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Shakespeare's Grant of Arms

William Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, applied for a grant of arms in 1596. He then applied for a confirmation of arms in 1599, so that his wife’s arms could be impaled with his own. Although William Shakespeare’s name does not appear in the grants, the prosperous and successful playwright is assumed to have commissioned them on behalf of his aging father. Study of their handwriting indicates that the main scribe of each was William Dethick, Garter Shakespeare’s King of Arms.


Two draft grants of arms survive from the 1596 application, both dated October 20, 1596. One draft (image top right) describes the arms as “gold, on a bend sable, a spear of the  first, the point steeled argent”; that is, a gold background, with a black diagonal band set with a gold spear tipped with silver. The spear in the shield is a visual pun on the Shakespeare family name. The grant also describes the crest: “A falcon, his wings displayed, argent, standing on a wreath of his colors, supporting a spear gold, steeled argent.” This miniature spear looks a bit like a metal pen, which was probably deliberate. The second draft’s neater script and its format, together with the fact that it incorporates some of the changes made to the first, suggest that it was intended as the model to be followed by the professional scribe who would write the patent of arms on parchment. Shakespeare’s motto Non sanz droict (Not without right) is included here, although it was not actually part of the grant and did not need to be recorded (image second right).

In a 1599 draft confirmation of arms (image third right), William Dethick, Garter King of Arms, and William Camden, Clarenceux King of Arms, confirms that John Shakespeare is entitled to bear the arms of Arden impaled with those of Shakespeare (i.e., that Shakespeare’s coat of arms could feature the Arden arms beside those of Shakespeare). Including the Arden arms would add luster to the Shakespeare family name, since John Shakespeare’s wife, Mary Arden, was an heraldic heiress. Two Arden coats of arms are drawn on this draft: the first is from another family with the Arden name; the second is the proper arms of Mary Arden’s family, drawn alongside after the mistake was realized. The Shakespeare family only ever used the 1596 arms, suggesting that this 1599 confirmation was never formally issued as a signed and sealed patent. These drafts are on loan to the exhibition by the courtesy of the Kings, Heralds, and Pursuivants of Arms.

Draft Grant of Arms to John Shakespeare, 1596

Draft Grant of Arms to John Shakespeare, 1596

Draft Grant of Arms to John Shakespeare, 1596

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