Today’s artists are often knighted for their services to the entertainment industry. Elton John was made a knight, and Judi Dench is Dame Judi for her services. But when it comes to the life of William Shakespeare, why was he, arguably England’s most famous playwright, not given this auspicious title?

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This week, we are asking a largely rhetorical question when we suppose Shakespeare might have been knighted, because of course, no–William Shakepseare was never made a knight. Why is that?

Well, that’s because the very first playwright to be knighted would not arrive until the 19th century when Sir Henry Irving became the very first of the theater profession to be knighted in 1895 for his services to the stage. If you are interested in more information on Irving’s life, I refer you to Emory University’s website here.

1878 Portrait of Henry Irving | Lock and Whitfield, London | Public Domain | Source

As Shakespeare has done as much, if not more, for the stage than Irving, there’s a case to be made that perhaps Shakespeare should be knighted posthumously. I would support such a movement, and I’m sure you are not surprised by that. 

What you may be surprised by, though, is the history of knights and knighthood in Shakespeare’s lifetime. To help you better understand the knights that show up in Shakespeare’s plays, this week, instead of just saying “no, he wasn’t.” And leaving that as the answer for this week, instead, let’s take this opportunity to explore what exactly knights were for William Shakespeare. 

Originally, knights for England were soldiers. They were hired to do military work in service to the crown. The job came with specific duties, and came to be known specifically for their chivalric code that was strictly followed.

14th c  miniature image of king David I of Scotland knighting a squire | Public Domain| Source

By the time Shakespeare was living and writing his plays, being a knight was a British honour, but it was far from the military prowess and prestige it had once held. 

Knights did have a coat of arms assigned to them, and since William Shakespeare was able to achieve a coat of arms and the status of gentleman, that’s where the confusion over the bard’s knighthood came up.

Design for the coat of arms for John Shakespeare. 20 October 1596. Source


Join us inside #Ep53 of That Shakespeare Life for our Interview with Paul Edmondson. In that episode, he shares the history behind Shakespeare’s coat of arms, including one theory that William Shakespeare himself may have had a hand in the design shown above.

While the bard was not a knight himself, he does mention knights over 200 times in his play, with my favorite quote coming from Touchstone in As You Like It, who says

“Of a certain knight that swore by his honour they were good pancakes, and swore by his honour the mustard was naught.” 

Of course, Falstaff calls himself a knight, but history seems to indicate all the references to knighthood in Shakespeare’s plays come with an air of antiquated humor. 

By the end of the 16th century, knights were largely obsolete. Military operations were undergoing a massive period of innovation, including the creation of weapons and artillery which were easier to use, and easier to put into action on the field. Therefore, the need for knights declined rapidly. From roughly 1560, purely honorific orders were established, as a way to confer prestige and distinction, unrelated to military service.

Other famous knight tied to the life of William Shakespeare through the plays is Henry Hotspur. Shakespeare tells the story of Henry Hotspur, the knight who backed Henry Bolingbroke’s claim to the throne, then rebelled against him as well when they were discontented over Henry IV’s favor towards the up and coming Henry V. That entire saga is dramtaized in Shakespeare’s Henriad series.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t military knights during Shakespeare’s lifetime however, and one prime example of that is Francis Drake. Drake was knighted by Elizabeth I on board the ship, Golden Hind, in 1581. That was the same year he became Mayor of Plymouth, and as a Vice Admiral, he was second in command of the English fleet during the fight with the Spanish Armada in 1588. 

Elizabeth also knighted  Eighteen knights of the Bath made at her coronation. 

  • 1560 – Twelve knights dubbed at Barwick by the Duke of Norfolk.

Many Knights were made during the various Royal Progresses of Elizabeth I.

Other notable knights created during Shakespeare’s lifetime include 

  • 28 March 1603 – Sir John Payton, first knight made by King James, dubbed at Edinburgh
  • 17 July 1603 – General summons for all persons that had £40 in lands to come and receive the honour of knighthood or compound. The list of 23 July must be in response to this; the majority attended according to the summons and on that day some 427 persons were dubbed, at least 350 of them in the royal garden at Whitehall before the King’s coronation on 25 July.
    • I had thought, given Shakespeare’s ambitions personally, that he might have tried to take advantageous of this offer, but it seems the offer was only available to people living in a certain region called Cinque Ports (which if I did this right are Hasting, New ROmney, Hythe, Dover, and Sandwich–none of which are anywhere near Stratford Upon Avon, nor Warwickshire, as it happens) So the Shakespeare’s lost this opportunity on a technicality. I wasn’t able to find in time for this episode whether such blanket summons for anyone of a certain status to come and be knighted were common or something peculiar to the reign of James I.If you have more information, post it in the comments below.

  • 25 July 1603 – King James I, on the occasion of his coronation, made 62 Knights Companion of the Order of the Bath (KB). He also made 430 Knights Bachelor (Kt Bach) at Whitehall.
  • 6 January 1604/5 – Twelve KBs created on the occasion of Prince Charles’ creation as Duke of York
  • 2 June 1610 – Twenty-six KBs created on the occasion of Prince Henry’s creation as Prince of Wales at Whitehall

It seems that, as today, becoming a knight was something with which Shakepseare was familiar thought it was never an honor he himself would enjoy. I maintain that Shakespeare rightfully could be offered a knighthood posthumously. Send that on to the right people to make that happen, ok? Make sure you invite me to the ceremony. 

That’s it for this week! I’m Cassidy Cash adn I hope you learn something new abotu the bard. I’ll see you next week!

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Want to look further or explore the sources for today’s episode? Here’s a list of places you might enjoy:

Complete list of the knights James’ created in July 1603 via that summons

Knights of the Realm:

Calendar of State Papers (A hilarious read, you’ll see Sir Walter Raleigh “refuse to set his hand to anything.)

Map where I determined the “Cinque Ports” I am not 100% sure this is accurate, but here’s the map I used.