It is significant of the modern and practical age we live in that spurs are now worn simply for utility’s sake, and have lost almost completely the glamour that once surrounded them. Many were the quaint customs, in some cases even the laws, which related to spurs. Lord Colchester, writing in 1776, records in his diary that he inadvertently entered the House of Commons with spurs attached to his boots, and was very promptly called to order by an old member for assuming a privilege only accorded to county members. The same Parliamentary rule is noticed by the author of “The Nobility of the British Gentry.” Though, he says, the knights condescended to sit under the same roof with the citizens and burgesses, they were summoned to appear in the insignia of their rank, and always maintained the dignity of the equestrian order. “The most trifling distinction suffices to destroy the idea of equality, and the distinction of the spur is still observed.” The military members of the writer’s period no longer appeared in armour, but to them alone was granted the privilege of wearing spurs as a mark of knighthood. The citizen or burgess who, after his morning ride, either inadvertently or with design approached the chamber with his spurs on, was stopped by the usher, and compelled to return home and divest himself of these unmerited decorations. Even a gentleman of the first quality, an Irish peer, or even the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself, who, whatever might be his authority and dignity elsewhere, should sit in the House in the humble character of citizen or burgess, was forced to submit to the indignity.

Originally the spur was merely a sharp goad. Afterwards it was improved by bending the shank to suit the ankle, and, shortly after Henry III. came to the throne, the rowelled spur was introduced, gradually increasing in length until it reached its maximum of seven and a half inches in the time of Henry VI. Then fashion changed, and the only spurs in favour with the fashionable world were those with close, star-shaped rowels. Ripon, in Yorkshire, was in those days as familiar for the manufacture of spurs as Sheffield is to-day for the manufacture of cutlery. “As true steel as Ripon rowels” became a proverbial expression; which, when we read that a Ripon rowel would strike through a shilling, and broke rather than bend, is scarcely to be wondered at. In 1617 James I. passed through the town, and was presented with a pair of spurs valued at five pounds. It is noticeable that steel was not the only metal used for the fashioning of spurs. Brass and silver, sometimes even gold, were pressed into service, and spurs were frequently chased, gilt, decorated with jewels, and adorned with more or less impressive mottoes, generally of a defiant character. Lady equestrians adopted spurs at a very early period. Chaucer’s wife of Bath, it will be remembered, is described as having “on her feet a pair of spurs sharp.”

Among the curious spur customs must be included the practice that obtained in cathedrals, especially St. Paul’s, of collecting what was known as “spur-money.” In a list of the privy-purse expenses of Henry VII. in the year 1495 appears the following item: “To the children for the king’s spurs, 4s.” And, between June, 1530, and September, 1532, no fewer than three payments of 6s. 8d. are recorded as made by the eighth Henry’s paymaster to the choristers of Windsor “in rewarde for the King’s spurres.” This is supposed by some to relate to the payment of money to redeem the Royal spurs from the choristers, who claimed them as their perquisites at installations, or at the annual feast in honour of St. George. But a more probable theory is that the sums so expended were “spur-money.” This spur-money was the fine paid by any gentleman whose spurs jingled inside a cathedral. The fine was handed over to the choristers, and the not unnatural result was that the latter soon began to neglect their duties in favour of running about in quest of spur-money. The custom was still in a flourishing condition in the early half of the nineteenth century. On one occasion, at Hereford Cathedral, a visitor declined to satisfy the demands of the boys, and they promptly seized his hat and decamped with it. Instead of redeeming his property, the indignant despiser of old customs, who must have been sadly lacking in humour, laid a complaint before the bench; but the magistrates dismissed the case on the ground that the choristers were justified in keeping the hat as a lien for the payment of the customary fine.

There was, however, a way by which the victim could escape without loosening his purse-strings. This saving clause is set forth in a notice issued by the Dean in the Chapel Royal in 1622: “If any knight or other person, entitled to wear spurs, enter the chapel in that guise, he shall pay to the quiristers the accustomed fine; but if he command the youngest quirister to repeat his gamut, and he fail in so doing, the said knight shall not pay the fine.” By these crafty means the choristers’ zeal in their work was largely stimulated. The youngest chorister who lost the entire party their prey by failing to repeat his gamut, probably came in for a warm reception shortly afterwards at the hands of his justly indignant companions. Once the Duke of Wellington himself enforced this rule, and baffled the young assailants of his purse. When a similar claim was made against the Duke of Cumberland (afterwards King of Hanover) in Westminster Abbey, he evaded it by insisting that he had the right to wear his spurs in the place in which he had been invested with them. It is curious to notice the antipathy of the church to spurs. On the belfry-wall of All Saints Church, Hastings, hangs a rhymed notice, declaring the belfry free to “all those that civil be,” but adding, “If you bring in spur or hat, sixpence you pay, be sure of that.”

Another curious custom was that prevalent among the debtors in Lancaster Gaol, who were in the habit of demanding largess of any visitor wearing spurs within the castle walls. Possibly spurs were taken for the outward and visible signs of opulence. Another person who preys upon the spurred is the door-keeper of the Edinburgh Court of Session, who is privileged to demand five shillings from anyone appearing in that court with spurs to his boots. Whether the modern door-keeper still fosters this custom, we do not know. But it may easily be proved. “Solvitur ambulando.”


Unsigned article in the Globe; title and date entered by Wodehouse
in his Money Received for Literary Work notebook.


Editor’s note:
Wodehouse claimed that he “dug these [turnovers] out of reference books” and we can verify that in this instance; except for a few comments, nearly all of the column is adapted from “Spurs and Spur-Money” in The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, edited by Robert Chambers and published by W. and R. Chambers in 1864. Wodehouse is doing a better job here of rewording the abridged material and creating a smooth flow of ideas than in some of the other turnovers. Karen Shotting notes that the speculations about stimulating the choristers’ zeal and the warm reception given to an unsuccessful youngest chorister are Wodehouse’s own contributions; indeed, their tone reminds me of the early school stories.

Neil Midkiff