Of late I have been wondering about Esquires. What, precisely, is an Esquire? Might Fitzwilliam Darcy, he of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice fame, be such a man? We can be certain that Darcy isn’t a Peer, since no one addresses him either as “Your Grace” (signaling his status as a Duke) or as “Lord” (as he would be called if were a Marquess, Earl, Viscount, or Baron). (La! Mrs. Bennet would make much of his status if he were.) Nor is there evidence that he is a baronet or knight, for no one addresses him as “Sir.” Darcy is a simple but wealthy “Mister.” Could he be an Esquire?
Early Definition: An Esquire Attended A Knight
From the reigns of Richard II (1367-1400) and Henry V (1386-1422) Esquires were men who were employed in war or waited on Knights or some other important person in military service. The appellation of Esquire was given to those whose status fell “between the dignity of Knight and the common title of Gentleman.”1
Sir John Doddridge described the title as being little more than a means of dividing a man from the lower orders of people beneath him. “Knighthood is a dignity,” he wrote, “but Esquire and Gentleman are but names of worship.”2 Doddridge defined five degrees of Esquireship:3
- Those elected for service to the Prince of Wales. (This position was eliminated in the royal household by Queen Anne in 1702.)
- Eldest sons of Knights (and their eldest sons in succession).
- Eldest sons of the younger sons of Peers (and their eldest sons in succession).
- Those created by the King.
- Those appointed to any superior public office in the Commonwealth, or asked to serve their Prince in any worshipful calling. For example, a County Sheriff retained the title Esquire for life.
Real-Life Regency Esquires
In a directory of Nottingham published in 1799 I found these real-life Esquires:4
- Thomas Oldknow, Esq. — Mayor of Nottingham and Alderman of Mounthall Ward
- Sam Statham, Esq. — Hosier in Pilcher-gate and a member of the Nottingham Senior Council
- John Fellows, Esq. — Silk merchant in High Pavement and a member of the Nottingham Senior Council
- Samuel Smith, Esq. — Colonel Commandant of the Nottingham Volunteer Infantry
- James Bardsley, Esq. — of Castle-gate (with no other particular designation)
In Glover’s directory I found an entry for John Evelyn Denison, Esq., M. P., whose image is shown above.5 In 1832 he represented the southern division of Nottinghamshire and was appointed the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire for 1839-40. He is listed as a Magistrate acting for the County of Nottingham in 1844. Denison appears initially to have been given the rank “Esquire” for his service in local government and in Parliament. In 1872 he was raised to the peerage as Viscount Ossington.
The Wikipedia webpage for Esquire lists seven definitions existing between 1586 and our modern day. The entry closest to the Regency era is that of Burn, Chitty, and Black’s definition in 1830. It is generally equivalent to those categories listed above.
Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Status in Pride and Prejudice
Could Mr. Darcy have styled himself “Esquire”? At the time of his story he does not appear to be eligible to define himself so. He is not the eldest son of a Knight or the eldest son of a younger son of a Peer. There is no evidence that the title was created for him by the King or that he served in some superior office such as a County Sheriff or Justice of the Peace. Of course, he is only 28 years of age at the end of Pride and Prejudice. He may yet be elected to a county office or Parliament or perform some particular service to the Crown and gain the title. Darcy can claim to be a gentleman, for he is an educated, wealthy landowner. With the beautiful, confident Elizabeth at his side, he might one day become a baronet or a Peer.
- Cited in Encyclopedia Metropolitana, Volume XVIII. (London, 1845), p. 626 (PDF p. 645).
- Ibid, p. 627 (PDF P. 646)
- Willoughby E. The Nottingham Directory. (Nottingham, 1799). Note: Pitcher-gate, High Pavement, and Castle-gate are all streets in 18th-century Nottingham.
- Glover, S. The History and Directory of the Town and County of the Town of Nottingham. (Nottingham, 1844), p. 197.