Postage and Bearers

Interpretation of a letter's import began long before it was opened. Primarily, the mode of delivery was inherently part of the message. A centralised postal 'system' did not exist in Bess's lifetime. The Royal mail had been officially organised since 1516, when Henry VII established the role of Master of the Posts, but it was only in 1635 that Charles I granted access to this postal infrastructure to non-official correspondence. In actuality, there had been increasing unofficial use of the mail before then, so much so that by 1626 Sir Francis Gofton was able to remark that although 'anciently none but the Secretaries of State did sent packets … now allmost every comon person doth it'. Nevertheless, until 1635 and continuing for a considerable period afterwards the main unofficial mode of delivery was by carrier. The regular carriers, who took all sorts of goods, including letters, would travel established routes, making deliveries at larger taverns along the way, which local messengers would take on to their addressees. Carriers were paid, usually by the recipient, and it was a method of delivery also dependent on a reliable supply of horses, a common source of complaint.

When addressing a person of high status, on the other hand, especially one residing at Court, such common methods of delivery were eschewed. Instead, one would enlist the services of a gentleman or lady of high standing. One might also use a personal messenger when writing to a non-noble addressee, usually commissioning a member of one's household to make the delivery. Alan Stewart reckons the bearer 'perhaps the single most important element of the early modern letter'. Letters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries abound with evidence about their deliverers, and it is clear that on many occasions there was a need to observe decorum regarding the status of the bearer. If known, this information can be suggestive about the social history of the letter in question. Famously, when John Donne wrote to his new father-in-law, Sir George More, explaining that he had secretly married More's daughter, he chose Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, to deliver the letter, implicitly relying on the earl's gravitas to ameliorate Donne's major social faux pas (not that it did him much good).

Bess's letters are full of references to bearers and carriers arriving at and leaving her houses. Household servants, friends and relatives are all variously specified as among Bess's letter-bearers, which, as Alison Wiggins has shown, builds a picture of 'an overlapping and multi-layered network of transport and transit options'. The level of trust with which they were treated is repeatedly made clear. In their function as bearers, many servants were ambassadors for Bess and her family, and were trusted to behave accordingly. Indeed, many would have proved their worth on a daily basis as competant household stewards. So, when Bess wrote to Sir John Thynne in the 1550s she sent her trusted man Master Hyde to expand on the content of the letter:

for that I haue no tyme to wryte at length mayster hyde cane declare unto you of all oure prosedynges here I thanke hym he hathe taken meche ^payne^ to brynge my dysordered thynges yn to some good order ID 198

The frequent references to bearers give us a great impression of the physical bustle of an early modern household. Writing to Bess in 1587, her son Charles Cavendish just managed to add this final comment before the letter was taken out of his hands by an impatient bearer:

This messinger is in such hast as I haue not tyme to reed over my letter./ ID 209

To take another example, writing to his step-mother and mother-in-law Bess in June 1574, Gilbert Talbot added a note on the outside of the sealed letter packet:

I receaved ^a^ lettre from my Lorde since this lettre was sealed & then I had no tyme by this messenger to Wryte agane vnto your La. which came in a comfortable season vnto me. ID 080

Time references in the letters remind us that the post did not follow a fixed routine. While there were set days when carriers arrived and departed, households like Bess's would send personal servants, attendants or family members with a letter ad hoc, as and when the message needed to be sent.

Bearers also remind us that letter-writing is not a stand-alone activity, but one embedded in a series of other human and material transactions. There are many features of a letter that do not leave physical traces: a bearer might have related personal messages in speech, creating, as it were, a verbal address, introduction or post-script (particularly regarding sensitive information) for which there remains no evidence. As George Clifford told Bess:

I will not nou troble your Ladyship with wrytyng answere to the speech that passed betwyxt hus concernyng my doughter, nor with a further sute that I am forced to macke to you, but refer all to this berer, whom I pray your Ladyship trust, he is the man that I most dooe ID 019

Bess herself ended one letter to Burghley:

I beseche your Lordship lycence thys bearar to declare more partecularly vnto your Lordship my most lamentable state ID 150

As James Daybell explains, bearers were trusted to act 'as personal representatives' of their employers, and were 'empowered to operate on their behalves'. A letter's authority was thus potentially vested both in its written content and in an accompanying oral communication. Sometimes the bearer introduced the letter; sometimes the letter introduced the bearer; often the bearer was also instructed to report back to the letter-writer about the recipient's physical and verbal responses to the letter.

When examining a letter, postage instructions or subsequent endorsements recording the process of delivery can offer glimpses into the document's physical transmission, and indicate what its earliest readers and bearers thought worth remarking on. Perhaps best known is the way in which many letter-writers included explicit reminders about the importance of their letter, and the need for it to be delivered quickly, by writing comments like 'hast hast hast' on the outside. A comment like this may exemplify an urgency of delivery, signalling that the letter was given special attention and, of course, this convention is the source of the modern-day phrase 'post-haste', meaning 'with all possible haste'. In Othello, the Duke of Venice orders one of his senators to 'Write from us … post-post-haste, dispatch' (1.3.47), and characters themselves are urged to emulate the speed of a post-haste letter:

CASSIO: The duke does greet you, general, / And he requires your haste-post-haste appearance, / Even on the instant. (1.2.36-8)

Not content with 'post-post-haste' or 'haste-post-haste', Sir Thomas Chamberlain directed one of his letters to the Council in 1551 'Hast post / hast / hast / hast / hast for thy life', and when George Brooke, Baron Cobham, wrote to the Queen in 1554 he opted for 'Hast hast / hast / hast / with all dyligence possible / for thy lyfe / for thy lyfe'. If a message was particularly urgent, a matter of life or death, it might even have a gallows drawn on it - symbolising letters of reprieve for those condemned to execution. Especially important letters might have the stages of delivery noted on them. When Edward Dodington, an army lieutenant, wrote to the Council on 25 June 1599 ('for her maties special use … hast post hast / for life haste / haste post haste / for life'), his letter was endorsed with postage receipts at several stages of its journey until it arrived on the 27th. We often see notes like this accruing in layers as a post-haste letter is tracked, creating a system of postal accountability that might roughly be compared to an electronic tracking system for recorded delivery letters today. In the case of Bess's letters, instructions for urgent or post-haste delivery are quite specific to the circumstances. When Bess added the delivery instruction 'with spede and all posybell delygence' it was for a letter regarding an ongoing bill against her in parliament, for which she had to gather support quickly, before it was passed ID 111. When Bess received a letter from Lord Burghley in October 1571 marked 'haste haste haste' she would instantly have known it contained matters of the most pressing and politically-senstive nature: in the letter Burghley asks Bess for her version of the truth after she was accused of being party to treasonous dealing between the Scots Queen and the duke of Norfolk. The delivery instructions reflect the seriousness of the allegation, as well as Burghley's apparent concern to hear Bess's side of the story ID 225.

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References and Further Reading

  • Francis Gofton's comments are found in Senate House, MS 195, vol. II, fol. 22r-v; my thanks to Noah Millstone for this reference.
  • Philip Beale provides a map of the main Tudor roads (and thus postal routes), in A History of the Post in England from the Romans to the Stuarts (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), p. 168. Beale details the history of the carrier system in England from the Norman conquest to the Stuart period; cf. his England's Mail: Two Millennia of Letter Writing (Stroud: Tempus Publishing, 2005), pp. 125-37.
  • In 1637, John Taylor published The Carriers Cosmographie, a survey of letter-carriers of various kinds who arrived into and left from London, detailing the locales at which they could be found.
  • An interesting letter regarding horses and the postage system survives at SP 10/4, fol. 69, Thomas Fisher to William Cecil, 27 July 1548: 'I haue byn but Ilfaveoredly handeled hitherunto of post horses, and specyally by the post at Royston'. Fisher points out that unless local posts are regularly reminded about their resonsibilities by the Master of the Posts (or upbraided for forgetting them, as in this instance), important messages like his could be severely delayed.
  • Alan Stewart's comment is made in Shakespeare's Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 66, and there is further apt discussion of bearers on p. 199.
  • James Daybell's comment about women's bearers (which is equally applicable to men) is made in Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 132.
  • Chamberlain's urgent message to the council (15 September 1551) survives at SP 68/8, fol. 181v, while SP 11/2, fol. 61v, records Lord Cobham's letter to the Queen (30 January 1554).
  • For Edward Dodington's letter to the Privy Council (25 June 1599), see SP 12/271/115, and for a document with similar postal markings, see SP 70/2/312, William, Lord Dacre, to Leonard Dacre (10 February 1559).
  • I quote Othello from the Arden Shakespeare edition (2002), ed. by E. A. J. Honigmann.
  • A detailed account of Bess's use of the contemporary postal networks is provided by Alison Wiggins, Bess of Hardwick: Reading and Writing Renaissance Letters, Material Readings in Early Modern Culture (Ashgate, forthcoming 2014).
Author(s): Daniel Starza Smith, April 2013


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'Bess of Hardwick's Letters' was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Humanities Research Institute at The University of Sheffield
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