John Shakespeare’s grants of arms in 1596 & 1599

Cross-crosslets fitchy vs fess chequy, 1599

Helen Moorwood    [April, 2013]


Above is a facsimile reproduction of the original draft grant of arms of 1599. Only the top left-hand corner of the draft is given, because it is on this is that we wish to concentrate. Whether it was Garter King of Arms William Dethick himself who produced this or one of his subordinates is immaterial. It was sanctioned by Dethick, Garter King of Arms (he was knighted in 1603 by James I). He had been appointed to this position in 1586 on the death of Clarenceux King of Arms Robert Cook, who had served as interim Garter for two years until his death. Robert Cook was the King of Arms who had awarded John Shakespeare a ‘pattierne’ for his coat of arms twenty years previously. It is stated by Dethick in a footnote in 1596 that he had a copy of this ‘pattierne’ in front of him. In 1599 Dethick was assisted by William Camden, Clarenceux since 1597 and one of the most respected historians of his time. He was already deeply involved in the preparation of his great work Britannia, with the aim “to restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britaine to its antiquity”.

Various things are very clear in the order of procedure.

  1. The first thing that Dethick put on paper was the Shakespeare shield and crest. This is logical, because it was John Shakespeare making the application and these very same arms had been confirmed three years previously.
  2. He took time to add the words ‘or’ (gold) and ‘ar’ (argent, silver). One might presume that he had a copy of the shield and crest in front of him, or at least the heraldic description in front of him. He had seen the original ‘pattierne’ of 1576 in 1596.
  3. He might have immediately started writing out the initial rigmarole at the right of the shield, or he might have waited to start writing until the impaled shield below was complete. This does not matter.
  4. What does matter is that the second shield was completed before he wrote the text immediately to the right. In other words, the final shield was decided upon before the main body of the text was written.
  5. The second shield was designed to have John Shakespeare’s wife Mary née Arde(r)n(e)’s arms impaled. Dethick inserted one of the shields he knew was borne by an Arden family. This was the fess chequy arms of the Park Hall Ardens. For a clearer picture of this and other Arde(r)n(e) arms see ARDE(R)N(E) coats of arms.
  6. Almost immediately he realized that he had drawn the wrong coat of arms. We will never know whether this was because Dethick immediately corrected himself, or John Shakespeare was standing next to him and corrected him. Immediately after realizing his mistake Dethick crossed out the fess chequy arms, before he had written in the colours.
  7. The herald then drew the correct arms of the Cheshire Ardernes, adding ‘or’ (gold) and ‘g’ (gules, red). These are the arms that stayed there while he wrote out the complete text on the manuscript, which was preserved in the College of Arms, where it still is today.

This was all obviously very logical for Dethick and Camden and very satisfactory and satisfying for John Shakespeare. For anyone new to this story, one might assume that there should have been no problems at all in accepting these arms for what they are.

This, however, is a far cry from all that has been written about this grant of impaled arms since Malone first set eyes on them in the 18th century. Great debates took place about why the Warwickshire Arden arms had been crossed out and the Cheshire arms substituted. The general opinion was that Robert Arden of Wilmcote (Mary’s father) was far too humble to justify being awarded the arms of such an illustrious Midlands family. Others thought that the Kings of Arms had been presented with such vague information by John Shakespeare and that the heralds themselves were vague and slipshod.

Surprisingly, no one thought about investigating the Cheshire Arderne family in any depth. This has now happened in this ARDERNE folder online.

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