In Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Henry VIII asks his consigliere Thomas Cromwell about his ancestry. Cromwell was what Simon Schama calls a Putney cleverdick, a blacksmith’s son who had risen to a position of power on the strength of his intelligence and ambition. The King, like everyone else in those days, found this disturbing, and suggested that Thomas must be related to some Cromwell gentry in Blankshire; when Cromwell demurred, Henry recommended that a man of his means and connections could acquire some quality ancestors.
Of course social mobility existed in 16th-Century England–rich aristocrats wasted their patrimony and ended up in the gutter, while talented and/or ruthless men (not so much women) gained wealth and power. But the culture, with its static vision of an eternal social hierarchy, had no way to encode or accept mobility: one must be a gentleman born, so what was needed was a machine for turning cash into ancestors, and the College of Heralds was that machine. For a fee, they would pore through ancient records, find connections to this or that person who fought at Crecy or Agincourt, and give you a coat of arms. Presumably this is what Henry was suggesting.
To give you an idea how rigid the social scheme was, there were laws about what kind of clothes each social class could wear, what colors and fabrics, and how they could accessorize. Mantel notes that at this point Cromwell, who had plenty of money and a taste for fine fabrics, still wore black wool to court–if he had dressed in the fancy silken frills and satin puffery that the other court boys were wearing, he would have risked not only ridicule but arrest. Cromwell did get his coat of arms (whether by fabricated descent or by a loophole mentioned below), and eventually Henry created him Earl of Essex, entitling him to lord it for a few months until the ever-fickle Mr. VIII turned on him and had him beheaded for treason. But hey, at least beheading was the gentleman’s death–commoners were hanged.
Mantel’s book made me think of the story of Shakespeare’s family coat of arms. When Will was a child, his father John seemed on the verge of breaking through the mullioned-glass ceiling into the gentry: he had married an Arden (related to the Ardens of Park Hall, woo-woo) and had held a series of respectable civic posts, culminating in the position of bailiff of Stratford (the equivalent of mayor). Though John himself, like most people then, signed his name with an X, it seems clear that he sent his boy Will off to the grammar school to learn Latin (it was basically a Latin immersion school; the feeling was that only an idiot needed to go to school to learn his native language). Finally John decided it was time to seal the deal, and he filed an application with the College of Heralds for a coat of arms. He apparently mentioned his wife’s family, his ownership of land, and a (one suspects fictional) ancestor who served Henry VII, but his strongest card was his position of bailiff, since the holders of certain public offices were entitled to be considered gentlemen.
The problem was that, as I mentioned, there was a charge, a rather large charge, and the head herald (the “Garter King-of-Arms, I know, it sounds like a popular guest at an S&M costume party) was a stickler for the cash. And just when the elder Shakespeare needed this money, his public life feel apart. He stopped attending town council meetings; he even stopped attending church, which could lead to fines or imprisonment (failure to attend church was a crime called recusancy). The reason for John’s recusancy is unclear–some think he was trying to avoid creditors (who were known to ambush their debtors outside Sunday services), some think that John was a closet Catholic and didn’t want to go to hell for worshipping Calvin-style (this would be a bit ironic, because one of John’s duties in his salad days had been to supervise the destruction of Popish art works in the Stratford church).
Whatever the details, John Shakespeare’s career hit the skids and his application for a coat of arms languished. William, instead of becoming a real gentleman, only played one on TV, parading around onstage in the silks and satins that he could get arrested for wearing on the street. This must have rankled a bit. By the mid-90s he had become a successful actor and playwright and even published a long poem in a book (much more high-class than writing plays), but a career in the theater was about as likely to impress as a thriving job as a bear-baiter. So Will had zero chance of styling himself a gentleman in his own right, but his father’s claim was still lying around, and all it took was money to light a fire under the Garter King-of-Arms. In October 1596, the Shakespeares were granted a new coat of arms, which you can see here:
The motto “Non sanz droict,” which the above website inexplicably describes as being in Latin, means of course “Not without right.” It suggests that Shakespeare might have been anticipating sneers from people who felt that neither the down-at-heels provincial glover nor the London stage-rat had gentle blood running in their veins.
And we know that he did get teased about it. Shakespeare’s own company performed Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humor, which features a social climber who buys a coat of arms to buttress his pretensions. Another character gives him the motto, “Not without Mustard.” You can bet that joke was lost on no-one.
I’ve read about the facts described here in a lot of places, but the perspective owes a lot to Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, which I recommend.