Gaskell House Blogs

Wolf or squirrel, that is the question?

13th January 2023
in blog, Collection

In February 2021, Chris Tucker and I posted a blog about the poet John Donne and a two-volume edition of his poems that had been recently added to our collection. What’s done is Donne. –

 The very last paragraph of this blog read

there remain intriguing, unanswered questions about the Donne coat of arms on the covers of the newly acquired books.  If there are any heraldry experts reading this who can help us solve this mystery, we would love to hear from you.’

Imagine our delight when, in December 2022, we received a long and informative message from a Professor Michael Ross of the University of Minnesota, who said:

“I saw the question from volunteers Chris Tucker and Jane Mathieson on your site, about the arms of John Donne on the cover of his poetry volume, asking if a herald can add anything to this mystery. I believe that I can.” 

There then followed a detailed heraldic description of the Donne Coat of Arms which we share in full here, in the hope it will interest other readers.

The arms of Donne are shown on the engraving of his memorial in St Paul’s, shown on the blog on which this question was raised. They are “impaled” on the shield (the term used for dividing a shield vertically, where the arms of a married couple, or the holder of an office, are shown). In this case, the left side facing the reader (the right side to the shield-bearer himself, is called the dexter side; the left side to the shield bearer is called the sinister side) are the arms of the See of London (the crossed swords of St Paul, in this case the blazon is “Gules, two swords in saltire points upward argent hilts and pommels or” (on a red shield, two swords in an X shape tips uppermost with silver blades and gold hilts and handles). The addition of the letter “D” on the arms of the see of London presumably identify him as the Dean. As Dean of London, Donne put the arms of his office on the dexter side and his personal arms of Donne on the sinister side. The arms of Donne are a wolf “salient”  (leaping to the dexter with two back feet on the ground and two forefeet extended in the leap), the wolf argent (silver or white) and the field of the shield either azure (blue) or sable (black). 

On the Donne Triptych, the field of the shield is shown on a window panel as blue, but on the Book of Hours it is shown as black, which is puzzling as one would expect Sir John to have made sure that it is correct. In records, it is described as azure (blue). However, DuBois (2018) see  notes that the field of these arms on the Book of Hours was originally blue and was later for some reason  overpainted in black. To complete the arms is the crest, which is on top of the helmet blazoned as a knot of five serpents proper, which would in this case be green, as shown on the arms and crest on the Donne Book of Hours.

So far the information has focused on the colours and the wolf that appears in the versions of the shield seen in paintings. The starting point for our interest and questions had been that on our volumes, the decorative badge appears to show a squirrel. Prof Ross says the following:

So why the squirrel? On the book cover where the squirrel is shown, my suspicion is that these arms are copied from a small or poor illustration. In heraldry, both wolves and squirrels are shown with bushy tails and have somewhat pointed noses, so the confusion is logical. The crest above the helmet on the gilt-stamped book cover also depicts serpents, but here there are six of them and just arising from the ground, not in a knot, so the gilt stamp maker is taking license with the copying or working from a poor original. 

Where the gilt stamp is potentially correct is that a horizontal bar with the three pendant points is shown at the top of the shield. This is the sign of an eldest son, called a “label” and appears on arms for the eldest son, who removes the “label” when he inherits the arms on the death of his father. So it must have been copied from John Donne the poet’s arms before the death of his father. However, as John Donne’s father died when the poet was four, and he would never have put the label on any arms he used, this is a somewhat strange addition and shows a considerable amount of license on the part of the gilt stamp maker (the wolf transforms into a squirrel, the snakes on the crest change in number and grouping, and the label appears).

One can see the original arms of Sir John Donne on his Book of Hours (see the original blog – link above), and these seem to be the ones used by the poet, although any relationship between the two men is unclear. 

I hope that this adds a heraldic explanation to illuminate the question about the gilt stamp on the covers of the book of Donne’s poems, regards, (Prof.) Mike Ross.

Of course it remains supposition that the changes to the crest on the Grolier volumes are explained as poor copying and is this somewhat surprising given the Grolier Club’s history and purpose as a society devoted to the book? Wikipedia tells us that the Grolier Club founded in 1884 is, first of all, a fellowship of men and women devoted to books and the graphic arts.  To me it is somewhat surprising that they may have been using a careless designer when our books were published in 1895.

It is hugely gratifying to know that our blogs are being read across the world. Our question about the squirrel badge was a genuine one on our part, however I don’t think we ever really imagined that it would be answered so comprehensively. Thank you again Professor Ross.

Jane Mathieson, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

Plans are like a card-house-if one gives way, all the others come rattling about your head

Elizabeth Gaskell, 1864