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The Collation

William Dethick and the Shakespeare Grants of Arms

For many visitors to the Folger’s Heraldry exhibit, “Symbols of Honor,” the stars will be the three original draft grants on paper of Shakespeare’s coats of arms. These belong to the English heralds’ long-established institution, the College of Arms in London, and they have never before been out of England.

the three drafts of the grants of arms to Shakespeare's father

the three drafts of the grants of arms to Shakespeare’s father

The Shakespeare grants can be seen to be in the hand of the herald William Dethick. It is surely more than probable that they represent what he discussed with William Shakespeare and wrote down at the time, when the two men were together one day at the College of Arms.

Of course it’s a pity that the resultant formal grants—calligraphically-written parchment documents that would each have had a painting of the Shakespeare arms—no longer survive. Shakespeare’s own archive disappeared centuries ago. Just what the parchments looked like can easily be imagined, however, by looking at some of the contemporary examples of such documents that are in the show. (See, for example, this grant of arms to Stephen Powle.) We can also be absolutely sure that William Shakespeare did use the coat of arms that is the subject of the first two drafts, since this coat appears on his funerary monument in the parish church in Stratford-upon-Avon.

  1. Anthony R. J. S. Adolph, “Dethick, Sir William (1543–1612)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 30 June 2014]


That comma in “Non, sanz droict” does make a lot of sense, if Shakspere and the author Shakespeare were two different people. And Shakspere’s application for a coat of arms was previously turned down, perhaps on the grounds that he was “without right” to one.

One of the hundreds of dots that have been ignored, in an effort to defend the traditional authorship theory.

Richard M. Waugaman — July 1, 2014


The arms were applied for i n1596 and 1599 by John Shakspere, not William Shakespeare, so it is conjecture that the son compared notes and heraldry with Dethick. The application was one suspected of fraud and graft by a later herald, Ralph Broke. Sport about Shakspere’s brazenly buying gentleman’s status was introduced as part of Jonson’s EMOOHH. The supposed motto “Non, sans droict” (No, without right) was on the first application, ostensibly a refusal. It did not appear on the second, so it had no official warrant. The Shakspere family never used the motto. Jonson altered it to “Not Without Mustard”. The fact that Jonson lampooned Shakspere so bitterly goes to the heart of who the Stratford Shakspere was. He had never used the name Shakespeare, nor was that spelling ever part of his family records in the Warwickshire parish. Those entries used the short flat-a phonetic reference. [Shacks-per] As your illustration shows, the sketch of the arms was done decades later and the writing added. It is not a verified and authenticated document. The best way to understand Shakspere’s reputation in London is to read Jonson’s ‘On Poet-Ape’. It excoriates someone connected to the wool trade as a greedy conscienceless knave and play-book thief. Other than that, enjoy the exhibit.

William Ray — July 1, 2014


If you click through on the first image in the post—the one of the draft grants of arms, which leads to a fuller description of them on the exhibition site—you’ll see that the drawing of Shakespeare’s arms and the motto are indeed contemporary with the grant application. The later drawing by Peter Le Neve that is in this post was used here because it is an early reproduction of the arms that is in the Folger’s collections (and therefore something that we have permission to reproduce). But it does not differ significantly from the depiction on the grants.

Sarah Werner — July 6, 2014


[…] There’s a real human side to the items in the exhibition. Heather Wolfe, the other co-curator, has enjoyed examining these “working papers that show the heralds as human beings. I’m excited about any manuscript that gives you a sense of the personalities”. The Heralds appear to have been a strong-minded group, among whom disagreements were not uncommon. For an insight into William Dethick see the blog post by Nigel Ramsay on The Collation, entitled William Dethick and the Shakespeare Grants of Arms. […]

Symbols of honour: heraldry at the Folger Shakespeare Library | The Shakespeare blog — July 2, 2014


Quote: “made a nonsense of Shakespeare’s motto” – “Shakespeare was an acknowledged master of mottoes.” Obviously, given Dethick’s irascible nature, he may well have seen in Shakespeare a competitor whom he thought less deserving than himself.

CrisisMaven — July 5, 2014


Contradictory to Nigel Ramsay’s belief that Shakespeare having written Rutland’s impressa is “another of the few things that we know for sure about his life” is the research of Henry Wriothesley’s biographer, Charlotte Stopes who presented the facts (in The Athenaeum, 16 May, 1908) that the part of the impresa made by a “Mr. Shakspeare was not its motto but the decorative armaments displayed on it. She reported: “The ‘Mr. Shakspeare’ was John Shakspeare, a fashionable bit-maker of the time, who features in multiple entries in the Wardrobe Accounts of Charles I, both as prince and king. Among other things he made ‘guilt bosses charged with the arms of England’ an appropriate person to undertake the metalwork of an impresa.”

Julie Sandys Bianchi — June 29, 2016


I stand by my original mention (en passant) of William Shakespeare as the Mr Shakespeare whom the Earl of Rutland rewarded with 44s. for the impresa which had been composed for him. To me, the matter was laid at rest by this passage in Samuel Schoenbaum’s William Shakespeare : a documentary life (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 220:

“On 31 Mar 1613 (a week after the King’s Accession Day tourney), the steward of the Earl of Rutland] recorded the payment of 44s. ‘to mr Shakespeare in gold about my Lordes Impreso’, and another 44s. ‘To Richard Burbadge for paynting & making yt.’ Burbage was a talented amateur painter whose familiar self-portrait today hangs in the gallery at Dulwich College. The linking of his name with Shakespeare’s effectively eliminates any doubt that it was the poet rather than some other Shakespeare–John Shakespeare, the royal bit-maker, for example–who created the Earl’s impresa.'”

In any case, an impresa is a text, not a three-dimensional artefact; and so on these grounds too it must have been William Shakespeare whom the earl was rewarding.

Nigel Ramsay

Posted on behalf of Nigel Ramsay by The Collation editors — July 5, 2016


Why would Dethick put a motto on Shakespeare’s grant of arms (and actually it is present only on a preliminary draft)? The English College of Arms did not grant mottoes. Learn some history.

Also learn how commas were (mostly not) used in Early Modern legal documents. “Non, sanz droict” (“No, without right”) was most likely his first assessment until he got a suitable . . . um . . . “gift” to expedite the application. It appears on none of the other, later, documents, and Shakespeare never used it.

Tom Reedy — July 2, 2016


Metalwork? Oh dear. An impresa is a shield of painted pasteboard, illustrating a brilliantly conceited motto: no job for a bitmaker, but for an limner and a poet. Words were essential.

Two men were paid for this impresa. One of them must have written a motto for it. Burbage was well-known as a painter, but no one ever said he was a writer. That leaves Shakespeare: and the Shakespeare associated with Burbage could write.

In his Remaines Concerning Britain, William Camden writes: “An Impress (as the Italians call it) is a device in Picture with his motto, or Word, borne by Noble and Learned Personages, to notifie some particular conceit of their own, as Emblems … do Propound some general instruction to all … There is required in an Impress … a correspondency of the picture, which is as the body and the Motto, which as the soul giveth it life.”

Evidently, the Earl of Rutland trusted a common player to epitomize his inmost soul.

As Karl Josef Höltgen says:

“Due to their somewhat elitist, courtly associations and the their intentional ‘darkness’, imprese enjoyed a higher prestige than emblems. … The impresa has only two parts, a symbolic picture and a brief motto or quotation which, as a rule, should not exceed three words and should be framed in a foreign language. The most important difference is this: emblems express general truths and moral considerations whereas imprese reflect a hidden personal intention and disposition of the bearer or a particular situation and occasion, originally in love or war.”

Nat Whilk — July 2, 2016


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