John Shakespeare’s grants of arms in 1596 & 1599

Five ARDE(R)N(E) coats of arms

Helen Moorwood [April, 2013]


B. Roland Lewis, The Shakespeare Documents (1940)

gives a page containing five Arde(r)n(e) coats of arms (b/w):

(1) Earls of Warwick; (2) Beauchamp family; (3) Park Hall Ardens;

(4) Robert Arden family; (5) Arden family of Alvanley in Cheshire.

Shields (1) and (2) both have a field chequy, with (2) having an additional mark indicating a related, but different family. In this case it is clear that the Beauchamp family was related to the Earls of Warwick. An extract from the Wikipedia article on the Earls of Warwick gives a more than adequate account for current purposes of the relationship of the two families.

Henry [Beaumont] became constable of Warwick castle in 1068 and Earl in 1088 as reward for his support for the king during the Rebellion of 1088.

The title passed through several generations of the Beaumont family until Thomas, the 6th earl, died in 1242 without a male heir. The earldom then went to his sister Margaret and her husbands and on her death to her cousin William Maudit.

When he died also without a male heir the title passed to his daughter Isabel and her husband William Beauchamp and thence her son William, who became 9th earl.

During this period the earldom and the Beauchamps were elevated to the highest levels until Henry, the 14th earl was created Duke of Warwick with precedence over all except the Duke of Norfolk.

This precedence was disputed however and with Henry’s death in 1445, also without male heir, the dukedom was extinguished. The earldom went to his infant daughter, and on her death a few years later passed to Henry's sister Anne and her husband Richard Neville, who became 16th earl and was known to history as "Warwick the Kingmaker".  

(Wikipedia, downloaded 9.12.11. References are not repeated here.)

This accounts more than adequately for the fess chequy arms descending from the Earls of Warwick, the last Beauchamp being Anne, who married Richard Neville, ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’.

Drummond (H. Drummond’s Noble British Families vol. 1 (2)) exemplifies many arms of Arden, and traces them back to their derivation. He notices that the "elder branch of the Ardens took the arms of the old Earls of Warwick; the younger branches took the arms of the Beauchamps, with a difference. In this they followed the custom of the Earls of Warwick." The Ardens of Park Hall therefore bore ermine, a fesse chequy, or, and az., arms derived from the old Earls of Warwick; and this was the pattern scratched out in John Shakespeare's quartering.

(C. C. Stopes, Shakespeare’s Family, p. 31, online courtesy of

3. Park Hall Ardens

A fess chequy or and azure. The chequy appearing on a fess (a band across the centre third) is a clear sign that this family claimed some descent from the Beauchamps. Every Shakespeare biographer gives their account of this descent. What is important is that it was the Arden shield awarded first to John Shakespeare in 1599, to be impaled on his Shakespeare arms, but immediately crossed out and substituted by (4).

4. Robert Arden family

Before we consider the difference between 4 and 5, we need to know the significance of the symbols in the top third. For this we turn to the experts in heraldry at the College of Arms.

Various means were adopted so that the arms of younger brothers should be distinct from one another and the paternal arms, but recognizable in origin. Colours were altered or reversed as in Argent a Saltire Gules borne by the Nevilles of Hornby [i] in Lancashire, descended from a younger brother in the late thirteenth century, [ii] to distinguish their arms from Gules a Saltire Argent borne by the senior line. One disadvantage of tincture reversal is the risk of clashing with an unrelated family. Neville of Hornby and Fitzgerald are indistinguishable. Other forms of difference were the transposition or substitution of charges, and the addition of labels and bordures. This is the system that is still followed in Scotland, where no two men bear the same arms.

In England a system of charging small marks on the shield was devised; these are known as cadency marks, and the system is said to have been invented by John Writhe, Garter, in about 1500. [iii] The English system attributes a label of three points to the eldest son in the lifetime of his father and one of five points to his eldest son, a crescent to the second son, [iv] a mullet (a five-pointed star) to the third, a marlet to the fourth, [v] an annulet to the fifth, a fleur-de-lis to the sixth, a rose to the seventh, a cross Moline to the eighth, and a double quatrefoil to the ninth. Such cadency marks should be painted smaller than a charge on a shield, and are generally borne in the chief of a shield [vi] and are of a suitable tincture for the arms. [vii] [. . . .]

Cadency marks tend to be used as a matter of courtesy today rather than as a rule. There seems to be no more recent statement on the law of arms relating to cadency marks than that of Sir Edward Coke, who wrote in his Commentary upon Littleton (1628): [viii] ‘Gentry and Armes is of the nature of Gavelkind; for they descend to all the sonnes, every sonne being a gentleman alike. Which gentry and armes do not descend to all the brethren alone, but to all their posterity. But yet jure primogeniturae, the eldest shall beare as a badge of his birthright, his father’s armes without any differences for that as Littleton saith, sectione he is more worthy of blood but all the younger brethren shall give several differences.’ [ix] This appears to suggest that, whatever the failings of the system, arms should be borne with an appropriate cadency mark. The only case where an argument might be made for not doing so is where a member of family is entitled to a quartering which distinguishes his coat from that of his cousins. [x]

Thomas Woodcock (Somerset Herald in 1988, but meanwhile Garter King of Arms)

& John Martin Robinson (Maltravers Herald Extraordinary),

The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 66-68.

[i] Although only semi-relevant in the context of the Arderne arms, it is worth pointing out that the Nevilles produced Eleanor Neville, first wife of Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby (victor at Bosworth); and that Hornby Castle, originally built by the Nevilles, was acquired by Sir Edward Stanley, Earl Thomas’s nephew. One might assume that all the Stanleys were rather aware of heraldry (given that they themselves used so many shields in their own heraldry). One might assume that in 1599 John Shakespeare was well aware of some of the rules of heraldry.

[ii] This point seems highly relevant in Mary’s case. The use of a martlet for a fourth son does not restrict this to her father Robert or grandfather Thomas being a fourth son. In the example above, the junior branch had started in the late thirteenth century. In Robert Arderne of Wilmcote’s case it could easily go back to Ralph(2), a fourth son four generations earlier.

[iii] If, as stated, the system of cadency marks was introduced about 1500, it would have been Thomas Arderne Sr, who was rewarded by Henry VII, who adopted the martlet, his father having been a fourth son. This would, however, have applied equally to his younger half-brother Ralph, who stayed in Cheshire and continued the line there.

[iv] Crescent “Can be a charge or a cadency mark”. (Oxford Guide to Heraldry, p. 198) The crescent on (5) thus may or may not indicate a second son.

[v] Martlet See Heraldic terms. Used for a fourth son, as indicated above.

[vi] Chief of a shield See Heraldic Terms. Basically, the top third.

[vii] No tinctures, or colours, are given for these arms in (1) to (5) above, but one might (or might not) assume that the colours on (1), (2) and (3) were all the same. It does not really matter here, because they were not the arms awarded to John Shakespeare for impalement.

[viii] The date of 1628 is interesting here. The use of cadency marks was obviously still being discussed and defined.

[ix] The law of primogeniture stated in 1628 is relevant mainly to the Shakespeare arms. One might deduce from this alone that William Shakespeare was the eldest son, because the same arms appear on his tomb, without any cadency mark. However, we know that he left no sons, and yet the same Shakespeare arms were subsequently used several times on memorial plaques. Mention of some of these is made by Peter Lee, ‘Shakespeare’s Hidden Family?’ on The Shakespeare Family History Site.

[x] If William Shakespeare’s coat of arms on his tomb in Stratford had included the Arderne arms, allowed in 1599 to be impaled on John Shakespeare’s arms, this would have confirmed the identity of his mother beyond all doubt. But they weren’t included. In heraldic terms, this is virtual proof in itself that she was not his mother.

5. Arden family of Alvanley in Cheshire

The omission on Lewis’s part here was not including Arderne of Alvanley and Harden, Cheshire. The descent of this family is shown clearly on the CHESHIRE ARDERNE Family Trees. One can only presume that the arms that are shown in shield (5) (in 1940) are those borne by one of the last of the line, before the male line died out in the middle of the 19th century. The last of the line was indeed an Arderne, Earl of Alvanley, but he lived at Harden Hall. Whatever was indicated by the crescent on his shield is now rather irrelevant, given that he lived three hundred years after Robert Arderne, Mary’s father. The only relevance here is that it is proof that the same arms were borne by the Ardernes of Cheshire from at least 1288 (Sir Peter Arderne of Aldford, Cheshire) for well over six hundred years. In the middle of this period came Mary Arderne and John Shakespeare, who presumably knew better than anyone else which coat of arms she was entitled to.

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