Esquire is a rank below that of Knight. Besides those Esquires who are personal attendants of Knights of Orders of Knighthood at their installations, this title is held by most attendants on the person of the Sovereign, and all persons holding or having held the Sovereign's commission in which they are so styled. Now placed as an accessory above a Shield of arms, and bearing its Crest after the fashion in which, in the Middle Ages, both Helm and Crest were actually worn in tournaments. A modern usage distinguishes Helms as follows: The Sovereign - Helm of gold, with six bars, set affrontée; Noblemen - Helm of silver, garnished with gold, set in profile, and showing five bars; Baronets and Knights - of steel with silver ornaments, without bars, the vizor raised, set affrontée; Esquires and Gentlemen - of steel, the vizor closed, and set in profile.
Esquire is a distinction among the gentry or minor nobility which degenerated into the usual mode of addressing every reputable tradesman, and is abused s? as to have lost its real meaning. One is often struck in examining family records of the 16th, 17th, and even the 18th centuries, such as monumental inscriptions, by perceiving the intermarriages of members of the same family sometimes with persons who are styled "Esquire," and sometimes with persons who are styled "Gentleman." The "Esquire" and the "Gentleman" were evidently different, and never were confounded together; at the same time they clearly belonged to the same grade of society : one generation of an ancient and honourable house intermarrying with the daughter of an "Esquire," and the next generation intermarrying with the daughter of a "Gentleman;" and in like manner, two sisters, daughters of the same family, marrying the one ? "Gentleman," and the other an "Esquire."
It would seem that according to the original meaning of the terms, "Gentleman' denoted a rank derived from birth, while "Esquire" denoted one derived from office. Legally, according to the heraldic definitions of the two or three last centuries, some men are ex-officio esquires who are not, strictly speaking, by birth gentlemen ; and, on the other hand, some men are ancient gentlemen who have not the official rank of esquire. County magistrates, for the time being, and high sheriffs of counties, for life, are all officially esquires ; and yet persons holding those situations may be of inferior birth, not entitled to bear coat armour, and thus not in the continental sense?, noble ; in tact, not gentlemen. Whereas some of the best blood in England may neither have been put on the commission of the peace nor have been nominated high sheriffs, nor have officiated as esquires to Knigbta of the Bath; nor have, in short, occupied any position which imparted to them the rank of esquire.
A "gentleman" is by blood superior to an "esquire," while an "esquire" by office holds a rank above a "gentleman." The "esquire" was, in its primitive sense, the shield-bearer to a knight Baron, knight, and esquire may be said to have marked different degrees within the class of gentry or nobility. "Gentleman" was a more comprehensive title than "Esquire," and marked the whole of that minor nobility to which both knights and esquires originally belonged. But time and usage have worked such confusion that it is difficult to say whether gentleman or esquire is the more honourable designation. By the early 19th Century, "gentleman" has been bestowed as a designation on persons of the middle rank, who were as little entitled to receive it as that of esquire. While by the mid-19th Century "esquire" was liberally conferred upon every man who was not actually standing behind the counter of a shop.
That courtesy of British society which extendrf the title of Esquire to every person who has received the education, or conforms to the habits of a gentleman. naturally requires that some account should be given of those who are entitled to the distinction, as contrasted with those who enjoy it by courtesy. The following is a list of all who, by right, possess this title, and whom it would be incorrect otherwise to describe in any ceremonial or legal proceedings.
- The sons of peers, whether titular lords or titular honourables.
- The eldest sons of peers' sons, and their eldest sons in perpetual succession.
- The eldest sons of knights, and their eldest sons in perpetual succession.
- The sons of baronets.
- The esquires of the knights of the Bath (each of whom constitutes three at his installation).
- Esquires by prescription, as lords of manors, chiefs of clans, &c.; and all others being tenants of the Crown in capite, and not being peers, baronets, or knights.
- Esquires by patent, and their eldest sons in perpetual succession.
- Barristers at law.
- Bachelors of divinity, of law, and of physic.
- Esquires by office, as Justices of the peace while on the roll, Mayors of towns during mayoralty, Sheriffs of counties, who retain the title for life- All who in commissions signed by the Sovereign are ever styled esquire, retain that designation for life, as for example, captains in the army ; but the claim of captains in the navy is not founded on this, for though they are of higher relative rank, their commissions are only signed by the lords of the Admiralty.
The origin of the title esquire is of considerable antiquity, and its source is coeval with that of knighthood; the designations of armiger, scutifer, scutarius, escuyer, and esquire, are all derived from the carrying of knight's shields, and other portions of his arms. But it was not till the time of Richard II that it came to be expressly conferred by patent or investiture; and this consists in the imposition of a collar of SS, or the putting on a pair of silver spurs, the knights having had golden spurs, and the squires silver.
The Collar Op SS. is a mode of creation frequently referred to, but not commonly understood. By some authorities it is described as having been founded in memory of a Roman senator, Simplicius, who with Faustinas suffered martyrdom under Diocletian ; and as consisting of a silver collar, between the links of which were twelve small pieces of silver engraved with the twelve Articles of the Creed, together with a single trefoil; the image of St. Simplicius (SS.) hung at the collar, and from it seven plates representing the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost. By others, the title of SS. is derived from the shape of the links representing the double S in their outline. Others, again, maintain that these S links stood as the initial of the word " souvenez."
But whatever may have been the real meaning of the name which these collars bear, it appears that in the reign of Edward IV they were made principally of silver roses, having a white lion attached ; while those given by king Richard III had a white boar suspended. These were called "collars of the king's livery" (from the liberate, it is said, which issued from the great wardrobe), and were granted by the sovereign to persons of both sexes and of various ranks; they continued to be conferred till the reign of Henry VII, by whom the ensigns of the order of the Garter were instituted. By a statute of Henry VIII, in 1532, it was enacted, that "no man, unless he be a knight, should wear any collar of gold, named a collar of S.;" and though it seems to have been then the peculiar badge of knights bachelor, its use is now confined to the chief justices and the chief baron, the lord mayor of London, the king's heralds, Serjeants at arms, and a few other functionaries.
The addition of the word "esquire" to any name, does not continue necessary when the person has been raised to a higher rank, and therefore it differs essentially from the dignity of knighthood. A knight is not divested of his title by any subsequent advance in rank or precedence, and the word "knight" after his name is quite necessary, even if he became a duke; but an esquire, by receiving knighthood or any superior distinction, is stripped of his previous title, and totally removed from the class of which he was formerly a member.
The addition of the word esquire to the names of those who did not derive the title from being knights' attendants, is stated to have originated as far back as 1245 ; but now, in the ordinary intercourse of society, it is conferred on all who have any pretensions to the bearing of gentleman, and to such an extent is this carried, that its application confers no honour, though its omission constitutes a negative offence. The number of persons who by birth are legally entitled to the designation of esquire, far exceeds any possibility of calculation ; for they include the eldest sons of all sons of peers, the eldest sons of esquires by patent, the eldest sons of knights, and all the eldest sons of these three classes in perpetual succession, as also all the sons of baronets ; hence tens of thousands of gentlemen who receive this affix, apparently as a matter of courtesy, really enjoy a legal right; and though it be more frequently used than any other courtesy distinction, yet the right to it is more extensively possessed than readers in general are in the habit of supposing. There cannot be a more vulgar error, than to imagine that the affix of esquire, any more than the prefix of sir or lord, is dependent on what the world calls " respectability."
The largest amount of funded property, or the most extensive estates, do not confer such a distinction legally, or even by courtesy, unless, indeed, the latter should earn with them the lordship of a manor, or a tenancy in capite. Mechanics and retail tradesmen are not called "gentlemen," however vast their wealth, or irreproachable their conduct, until they retire from business, or else become master manufacturers or merchants. Commercial letters are superscribed Mr. A B , or Messrs., though many of the parties so addressed are esquires in law; but merchants and manufacturers, if written to or designated in their private capacities, are always addressed and described as esquires. Inasmuch as the courtesy titles of "lord" and " honourable" are given to many thousands who legally are but esquires, so every one who is in law a gentleman, is by courtesy an esquire, in the same way thai the son of a marquis is addressed as Lord Charles , or Lord William ; and the son of an earl the honourable Frederick, though in all legal instruments and gazettes, even these latter are merely styled esquires.
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