ermine-furred cap of state just above Edward IV's interlaced squares.

The richness of Edward IV's heritage is brought home by the multicolored lines in comparison with the plain yellow borders surrounding the three Lancastrian kings (Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI). Lest anyone miss the point, three boxes — surrounded by borders of the appropriate colors — explain Edward's hereditary claim to the crowns of each of these kingdoms.

Part 6

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Here the full arsenal of Yorkist text and imagery is brought to bear in support of Edward's claim to the throne. Showing portions of the previous section again for the sake of continuity, this illustration shows the line of descent from Edward III (blue and yellow box, upper left), including his many sons, through Edward IV.

The interlaced rectangles representing Edward IV are surrounded by images of kingship: crowns and scepters for the three realms of England, France, and Spain; ostrich feathers, a badge of the Princes of Wales; and garters, representing the Order of the Garter. The swords represent the two swords of justice to the spirituality and the temporality and the blunted sword of mercy, Curtana. The text within the three left garters reads "A Domino factum est istud," This was the Lord's doing (Mark 12, 11), while that within the three garters on the right reads "Firmum con[s]ilium [meum] faciat dominus," May the Lord help [me] to persevere (Judith 8, 31).

These images of royalty are combined with the three Yorkist images seen throughout the manuscript — the rose-en-soleil, the sun, and the fetterlock.

Small boxes below Edward list his siblings, and give details on their titles. For some years it was thought that this manuscript was produced some time after 1468, the year that Edward's sister Margaret became Duchess of Burgundy. However, recent examinations of the manuscript suggest that her title, as well as those of other siblings, were written in at a later date and in a different hand.

The manuscript ends with a shaded scroll containing text once again celebrating the accession of Edward IV and making the case for descent through the female line. To make the final visual statement, the white lion of March (left ) supports a standard holding a banner with the same bearings as the horse at the beginning of the scroll — the quartered arms of England, France and Castile/Leon, with the arms of Brutus/King Arthur on an escutcheon at the center — while, to the right, Richard II's white hart supports the arms of the Kings of England.


I have drawn heavily on the work of four scholars in the preparation of this section. The work of Alison Allan on propaganda in Yorkist England made it possible to set this manuscript in its proper historical context. Kathleen Scott's entry in her survey of English manuscripts and her entry for the exhibition catalog, Leaves of Gold: Manuscripts from Philadelphia Collections, form the basis for much of the commentary on the manuscript as a work of art. To Ralph Griffiths I am indebted for the time he took to discuss this manuscript with a group of members of the Richard III Society at the Free Library in 1993 and for his unfailing kindness in answering my many questions thereafter. Finally, without the active collaboration of Peter Hammond, Research Officer of the Richard III Society, many of the shields and banners in the manuscript would have gone unidentified and unexplained. The strength of this section owes an incalculable debt to the contributions of these four scholars; any errors are solely mine.

Many others deserve their thanks for their advice and encouragement along the way. The Free Library of Philadelphia Rare Books Department staff has been uniformly helpful since the former curator, Howell Heaney, first showed me the manuscript in 1962. Special thanks are due to Karen Lightner, Martha Repman, and William Lang at the Free Library. In addition to Peter Hammond, Geoffrey Wheeler deserves thanks for his research on the heraldry of the manuscript over the years. Charles T. Wood, Dartmouth College, has suggested a number of fruitful lines of inquiry.

These acknowledgments would not be complete without a word of thanks to the many members of the Richard III Society whose generous financial support made possible the conservation of this manuscript, and to the staff of the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts for carrying out the work.

—Laura Blanchard
Philadelphia Area Consortium of
Special Collections Libraries