Scrope v. Grosvenor

In July 1385, King Richard II of England led an army on an ultimately unsuccessful invasion of Scotland. While the invasion itself would play a role in British history, it was a chance meeting – beginning on the battlefield – that resulted in one of the first known trials involving heraldic law. In the end, the case of Scrope v. Grosvenor would result in major changes in how heraldry was interpreted.

During the aforementioned Scottish campaign, Sir Richard Scrope, a knight from Bolton, Yorkshire,[1] caught sight of Sir Robert Grosvenor of Hulme, Cheshire.[2] What drew Scrope’s attention most was Grosvenor’s arms, which were described as “azure, a bend or” (blue with a gold diagonal band), the same arms as the ones Scrope bore.[3] In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, coats of arms consisted almost exclusively of a single charge (emblem) and one tincture (color); however, by the 1380s, there was greater variation in arms, as the sharing of a coat of arms between unrelated families was far less tolerated.[4] Furthermore, despite both being knights in the King’s army, Sir Richard Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor were far from equals. Scrope had previously served as England’s Lord Chancellor and been summoned to Parliament between 1364 and 1380.[5] Meanwhile, Grosvenor was a relatively obscure county knight, as a variety of witnesses would later attest.[6]

The belief in the existence of this Sir Gilbert Grosvenor persisted for centuries…

Upon noticing the Grosvenor arms, Scrope challenged the Cheshire knight’s right to display them. In response, Grosvenor indicated that the arms were his and they had always been used by his ancestors, including a man named Sir Gilbert Grosvenor, who supposedly came to England with William the Conqueror.[7] The belief in the existence of this Sir Gilbert Grosvenor persisted for centuries, and his descent to Sir Robert Grosvenor was recorded in such works as the Visitation of Cheshire and Burke’s Peerage.[8] Despite this, later research found that Sir Gilbert Grosvenor was actually Sir Gilbert Venables, and he was in no way an ancestor of the Cheshire Grosvenors.[9]

The dispute was brought before the Court of Chivalry and the case was presided over by Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and the Constable of England.[10] Both Scrope and Grosvenor arrived at the court at Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 20 August 1385 and stated their cases before adjourning to Westminster. The case dragged on for many months and, almost a full year later in July 1386, the Constable requested that evidence be taken in the country.[11] Beginning that September, witnesses were called and they were asked:[12]

  • Whether the arms in dispute belonged to Grosvenor and if so, what was the witness’s source for that knowledge?
  • If Grosvenor’s ancestors bore the same arms and, if so, in which expedition or war, and how this was known.
  • Did they know the parties and were they related to them?
  • Was their evidence based on hearsay or on documents, glass, sculptures, or other proof?

The witnesses included many men who would carve out their own important places in English history, including John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, like Thomas of Woodstock a son of King Edward III; John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke (who would later become King Henry IV of England); and “the father of English Literature,” Geoffrey Chaucer.[13] Chaucer’s testimony has been interpreted as critical to the case for Scrope, as the poet told a story in which he was walking through London and came across an inn displaying the contested arms. When Chaucer inquired as to why they hung the arms of Scrope’s family, he was told that they were in fact representing Sir Robert Grosvenor; that was the first time Chaucer had ever heard of anyone bearing the name Grosvenor.[14] Chaucer’s testimony suggested that heraldry was a concept familiar to even those who did not belong to a noble estate, as the man he spoke with was simply a passerby.[15]

Chaucer’s testimony has been interpreted as critical to the case for Scrope…

At least eight witnesses were called to testify by both Scrope and Grosvenor.[16] In 1832, the evidence in favor of Scrope would be published by Sir Harris Nicholas while coupled with detailed notes on the history of the Scrope family.[17] Nicholas stated that he intended to publish an additional volume chronicling the evidence in favor of Grosvenor; however, no such volume was ever produced.[18] Many of the men who testified on behalf of Scrope indicated that they had either witnessed relatives of Sir Richard Scrope bearing the same arms or that they had seen the arms in question in various locations, including stained glass in churches and upon the armor worn by Scrope in prior battles. Several others related that they had been told of Scrope’s arms by older noblemen and relatives.[19]

Altogether, between September 1386 and January 1387, more than two hundred witnesses were queried in support of both parties in the case. The process was long and drawn out, as it was not until 1389 that Thomas of Woodstock issued his ruling in favor of Scrope. The Constable concluded, however, that Grosvenor could continue to bear the arms provided that they were within an argent (silver/white) border.[20] Neither party was satisfied with the decision, forcing the court to call upon Thomas’s nephew King Richard II to provide his own verdict.[21] On 27 May 1390, the King affirmed the Constable’s decision that Grosvenor could not bear arms that were identical to those borne by Scrope; however, the King’s opinion was also that the shields, even if one had a border, were too similar for unrelated families, and therefore, Grosvenor would be required to choose new arms.[22] Grosvenor assumed arms portraying a golden wheatsheaf on a blue field, the arms of the Earls of Chester.[23] Interestingly, the case ended amicably at the request of the King. Sir Richard Scrope forgave the costs against Sir Robert Grosvenor and, at the command of the King, Scrope embraced Grosvenor and promised his friendship. Richard II made such a request so that it could be entered into the official court records.[24]

As luck (and history) would have it, the statuses of the two families seem to have reversed.

As luck (and history) would have it, the statuses of the two families seem to have reversed. From the fourteenth until the seventeenth century, the Scrope family were highly regarded, with Sir Richard Scrope’s second-born son, William, being named the 1st Earl of Wiltshire.[25] However, at present, none of the descendants bearing the Scrope surname possess any hereditary titles in England. Conversely, despite many at the time of the trial claiming they had never heard of the Grosvenor family, by the seventeenth century the descendants of Sir Robert Grosvenor had attained a place of importance among the British nobility. Most recently, Hugh Grosvenor, 7th Duke of Westminster, was named the godfather of Prince George of Cambridge in 2013.[26] The impact of the verdict of Scrope v. Grosvenor has reverberated throughout the centuries in other ways as well. Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, was known within his family as “Bendor,” an allusion to the “Azure, Bend Or” of the contested arms. The name ‘Bend Or’ was also bestowed upon a thoroughbred racehorse owned by the 2nd Duke’s grandfather, Hugh Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster.[27]

The importance of Scrope v. Grosvenor to the practice of heraldry was monumental. The case showed the need for the regulation of arms in England through increased record keeping, control, and management. It also made clear the seriousness with which heraldry was regarded, as the matter was brought before the King of England. Ultimately, after the conclusion of this case, there was a notable increase in the number of officers of arms and the power of these officers to grant and oversee the application of coats of arms. Such is the legacy of Scrope v. Grosvenor.

Notes

[1] Clifford J. Rogers, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology, vol. 1 (London: Oxford University Press, 2010), 242.

[2] W.H.B. Bird, “The Grosvenor Myth,” The Ancestor: A Quarterly Review of County and Family History, Heraldry and Antiquities 1 [1902]: 174.

[3] Sir N. Harris Nicholas, The Controversy Between Sir Richard Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor in the Court of Chivalry, A.D. MCCCLXXXV – MCCCXC (London, 1832), 164.

[4] Mark Antony Lower, The Curiosities of Heraldry (London, 1845), 28.

[5] Nicholas, The Controversy Between Sir Richard Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor, 20-22.

[6] Ibid., passim.

[7] R. Stewart-Brown, “The Scrope and Grosvenor Controversy,” Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 89 [1938]: 3.

[8] Ibid., 11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 4.

[13] Ibid., 10.

[14] Ian Johnson, ed., Geoffrey Chaucer in Context (Cambridge, England, 2019), 290.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Stewart-Brown, “The Scrope and Grosvenor Controversy,” Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 89 [1938]: 20-22.

[17] Nicholas, The Controversy Between Sir Richard Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor.

[18] Stewart-Brown, “The Scrope and Grosvenor Controversy,” Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 89 [1938]: 2.

[19] Nicholas, The Controversy Between Sir Richard Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor, 168.

[20] Stewart-Brown, “The Scrope and Grosvenor Controversy,” Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 89 [1938]: 5.

[21] Ibid., 6.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 7, 9.

[25] G. Fred Clucas, “Sir William Le Scrope,” Mannin: Journal of Matters Past and Present relating to Mann 3 [1915]: 257.

[26] Gordon Rayner, “Prince George christening: profiles of the godparents,” The Daily Telegraph, 23 October 2013. The Grosvenor family’s wealth, initially derived from ownership of central London real estate, is reflected in their title (Westminster), in the term Belgravia (for a family seat of Belgrave in Cheshire), and in the names of Belgrave, Eaton, and Grosvenor Squares, etc.

[27] Loelia Lindsay, Grace and Favour: The Memoirs of Loelia, Duchess of Westminster (London, 1961), 172–74.

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About Zachary Garceau

Zachary J. Garceau is a former researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Master's degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in history from the University of Rhode Island. He was a member of the Research Services team from 2014 to 2018, and now works as a technical writer. Zachary also works as a freelance writer, specializing in Rhode Island history, sports history, and French Canadian genealogy.

3 thoughts on “Scrope v. Grosvenor

  1. While many of us know the name Scrope from Shakespeare (and is Scroop a variant?), the Duke of Westminster is famous in Commonwealth tax circles. His attempt at tax planning went all the way to the House of Lords and his victory still underlies the legitimacy of tax planning although its scope has been drastically narrowed. In tax circles, the case is often just referred to as “The Duke”

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