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A squire was the shield bearer or armour bearer of a knight. Use of the term has evolved over time. In the Middle Ages, it referred to a trainee knight but it would come to mean a leader of an English village, often a justice of the peace or a Member of Parliament. Currently, in the United States, it refers to a Justice of the Peace or to a similar local dignitary. A squire was also known as the "Errand Runner" or "Servent" of the knight.
Squire is a shortened version of the word Esquire, from the Old French escuier (modern French écuyer), itself derived from the Late Latin scutarius ("shield bearer"), in medieval or Old English a scutifer. The Classical Latin equivalent was armiger, "arms bearer".
The most common definition of 'squire' is that to which refers to the medieval times. A squire would be a teenage boy, in his training to become a knight. A boy became a squire at the age of 15. This was the second stage to becoming a knight, after serving first as a page. As part of his development to that end, he served an existing knight as an attendant or shield carrier, doing simple but important tasks like saddling a horse or caring for the knight's weapons and armour. The squire would sometimes carry the knight's flag to battle with his master. But a squire did not stay a squire forever. A knight would take his squires (a knight could have multiple squires but a squire could only have one knight) into battle with him and that was a squire's chance to prove himself. If he proved his loyalty and skill in battle, he would have a dubbing, an official ceremony to become a knight. However, during the Middle Ages the rank of the squire came to be recognized in its own right, and once knighthood ceased to be conferred by any but the monarch, it was no longer to be assumed that a squire would in due course progress to be a knight. The connection between a squire and any particular knight also ceased to exist, as did any shield-carrying duties.
The typical jobs of a squire included:
The young King Arthur serves as Sir Kay's squire in the traditional tale of the sword in the stone that appears in literary works including Le Morte d'Arthur and The Once and Future King. One of the pilgrim-storytellers in The Canterbury Tales is a squire whose father is the knight who also tells a tale. In Cervantes's Don Quixote, the babbling Sancho Panza serves as squire of the deluded Don Quixote.
In English village life from the late 17th century through the early 20th century, there was often one principal family of gentry, owning much of the land and living in the largest house, maybe the manor house. The head of this family was often called "the squire."
Squires were gentlemen with a coat of arms and were often related to peers. Many could claim descent from knights and had been settled in their inherited estates for hundreds of years. The squire usually lived at the village manor house and owned an estate comprising the village, with the villagers being his tenants. If the squire "owned the living" (i.e. "was patron") of the parish church — and he often did — he would choose the rector, a role often filled by a younger son of the squire of that or another village. Some squires also became the local rector themselves and were known as squarsons;a portmanteau of the words squire and parson. The squire would also have performed a number of important local duties, in particular that of justice of the peace or Member of Parliament.
Such was the power of the squires at this time that modern historians have created the term squirearchy. Politically, during the 19th century, squires tended to be Tories whereas the greatest landlords tended to be Whigs.
The position of squire was traditionally associated with occupation of the manor house, which would often itself confer the dignity of squire. It is unclear how widely the village squire may still be said to survive today; but where it does, the role is likely more dependent upon a recognition of good manners, lineage and long family association rather than land, which, while relevant, is nowadays likely to be considerably smaller than in former years due to high post-war death duties and the prohibitive costs associated with maintaining large country houses.
In Scotland, whilst Esquire and Gentleman are technically correctly used at the Court of the Lord Lyon, the title Laird, in place of squire, is more common. Moreover, in Scotland, Lairds append their territorial designation to their names as was traditionally done on the continent of Europe (e.g., Donald Cameron of Lochiel). The territorial designation fell into disuse in England early on, save for peers of the realm.
The later form of squire as a gentleman appears in much English literature, for example in the form of Squire Trelawney in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. William Makepeace Thackeray depicted a squire in Vanity Fair as a lecherous, ill-educated, badly mannered relic of an earlier age. However, he clearly shows their control of the life of the parish. Others include Squire Hamley in Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters and Squire Allworthy (based on Ralph Allen) in the novel Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, who was himself a squire and magistrate. There is also a notable squire in Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark.
In the post-medieval world, the title of esquire came to belong to all men of the higher landed gentry; an esquire ranked socially above a gentleman but below a knight. In the modern world, where all men are assumed to be gentlemen, the term has correspondingly often been extended (albeit only in very formal writing) to all men without any higher title. It is used post-nominally, usually in abbreviated form: "John Smith, Esq.", for example.
In the United States, this style is most common among attorneys, borrowing from the English tradition whereby all barristers were styled "Esquires". (Solicitors were only entitled to the style "Mr".) In earlier years in the U.S. the title squire was given to a Justice of the Peace, for example Squire Jones. It was also used to mean Justice of the Peace as in the example "He was taken before the squire." It appears that the connection to attorneys evolved from a time when squires meeting to negotiate a duel would instead resolve the dispute, see the heading England on Trial by Combat.
The linguistic and social development of squire is paralleled by that of the German junker, which originally meant "young lord" and denoted the poorer and unimportant part of the aristocracy, but "went up in the world" in much the same time as squire did in England.
The term 'squire' is sometimes used, particularly in cockney slang, by men when addressing another man. In this context it is interchangeable with other slang terms such as 'mate', 'pal' or 'chum', but possibly less familiar (i.e. used when the person addressed isn't known to the speaker) and/or when there is an implied subordinate relationship to the person being addressed. This usage crops up frequently in comedy sketches by Monty Python, et al. Example: "Yes squire, what can I do for you?".