In Britain, who is entitled to the suffix of “Esquire” (“Esq.”)?

Introduction

William-Rees-Mogg-Baron-Rees-Mogg
The Right Honourable The Lord Rees-Mogg Kt. William Rees-Mogg, father of politician Jacob Rees-Mogg, was a British newspaper journalist who was Editor of The Times from 1967 to 1981. In the late 1970’s he served as High Sheriff of Somerset, and in the 1980s was Chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain and Vice-Chairman of the BBC’s Board of Governors. In 1988, William Rees-Mogg was made a life peer as Baron Rees-Mogg, of Hinton Blewett in the County of Avon. Photo: National Portrait Gallery London.

British politician Jacob Rees-Mogg has marked his arrival as a senior minister in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government by issuing a detailed style edict (see appendix) for his departmental staff. Under the new rules, “untitled” men are to be described in writing as “Esquire” rather than “Mr.”  In this respect, it is interesting to see who in Britain is entitled to the suffix of “Esq.” from both a modern and historical perspective.

Historically, the term “Esquire” has an exclusive bearing. An esquire (Latin: scutarius; shield-bearer) originally was a personal attendant to a knight. Over time, the title evolved into that of an apprentice knight and later into a lord of a manor. With the rise of the use of the term “Gentleman” as a rank, it became increasingly difficult to know where the lower limit should be drawn. Traditionally, Esquire ranked socially above Gentleman but below Knight.

In the post-medieval world, the title of ¨Esquire” came to be attributed to all men of the higher landed gentry. Sir John Fearn, in his Glory of Generositie of 1586, referred to four sorts of esquires; by creation, birth, dignity, and office. He commented that this title “is no less abused and profaned” than that of Gentleman, and that,

the degree of esquire is through custom tolerated to many other sorts of gentlemen, but they all, or most of them, are…in function of some offices of justice or government in the King’s palace, as…annexed to the dignities of judges and barons of the benches and courts of justice; to the advocates and procurators of the sovereign; to the degree of sergeants at the coif; to the office of sheriff, escheator, and serjeant at arms; to the eldest born of a baron and peer of the realm or of a knight, besides many others. But that the same should descend from the father to the son, as the state of gentry doth, is mere fabulous. For the title of esquire of common right doth appertain to none, except that by creation he receives the same at the sovereign’s hand, or else through the bearing of such an office as a dignity anent to the same, or else by right of birth as in cases aforesaid, and that through custom.

Based on this definition and on other literature, the entitlement to the suffix of “Esquire” included the following persons:

Category A: Esquires by birth

  • The eldest sons of knights and their eldest sons in perpetual succession;
  • The eldest sons of younger sons of peers and their eldest sons in perpetual succession;
  • Eldest sons of esquires created by letters patent or other investiture, and their eldest sons;
  • Foreign noblemen.

In this context, the term is used to pay an informal compliment to a male recipient by way of implying noble birth.

Category B: Esquires other than by birth

  • Lords of the Manor;
  • Esquires created by letters patent or other investiture;
  • Esquires by virtue of their offices: as the heralds and serjeants at arms and some others, who are constituted esquires by receiving a Collar of Esses; Judges and other officers of state, justices of the peace, and the higher naval and military officers who are designated esquires in their patents or commissions; Doctors in the several faculties and barristers at law.

None  of these offices or degrees convey gentility to the posterity of their holders.

Conclusions

There are protocols for identifying those to whom the suffix should properly be given, especially in very formal or official circumstances. However, no fixed criteria distinguishing those designated “Esquire” exist. They differ over time and have the character of customary law. A number of authorities have tried to create criteria, but none of these are entirely correct or complete. The use of the term “Esquire” essentially remains a matter of impression as to whether a person qualifies for this status. For example, British men have ‘Esq.’ after their names whereas all men from overseas are called ‘Mr.’ on the envelope containing an invitation to Buckingham Palace. The same counts for letters sent to employees of the Royal Household. This protocol does not convey gentility. It is different when the suffix is used in official diplomas issued under the auspices of HM the Queen. In such cases, the suffix implies noble birth (category A, above).

The context of the use is therefore crucial to establishing the meaning of the suffix and determining whether the suffix is correctly used or not. The same is true for the prefix “Sir.” This prefix is used for men titled Knights, i.e., of orders of chivalry, to baronets and other offices. Since the Late Modern era, “Sir” has been increasingly used also as a respectful way to address any commoners of a superior social status or military rank.

Therefore, the specific context can be linguistic, involving the linguistic environment of the suffix “Esquire”, as well as situational, involving extra linguistic elements that contribute to the construction of the meaning of the suffix.

Literature

Appendix 1: Use of the suffix of “Esquire” by the Dutch in the East Indies (currently Indonesia) during the British period

Screenshot from 2020-04-10 23-00-19
Regerings-Almanak Nederlandsch-Indië of 1815, p. 39 (during the British period). From 1811 to 1816, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, FRS (5 July 1781 – 5 July 1826) was Lieutenant-Governor of the Dutch East Indies.

Appendix 2: full text of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s writing style document

RULES FOR UNDERLINGS.

To combat a shocking decline in standards, all but myself must obey the following rules. I shall not be bound by them, as evidenced in my recent excellently-written, well-received and best selling book, ‘Eminent Victorian’s’.

Do not use the Metric System. Or any other French invention, including pasteurisation, mayonnaise or aspirin. Use good, honest British alternatives or, better still, do without. Show some pluck!

Do not use decimal currency. Pounds, shillings and pence will suffice, but florins and groats for preference.

Terms of address. Untitled men are ‘Esquire’, after the totally most excellent example set by our colonial cousin Mr. Bill S. Preston, Esq, of California.

Unmarried women are ‘spinster of the parish’. Correspondence to married women should be addressed to their husband.

Use multiple spaces after a full stop. The more white space you can leave the better, in order to camouflage the lack of meaningful content.

FACT-CHECK YOUR WORK. If you find any, remove them immediately.

Certain words and phrases are strictly forbidden in communications, including

’I understand your concerns’ – I have never understood anyone’s concerns and I do not propose to start now.

’Get’, as in ‘Can I get a coffee?’ – I would immediately sack any member of the cast of Friends, and I will do the same to you if you speak like them.

’Friends’ – I watched it once. Awful moving daguerreotype ‘programme’. Do not mention it.

’Hopefully’ – There shall be no hope during my tenure.

’Unacceptable’ – Nothing is forbidden, everything is acceptable. This applies only to the actions of the Prime Minister.

’Equal’ – Equality has no place in our administration.

’Disappointment’ – this will go without saying.

‘Flaps’ – Can people please stop saying this to me? I do not understand it but makes me feel funny.