Shakespeare part 1. The Grants of Arms to Shakespeare’s Father

by Dr. Raymond Carter Sutherland Coat of Arms no 59 July 1964.

There is a widely held misconception that William Shakespeare secured the grant of a coat of arms; some scholars, knowing that the grant was to the father, assume that William got the arms in his father’s name. Generally, the references to the grants of arms are misleading when made in editions of the poet or in books about him;1 but there is no reason for such basic misinformation: C. W. Scott-Giles over a decade ago described the circumstances of the grant of arms to John Shakespeare.2 This essay assumes a knowledge of the work of Scott-Giles, of Lewis,2 of Joseph Quincy Adams,3 and of Sir Edmund Chambers,4 and it purposes to add something to our understanding of Shakespeare by adding somewhat to our knowledge of the contemporary heraldic situation, fuller knowledge of which has been made available to us by a currently flourishing, serious heraldic scholarship.5 The conditions peculiar to the heraldic scene in the sixteenth century will be described, and it will be shown that John was under some pressure to secure arms: as Adams has pointed out,6 John was a Queen’s Servant and expected to have arms. A new theory about the Arden arms will be cited which, if true, shows Shakespeare’s interest in and knowledge of his family’s history. This writer also tries to show, whatever Shakespeare’s part in the securing of the grants of arms may have been, that he acted in strict subordination to his father and as a member of a sixteenth-century English family, for at the time of the grant he may have realised that the arms would not remain in his branch of the family.

A table of dates at this point may help in understanding the materials to be presented.
1558-1592 There was a cycle of Heraldic Visitations of great thoroughness.
1563 Robert Cooke, Chester Herald and later Clarenceux King of Arms, made a Visitation of Warwickshire by order of the then Clarenceux. 1564 William Shakespeare was born.
1565 John Shakespeare was certainly by this time an alderman. 1568 John was Bailiff and Queen’s Officer. He initiated a petition for a grant of arms. (William was now four years old.) 1596 John was an “elder statesman” with sons and with grandsons anticipated. (William was 32.) The petition for arms to John was renewed and the arms granted, with a further matriculation three years later adding the Arden Arms.

On 23 April 1522 new Garter Statutes stated that Garter King at Arms might grant arms to those persons who “by vertuous merets and valiant deeds are sufficient and worthy to have and bear them, according to ancient custom, and thereof he shall issue letters patent”.7 The Visitation Commission of 1530 states qualifications. The regulations permit arms to the following persons: clergy who have been advanced to high offices because of talent, integrity, or skill; and temporal persons who have done service to the Crown, or who have a position or possessions justifying the use of arms and who have the means to maintain the state of arms. They forbid arms to the following persons: members of disreputable families (this seems to refer to criminal families); heretics; and rebels. It ought to be remembered that this last requirement could be very restrictive in unsettled times. These Henrician rules were evidently kept in force under Elizabeth. No alterations can be found by this writer; and Elizabeth’s clear purpose was generally to cancel out the innovations of Edward VI and Mary I and return to the statutes of Henry VIII as to a middle position. That John Shakespeare was judged by such a standard is shown by the notes at the end of the College MS of his grant, notes apparently in the same hand as the text of the grant itself. The notes list six qualifications: John showed a “patierne” in Cooke’s hand, some twenty years old; he was a Justice of the Peace; he was a Bailiff and Queen’s Officer; he was once head of the town of Stratford; he had an estate valued at £500.0.0; and he married a daughter and heiress of Arden, a “gentleman of worship”.8 Thus it would seem that John was measured in relation to a standard, one he doubtless knew he would have to meet.

The precise meaning of the term gentleman is less important for the purposes of this study than is the establishing of the standards used to determine eligibility for bearing arms; the use of gentleman, however, deserves some attention in the light of such remarks as that of Pine’s cited above in footnote one. It may be said at once that the word had more force in Shakespeare’s time than it has today: it meant, in some way, or to some extent, noble man, a member of the noblesse, as Scots and Continental peoples use the latter term. Gentleman was, however, not restricted to an armigerous person. The High Court of Chivalry often had to determine whether or not a person as a gentleman. A recent study of the records of the court would seem to prove that only a gentleman could bear arms and that sometimes a coat of arms was put forward to prove gentility.9 “The more usual course was for a litigant to prove his gentility by evidence that he had always lived in the manner of a gentleman and was so reputed.”10 The notes on the College MS of John Shakespeare’s grant were made to establish the fact that he was a gentleman and worthy to receive a grant. Having received the grant, he could without contradiction write himself a gentleman, not because the grant made him such but because the grant was a recognition of his gentility as well as an award of arms.

Those who feel that John or William got arms so that he might write himself gentleman have come, directly or not, under the influence of a book first published in 1909 and widely influential to the present: Fox-Davies maintained that a grant of arms, and that only, made one a gentleman.11 A recent controversy over this very point has brought comment from a reviewer in the journal of the Heraldry Society:

In England it would seem a sounder analysis to treat a patent of arms as evidence of the recognition rather than the creation of gentility, and in the Court of Chivalry, where it was a matter of moment in numerous cases to decide whether a man was a gentleman or not, patents of arms were much less in evidence than they would have been had Fox-Davies’ view of them been sound –namely that without a grant of arms nothing that a man could say or do can make him a gentleman.12
In Scotland where the language of grants is quite precise, the wording seems to require the interpretation that pre-existing gentility (by virtue of membership in a noble clan) is being officially recognised and received: a patent of arms is a “Diploma of Nobility”.13 John and William Shakespeare did not need a grant of arms to write themselves gentlemen. Certainly William, and probably John, kept the state of a gentleman. The reason for securing the grant of arms and the matriculation of the Arden Arms may be sought elsewhere.

John’s original petition for arms was probably made for reasons which may be described as practical. Heraldic achievements were expected on funerary monuments, civic memorials, commemorative devices, public silverware, official buildings, banners, and portraits. For a man in public life not to have arms would be eccentric and would often cause a gap in design: e.g. a city corporation might have on its council room walls the escutcheons of the aldermen; or a souvenir print of a volunteer train band might well have the shields of the officers and of the gentlemen members on the border of the design. For an eminent citizen and the chief official of the town not to have his coat of arms would be eccentric and might be frequently a cause of embarrassment to him and to his friends. After his retirement, a blank in some memorial might cause chagrin to his family.

A recent study14 shows that, considering the number of arms granted or matriculated in proportion to the population, there was a phenomenal interest in arms from 1550 to 1590, the peak years being the 1570’s. Dr. Edward Elmhirst, who made the detailed survey of the grants of arms, thinks (p. 49) that the grants of the 1570’s were due to the maturing of families who became prosperous in the Tudor boom of the 1530’s: the rich man’s son was associating with the older, landed gentry and was embarrassed by his lack of arms. Sir, Anthony Wagner, takes issue somewhat with this analysis.15 His research shows that even more grants were made than Elmhirst has found, and he differs with Elmhirst as to the reasons for grants being sought, arguing that the causes of the number of grants are to be found in the College of Arms itself. In 1555, Sir Anthony points out, the heralds were incorporated and given the predecessor of the present College building. In 1564 they occupied the building. As a result of these steps, which seem to have caused enthusiasm and to have required increased work on the part of the members of the College, during the years 1558 to 1592 the heralds “completed a cycle of Visitation of unprecedented thoroughness” (p. 120). Each member of the College took a certain area of the Kingdom and travelled through it recording the names of people who used arms and asking for proof of ownership. If proof of “immemorial usage” or of a grant was forthcoming, the herald would record the arms. If there was no proof but the claimant was “worthy”, a grant would be given him of the arms he had been surreptitiously using if they were not someone else’s property. If arms were used without authority, their use was stopped: if they appeared in church windows, the offending glass was removed; if they were carved on monuments, the stonework was defaced.16 The Elizabethan Visitations, in their exceptional thoroughness and enthusiasm, obviously aroused considerable interest in matters heraldic.17As we have seen, John Shakespeare made his application during this period of Visitations and as soon as he reached top rank in his town. He and his colleagues may well have been questioned by an officer at arms; certainly they were under some pressure from a nation-wide movement; and, while the grant was effected later, interest was then yet running high, with the number of grants being few because the situation had already been so well covered.

It is against this background that the grants of arms to John Shakespeare ought to be understood. Perhaps the fees were paid by the son, but the grant was to the father. There was no evasion of responsibility here: the grant ought to have been to John as eldest living member of the direct male line and as the person of greater dignity of position, being an adviser of the Stratford Corporation even after his reversals and his retirement from office. Two other factors aided John’s petition: the service rendered by an ancestor to Henry VII and his distinguished marriage.

Shakespeare quartering Arden, granted 1599

It is widely held that the Shakespeare family applied for a grant of the arms of Arden of Park Hall (on behalf of the mother), could not show proof of such descent, and were given instead the ancient Arden Arms with the martlet as a “difference”, i.e. the heralds had enough evidence to indicate connection with the Ardens but could not determine the exact relationship and fell back on the use of old arms attached to the name of Arden.18 A recent theory of Charles Crisp19 argues that there is a connection indicated with the Ardens of Aldford and Alvanley in Cheshire and Elford in Staffordshire.20 Crisp points out the fact that the heralds would have indicated an indeterminate relationship of grandfather Robert Arden with the ancient family by surrounding the shield of the latter with a bordure;21 the martlet was the accepted sign for the fourth son. So, argues Crisp (p. 107), William Shakespeare produced to the heralds proof that Robert Arden 22 was descended from a fourth son of the Ardens of Cheshire and Staffordshire. Crisp’s theory is worth considering. It fits the picture of Shakespeare’s knowledgeable interest in heraldry and genealogy.

When the implication of snobbery is given Shakespeare because of the mere guess that he paid the fees for his father’s grant, it ought to be remembered that the snobbish course would have been quite other than securing his own coat of arms. He could have pretended to possess an ancient coat, or he could have used the coat of another family “surreptitiously”, i.e. only in private: on personal silverware or bookplates — been doing something not unknown in his age. The Shakespeares seem rather to have been interested in an accurate record of their family as it really was. It is particularly notable that they had the Arden Arms matriculated for their use. In this they showed an understanding of heraldry as being, in the telling phrase of the present Lord Lyon, the machinery for running the family, the way of keeping accurate records and thus ensuring knowledge of human relationships with the resultant companionship. They stated the facts about their family with quiet assurance and looked toward the future.

What may have been the degree of Shakespeare’s interest in the grant of arms we shall probably never know. We do know his considerable knowledge of heraldry in, e.g. Richard II. We know the London of his day contained “doctors of heraldry”23and that many books on heraldry were published.24 His interests may, quite conceivably, have led him to study with the “doctors” and to read the books. We are sure that, with all cautions duly made, he was a “Man of Stratford”, interested in establishing himself as a worthy and leading citizen of that place. Such a position must be taken into account along with the fact that he possibly expected at the time of the grant — Hamnet died before it was effected — that his own branch of the family would be extinct upon his death. Any interest in Shakespeare arms he may have had must have been that of one of the Shakespeares of Stratford, not that of a great man on a lonely eminence. We must not forget that it was John Shakespeare who got the arms and that they were expected to descend to anticipated sons of the poet’s brothers. The still often-made statement that William secured arms to show the fact that he had “arrived” is pure assumption with no basis in fact and may seriously misrepresent not only his attitude toward heraldry and society but also his relationship with the other members of his family. 25

PF- Editor’s note: for devotees of the bard I include two articles which complement each other well. The first deals well with the early part of the story, and the second with its conclusion. A great deal more has been written on the subject in the journal.

1. Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York, c. 1952): see his section, “Heralds and Heraldry”, pp. 1637-1638. This essay takes exception to some of his remarks and to much of his general tone. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig (Chicago, c. 1951), p. 72, has a single sentence stating the fact that John received his grant. Equally brief notice is given by T. M . Parrott, Edward Hubler, and R. S. Telfer, edd., Shakespeare: Twenty-Three Plays and the Sonnets (New York, 1938), p. 17, whose reference is misleading: they state that, as a result of Shakespeare’s amassing wealth, his father in 1596 applied to the Heralds’ Office for the grant. See Joseph Quincy Adams, A Life of William Shakespeare (Boston, c. 1923), p. 243: he speaks of Shakespeare’s being interested in getting a grant of arms. William may well have wished to have one, but the conjecture would be better cautiously stated as such. E. E. Willoughby, A Printer of Shakespeare: The Books and Times of William Jaggard (New York, 1934), p. 267, states confusedly, “Shakespeare himself serves as an example of how a middle class man, attaining a moderate degree of wealth, desired the right to bear arms”.
2. Charles Wilfrid Scott-Giles, Shakespeare’s Heraldry (New York, 1950), pp. 27-41. See also B. Roland Lewis, The Shakespeare Documents (Stanford, c. 1940), I, 299 ff.
3. Adams, pp. 24-27 and 243-252. His treatment of the Kings at Arms is perhaps not sufficiently sympathetic nor cautious enough: see pp. 247 and 249 ff.
4. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (Oxford, 1930; reprinted 1951), II, 18-32.
5. The Oxford University Press, Nelson, Oliver and Boyd, Burke’s Ltd., and others are now publishing important works on heraldry. Serious and significant contributions of a scholarly nature are also being made by the press of the Heraldry Society.
6. Pp. 24-25. Adams’ source is Sir John Ferne, The Glorie of Generositie (1586).
7. Wagner, p. 81
8. Chambers, II, 20.
9. G. D. Squibb, The High Court of Chivalry : A Study of the Civil Law in England(Oxford, 1959), p. 171. See pp. 171-173 for a treatment of the use and understanding of gentleman. See also pp. 176 ff.: tradesmen can be gentlemen.
10. Squibb, p. 171.
11. Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry e(London, 1956); p. 68 shows some of his characteristic thinking.
12. Review of The High Court of Chivalry in COA no 38 (1959), 199-200.
13. Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, Scots Heraldry (Edinburgh, 1956), p. 20.
14. Edward Elmhirst, “The Fashion for Heraldry”, COA no 26 (1956), 47-50.
15. Anthony Richard Wagner, “The Fashion for Heraldry”, COA no 27 (1956),119-120
16. The Lord Lyon in Scotland still has the power of fine or imprisonment and exercises it; the recent revival of the Court of Chivalry indicates that perhaps greater effect will be given to the heraldic law of England.
17. For a description of the Elizabethan Visitations see Anthony Richard Wagner, The Records and Collections of the College of Arms(London, 1952), pp. 55 ff. See also Mark Noble, History of the College of Arms (London, 1805), Appendix K, pp. xx-xxxvii; and (Sir Nicholas Harris) Nicolass, Catalogue of the Heralds’ Visitations (London, 1825).
18. Scott-Giles, pp. 32 and 33.
19. Charles Crisp, “Shakespeare’s Ancestors”, COA no 43(1960), 105-109.
20. See Scott-Giles, p. 33, and Lewis, I, 305, for the traditional view; the martlet is a mere differencing of the Park Hall Ardens’ Arms. Scott-Giles’s argument is not entirely convincing
21. See Robert Gayre of Gayre and Nigg, Heraldic Cadency (London, 1961), p. 57.
22. Compare Scott-Giles’s argument that it was William who had the description of Robert Arden changed from generosus “gentleman” to armiger “esquire”: p. 30.
23. H. Stanford London, “Some Medieval Treatises on English Heraldry”, The Antiquaries Journal , XXXIII (1953), 175.
24. Willoughby, Printer of Shakespeare, pp. 267-275. Jaggard, for example, published many books on heraldry
25. Scholars and the general public are most familiar with that version of the arms found on the Shakespeare monument in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford. It may be argued that these arms were erected or “restored” in the eighteenth century, an age which was to some extent a period of heraldic decadence. The securing of the Arden Arms by the Shakespeares would seem to indicate that they understood the principle of marshalling and intended to use the Arden Arms to show an accurate representation of the family in its ramifications. It is possible to think that the family would not have ignored the arms of Arden had it been they who erected the heraldic device now seen on the north wall of the church. On the other hand, as Scott-Giles suggests (p. 33), the family may have had a taste that caused them to return to the simpler heraldry of the medieval period.