Much of the True Use of Arms is made up of Wyrley’s complaints about various issues. Some of them are pretty expected: systems of cadency, the nouveau riche who think they’re entitled to bear arms just because they want to, and a few other concerns we’ll get into next week. However, there’s a very odd section where Wyrley switches to the defensive, insisting on the legitimacy of the practice of heraldry, as well as that of funerals, memorials, and genealogies, backing himself up with quotes from the Bible. It’s pretty common for heraldic writers to quote the Bible, especially when they’re recounting the supposed origins of heraldry, but it is weird to see it done in defense of what we think of as fairly common practices.
Wyrley is really not shy about objecting when he dislikes something, so I think it’s a safe assumption that his impassioned, citation-heavy defense of memorials, heraldic ensigns, and genealogy has its roots in actual practices of the time. He complains that he personally found “many moniments both of burials and in glasse were so broken and defaced” as to be unidentifiable, and useless for research. (25) (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t deeply sympathize with this problem.)
This passage, and the larger dispute it hints at, is a fascinating glimpse into Wyrley’s political and religious context. As a reminder, the original publication of this work was in 1592, right in the middle of a heated, centuries-long debate over idolatry and iconoclasm. This really got started with the English Reformation and Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church in 1534. The Reformers (which is also explicitly the name that Wyrley calls them, asking that they “might be reformed themselves”) undertook a number of efforts to distance themselves from the Catholic Church, including the removal of images from churches. The level of governmental support for these policies varied – Edward VI continued his father’s anti-Catholic legacy, after which Mary I restored Catholicism. Elizabeth I went back to Protestantism, but with a much more moderate/pragmatic bent. Wyrley addresses her and her Privy Council in this passage, asking them to protect the English traditions and punish the Puritans.
The tomb of Katharine of Aragon in Peterborough Cathedral was apparently a popular target for vandalism; it was thoroughly vandalized by the Roundheads in 1643, but Wyrley also praises William Fleetwood, Serjeant-at-law, for restoring her monument after it was defaced, and punishing those responsible. (I suspect the queen’s Spanish, i.e. Catholic, heritage had a lot to do with the repeated desecrations.)
I’m not nearly as clear on the substance of the critics of heraldic insignia and genealogy to whom Wyrley is responding, but I suspect the arguments are roughly the same: that anything that could be interpreted as veneration of earthly ideals (such as one’s ancestors) was tantamount to idolatry. Disappointingly, Wyrley doesn’t quote his interlocutors, but includes several long passages, mostly from the book of Numbers, that mention things like banners, funerals, and records of ancestry as proof that these practices had Biblical sanction. To be clear, I’m a little skeptical of Wyrley’s claims to religious legitimacy; though there are plenty of genealogies in the Bible, I don’t think the funeral customs of the Hebrew people referred to in Numbers are remotely comparable to those of sixteenth-century England, and heraldry qua heraldry wouldn’t come into being for more than a millennium after Biblical times. That being said, I can’t help but feel a spark of regret for all the historical artifacts and works of art destroyed by Reformist zeal. I have to believe there’s a middle ground between destroying memorial sculptures and worshiping them.