1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Esquire

ESQUIRE (O. Fr. escuyer, Mod. Fr. écuyer, derived through the form escudier from Med. Lat. scutarius, “shield-bearer”), originally the attendant on a knight, whose helm, shield and lance he carried at the tournament or in the field of battle. The esquire ranked immediately below the knight bachelor, and his office was regarded as the apprentice stage of knighthood. The title was regarded as one of function, not of birth, and was not hereditary. In time, however, its original significance was lost sight of, and it came to be a title of honour, implying a rank between that of knight and valet or gentleman, as it technically still remains. Thus in the later middle ages esquire (armiger) was the customary description of holders of knight’s fees who had not taken up their knighthood, whence the surviving custom of entitling the principal landowner in a parish “the squire” (see Squire). Camden, at the close of the 16th century, distinguished four classes entitled to bear the style: (1) The eldest sons of knights, and their eldest sons, in perpetual succession; (2) the eldest sons of the younger sons of peers, and their eldest sons, in like perpetual succession; (3) esquires created by royal letters patent or other investiture, and their eldest sons; (4) esquires by office, e.g. justices of the peace and others who bear any office of trust under the crown. To these the writer in the 3rd edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1797) added Irish peers and the eldest sons of British peers, who, though they bear courtesy titles, have in law only the right to be styled esquires. Officers of the king’s courts, and of the royal household, counsellors at law and justices of the peace he described as esquires only “by reputation”; and justices of the peace have the title only as long as they are in commission; while certain heads of great landed families are styled “esquires” by prescription. “But the meaner ranks of people,” he adds indignantly, “who know no better, do often basely prostitute this title; and, to the great confusion of all rank and precedence, every man who makes a decent appearance, far from thinking himself in any way ridiculed by finding the superscription of his letters thus decorated, is fully gratified by such an address.”

It is clear, however, that the title of esquire was very loosely used at a much earlier date. On this point Selden is somewhat scornfully explicit. “To whomsoever, either by blood, place in the State or other eminency, we conceive some higher attribute should be given, than that sole Title of Gentleman, knowing yet that he hath no other honorary title legally fixed upon him, we usually style him an Esquire, in such passages as require legally that his degree or state be mentioned; as especially in Indictments and Actions whereupon he may be outlawed. Those of other nations who are Barons or great Lords in their own Countries, and no knights, are in legal proceedings stiled with us, Esquires only. Some of our greatest Heralds have their divisions of Esquires applied to this day. I leave them as I see them, where they may easily be found.” Coke, too, says that every one is entitled to be termed esquire who has the legal right to call himself a gentleman (2. Institutes, 688).

At the present time the following classes are recognized as esquires on occasions of ceremony or for legal purposes:—(1) All sons of peers and lords of parliament during their fathers’ lives, and the younger sons of such peers, &c., after their fathers’ deaths; the eldest sons of peers’ younger sons, and their eldest sons for ever. (2) Noblemen of all other nations. (3) The eldest sons of baronets and knights. (4) Persons bearing arms and the title of esquire by letters patent. (5) Esquires of the Bath and their eldest sons. (6) Barristers-at-law. (7) Justices of the peace and mayors while in commission or office. (8) The holders of any superior office under the crown. (9) Persons styled esquires by the sovereign in their patents, commissions or appointments.[1] (10) Attorneys in colonies where the functions of counsel and attorney are united (in England solicitors are “gentlemen,” not “esquires”).

In practice, however, the title of esquire, now to all intents and purposes meaningless, is given to any one who “can bear the port, charge and countenance of a gentleman.” The word has followed the same course as that of “gentleman” (q.v.), and for very similar reasons. It is still not customary in Great Britain to address e.g. a well-to-do person engaged in trade as esquire at his shop; it would be offensive not to do so at his private residence. In America, on the other hand, the use of the word “esquire” is practically obsolete, “Mr” (“Mister” or “Master,” at one time the title special to a “gentleman”) being the general form of address.

See Selden, Titles of Honor (1672); Camden, Britannia (ed. London, 1594); Coke, Institutes; Enc. of the Laws of England, s. “Esquire”; Du Cange, Glossarium (ed. 1886), s. “Scutarius,” “Scutifer” and “Armiger”; New English Dictionary, s. “Esquire.”  (W. A. P.) 

  1. In practice this means every one receiving such a patent, commission or appointment.