9a. The Shakespeare Coat of Arms c.1576-1596

previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams


(Numbers in bold refer to the Documents section and bibliographical citations refer to the Bibliography of The Real Shakespeare II, on-line edition)



     Shakespeare's only son Hamlet was buried in Stratford on 11 August 1596. He was just eleven and a half years old. Perhaps 'he was likely, had he lived, to a prov'd most royal', as the 1603 First Quarto says; but with his death, the male line ended. Among the mourners would be his mother Anne, who was forty-one, and his two sisters, the thirteen-year-old Susanna and Hamlet's twin Judith. Family affairs were much in Shakespeare's mind. He had become rich and famous, in his early thirties. But life in Tudor times was short and uncertain, and there were important provisions to be made. He was surely the moving force in renewing, if not in initiating, two earlier applications on behalf of his father John, the first for a coat of arms c. 1576 (RS1 27, 40-41, 75-77, 87, 118, 154; 76) and the second in 1580 for restoration of land and property (RS1 40, 204). Meanwhile he bought a spacious home and grounds in Stratford (231).

     Two drafts, both dated 20 October 1596, mention the award of a coat of arms to Shakespeare's father John and his 'children, issue and posterity' (218). The later draft appends a fragmentary record of John's previous application 'xx years past', no doubt an approximation, and his appointments as Justice of Peace and 'Baylife...and cheffe of the towne of Stratford uppon Avon xv or xvj years past'. These honours had in fact been conferred in 1571, twenty-five years earlier (56). It may be however that the young Shakespeare himself had first had the idea of paternal and perpetual entitlement to arms some 'xv or xvj years past', i.e. in 1580-1, when he was sixteen or seventeen years old and his father, and hence his mother and family, had fallen on hard times. Gentility is a theme often touched upon in the early plays (RS1 27). The young Shakespeare had already been concerned in, and may well have instigated, the unsuccessful negotiations of 1580, revived in 1589, about the land and property inherited by his mother Mary Arden, which would have become his patrimony had his father not mortgaged it for cash; and a father's loss of lands is also a frequent theme (RS1 26). Further, the Ardens were already armigerent as well as property-owning; so why not the Shakespeares? John had in fact qualified for a coat of arms when he became Mayor of Stratford; but he could not read the reference books containing this information. William could, and doubtless did; it was surely he who inspired the 1596 and 1599 applications for arms. By then he was famous and affluent, and hence influential; and the words selected by the applicant as a device, 'non sanz droict', plainly imply entitlement to honours by ability if not by birth (RS1 27).

     In effect, Shakespeare himself was the petitioner for arms, and indeed their main recipient, from his father's death in 1601 (301) to his own in 1616 (302309349400429449453, 461) on the evidence of extant documents including a 1619 title-page (489), and the display of arms on his Stratford monument (469) as also in the signet seal used by Susanna Hall née Shakespeare (Halliwell-Phillipps 1887 ii, 109). He thus became England's (and perhaps the world's) earliest armigerent and affluent actor-playwright.

     But he had also been, on strong evidence (RS1 39-43) formally trained as a law-clerk who would be familiar with the phraseology of official applications; his heraldic expertise remains on record (417); and his quest for honours on his father's and hence his own behalf would also be well known among his own close circle of friends or foes in the theatre world. As the satirist Nashe (RS1 68-78) scornfully says in his Pierce Penniless of 1592, among much other relevant matter, 'How much better it is to have an elegant lawyer plead one's cause...for a gentleman to have his honour's story related...by a poet than a citizen'. In 1589 this same Nashe, at the behest of his crony Greene, had lampooned Shakespeare as a playwriting noverint or law-clerk. Three years later Nashe flouts at 'the common lawyers (suppose in the beginning they are but husbandmen's sons)', just as Shakespeare was, who nevertheless 'give their upstart fathers titles of gentry'. Even Shakespeare's actual motto non sanz droict, later parodied by Jonson as 'not without mustard', may well be aimed at in Nashe's use of that latter phrase. How many husbandmen's sons became both lawyers and poets and then sought to use that status to attain a coat of arms and the title of 'gentleman', for their fathers and themselves, not without right? Few, surely; prima facie just one, who had to be well known to Nashe's readers if his shafts were to find their target; and their victim's retaliation to Pierce Penniless in Love's Labour's Lost (RS1 77-8), however good-humoured, shows that they had indeed struck home.

     It is therefore worthwhile to study the documents in some detail. A professional expert has done so (Hamilton 1985, 127-46) amid enduring silence from literary Academia, which has long ignored the self-evident fact of Shakespeare's personal participation in his own family affairs. Thus an extant documentary record naming him as a party to his parents' land law-suit of 1589 is typically overlooked in 'the interval that scholarship has called the Lost Years' (Schoenbaum 1975, 77). Similarly the coat of arms drafts, although visibly full of corrections and afterthoughts, deletions and interlineations, are amazingly attributed by the same scholarship (loc. cit., 167) to the Garter King-of-Arms himself, William (later Sir William) Dethick. In the real world, however, who was lesslikely to dash off two draft applications on the same day, apparently at dictation, than their ultimate national adjudicator? And who was more likely to do so than the applicants themselves, or their agents? Those questions become even more pointed when applied to the extant texts. Even if the greatest and most exalted expert in England, the Garter King of Arms, had so far unbent as to rough out two separate versions of a draft acceptance, he would surely have known the appropriate formulae without afterthoughts or amendments, and would also have included a less amateurish sketch of the proposed crest. Of course one can always invent some untalented 'clerk', as also with Shakespeare's will (Schoenbaum 1975, 171, 242) or a conference with nameless 'heralds' (Scott-Giles 1950, 29). But anyone professionally concerned would surely have done better, by preparing one single valid draft, not a rapid sketch immediately followed by an equally rapid revision. Their 'terms, and particularly the alterations and additions, probably represent information given and suggestions made by William Shakespeare', just as a modern expert says (Scott-Giles 1950, 29); furthermore the first draft, just as an earlier specialist had already observed (Tannenbaum 1908) 'bears all the traces of having been written by one inexperienced in drawing up heraldic drafts'. These dicta can be checked by detailed comparison (facsimiles and transcriptions in Hamilton 1985, 130-6). One person, and one alone, and one above all, would be unpractised at such functions yet eager to perform them, namely the petitioner himself. And he, as all agree, was William Shakespeare.

     Hence the proposed device, namely a falcon shaking its outspread wings and holding a spear. Shakespeare shows evidence of personal familiarity not only with heraldry (Scott-Giles 1950) but also with falconry (Spurgeon 1935, 31); and he often observes how birds of prey shake their wings (e.g. 3H6 I.i.46-7 and V&A 57). Scott-Giles's insightful citations of striking parallels with Richard II will surely attract new and deserved attention as soon as the pendulum of critical comment has swung back to the commonsense acceptance of personal and topical reference in the plays and poems (RS1 xv). It will hardly be by mere coincidence that a play published within a year of these applications 'should allude to both the falcon and the lance in a speech of filial sentiment' (Scott-Giles 1950, 35). The reference is to Bolingbroke's resolve to restore the position of his own father, also named John, whom he enjoins 'With thy blessing steel my lance's point/That it may enter Mowbray's waxen coat/And furbish new the name of John o' Gaunt/Even in the lusty haviour of his son' which will be 'as confident as is the falcon's flight' (Richard II I.iii. 61, 75-8). These rather plain allusions, in the language of heraldry ('steel'...'coat'), remain unmentioned by modern commentators (e.g. Wells 1969).

     Further, Shakespeare was also famous for his exceptional fluency and his tireless rewritings, to both of which Ben Jonson draws special attention ; 'he flow'd with that facility, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stop'd' (527), and he 'who casts to write a living line, must sweat/(such as thine are) and strike the second heat/Vpon the Muses anvil' (502). Here, prima facie, are some fascinating samples, specially preserved in the College of Heralds archives as if they possessed some unusual significance, and not at all as if they were merely routine writings. Research soon confirms the self-evident inference that these hasty drafts are neither from nor in the hand of Sir William Dethick, Garter King-of-Arms; and an expert who has spent a lifetime in such studies can identify the writing as Shakespeare's (Hamilton loc. cit.). But no-one undertakes even the simplest checks. Schoenbaum (1975), like Lambert (1904), follows Tucker (1884); Wells (1986, xv) follows Schoenbaum.

     The last-named identifies just two differences between the two earliest applications, namely that 'grandfather' is added among John Shakespeare's ancestors and Robert Arden's style is changed from 'gent.' to 'esquire'. In fact there are over 120 changes of spelling, capitalisation and abbreviation as well as vocabulary (e.g. 'demonstration' is changed to 'declaration'), with plentiful omissions and additions of words and phrases. Yet both drafts were penned on the same day by the same hand, which exhibited an amazing variety of word- and letter-formation and conventional signs. Among such changes one note stays constant; initial c is commonly capitalised in most nouns (Creast, Cognizance, Coullors etc.) and some adjectives (Ciuile). All these are features of the extant Ironside MS (Sams 1985, 1986, 53), and also, by frequent and long-standing inference, of the manuscripts behind the early quartos.

     Exactly the same characteristics reappear in a third draft application of 1599 also preserved in the archives and again designed for the official approval of Dethick as the supreme authority and of William Camden as his second in command, the 'Clarence king of arms for the south, east and west partes of this realm'. Here is yet more evidence for the applicant's personal intervention. Shakespeare himself is by far the likeliest person to be writing further drafts on the same subject, in the same hand and on the same premises three years later, and again the likeliest to have his drafts carefully preserved by the College of Arms, as if some unusual value or interest attached to them. The 1599 document rehearses the terms of the earlier award, again with interesting differences of detail; for example the home of the Arden family (the maiden name of Shakespeare's mother) is given as Wellingcote instead of the customary Wilmcote. Such supposed blemishes, so far from being blamed on 'the clerk', like the variant forms of the motto 'Non sanz droict' (Schoenbaum 1975, 167, 171), should surely be reconsidered; thus the longer place name sounds much more like the original and proper form, better suited to impress the authorities than the dialectical Wilmcote or even Wincot, as the same village is called in The Taming of the Shrew (Induction ii.22). This time however the College of Arms seems to have withheld consent. The proposed impalement of the Shakespeare with the Arden arms, so that John Shakespeare and his children could display both together, was perhaps reckoned too ostentatious; certainly there is no formal record of its acceptance or known instance of its use. It has been plausibly proposed (Hamilton 1985, 140) that in any event Shakespeare was out of favour at court by 1599 because of his affiliations with the Essex-Southampton faction. Perhaps the original grant of arms to the Catholic John Shakespeare on behalf of Queen Elizabeth, the sworn and zealous defender of the Protestant faith, had been deemed dubious on religious grounds. William Shakespeare was no doubt in disfavour if not outright disgrace during the last year of the sick Elizabeth's reign. Further, 1602 was the year in which William Shakespeare first used his inherited style of 'Gentleman' (299), which led to caustic comment in plays and pamphlets. Nashe in Pierce Penniless 1592 and Jonson in Every Man Out of His Humour 1599, where the rustic Sogliardo is jeered at for writing himself 'Gentleman' after purchasing arms for £30 with the motto 'Not without mustard', had already objected to such snobbery. In the Parnassus plays of c.1600, lowly players 'purchase lands, and now esquires are framed'; the placing of these words in the mouth of Studioso, a character who has been identified as the armigerent landowner Shakespeare (RS1 86-94) may serve to intensify the satire. In Jonson's Poetaster 1602 Tucca chides the players with 'they and their Pedigrees; they need no other Heralds'. In Ratseis Ghost 1605 a player is so successful that he is knighted; here too the reference may be to Shakespeare (Halliday 2/1964, 403), whose rise into the accredited gentry began in 1596 and reached its zenith after 1603 with the enthronement of King James.

     It is thus no surprise that the next development in the Shakespeare arms story was an official objection to the original grant. In 1602, the York Herald Peter Brooke formally complained (314) that Dethick and Camden had abused their powers by granting arms to a score of undeserving cases, including Shakespeare's, whose scutcheon was also too like another's. The same manuscript source contains another drawing of the shaking falcon holding a spear, captioned 'Shakespeare ye Player by Garter'; if authentic, this sketch is perhaps designed to caricature a typical Dethick award. But the charge was rebutted; the crushing rejoinder remains on record (Scott-Giles 1950, 39) that 'It may aswell be said that Harely who beareth gould a bend betweene two Cotizes sables and all other that [bear] Or and Argent a bend sables usurpe the coate of the Lord Mauley. As for the Speare in bend [it] is a patible difference. And the person to whome it was granted hath borne magestracy and was Justice of peace at Stratford vpon Avon, he maried the daughter and heire of Arderne and was able to maintaine that estate'. The writer of this formal affidavit is also anonymous, and may again have been Shakespeare himself; its set hand looks very like the manuscript of Edmund Ironside and other such documents.