An esquire (Latin, scutarius, shield-bearer) was a personal attendant on a knight. Over time the title evolved into that of an apprentice knight, and later into a lord of a manor. The numbers were swelled by those of the knightly class who did not take up knighthood. By the 14th century an esquire (armiger) practically attained equality with a knight, both in function and privileges. 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.
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.
In 1580 Robert Glover, Somerset Herald drew up a list of those entitled and in 1681 an officer of arms, probably Dugdale, in a similar list, stated that heralds should only allow the title of esquire to:
- the heir male of the younger son of a nobleman
- the heir male of a knight
- those who by long prescription can show their lineal ancestors so styled
- sheriff of a county, a JP or those so styled in the King's commission (who cease to hold the title when the office ceases)
- certain of the king's servants by reason of the office they bear, such as officers of arms, sergeants at arms, etc
To these should now be added:
- Royal Academicians (included by George III)
- Companions, Commanders, Officers and Members of Orders of Knighthood and Chivalry
- Sergeants at law
- Queen's Counsel
- Deputy Lieutenants and Commissioners of Lieutenancy
- Commissioners of the Court of Bankruptcy
- Masters of the Supreme Court
- persons to whom the Sovereign grants arms with the title of Esquire
- persons who are styled Esquires by the Sovereign in their patents
- commissions or appointments
- officers of and above the rank of Lieutenant RN, Captain in the Army and Flight Lieutenant
Scottish law recognizes a number of special titles which fall under the jurisdiction of the Lord Lyon King of Arms, and are recognized by the Crown. These chiefly styles and territorial designations of chieftains (branch chiefs) and lairds are legally recorded as a part of the surname under a statute of 1672.