Address Leaves

Envelopes did not become current as a means of epistolary transmission until the eighteenth century. In the seventeenth century and before, a letter was sometimes wrapped in a separate sheet of paper, known as an address wrapper. More commonly, however, the address was written on the fourth writing side of a bifolium, which was otherwise left blank. That is to say, the letter was folded so that all paper with writing was concealed, and directions for delivery were then written on the outside, although the level of detail included was much sparser than we find today. As Peter Beal notes:

a name only might be sufficient if it were delivered personally by a servant of the writer, with perhaps the addition of the name of the town or village if delivered by some other courier (2008: 8)

Streets or houses are sometimes specified, but the bearer would usually be advised of his errand verbally, and thus need only a short identification on the letter to remind him. In fact, 'To yourself' and 'To [my lord/lady] at Court' were often deemed adequate: a bearer or carrier delivering one letter to one person would need no further instruction. On the othe hand, addresses might need to be incredibly detailed. Arnold Hunt points out a letter in the British Library, whose address leaf identifies not only the recipient but several officials along the way who would enable its passage, along with the note: 'Constables and Tithingmen see this letter conveighed from place to place till they comme to the place appointed'.

As this last example shows, the address leaf was essentially written for two different readerships: the recipient(s) and the carrier(s). When Bess's sons and daughters wrote to their mother they often used the straightforward formulation 'To my Lady', such as Charles Cavendish ID 208 and Mary (Cavendish) Talbot ID 090. Since the bearer knew precisely the Lady intended, this was a sufficiently polite term - one which acknowledged the family hierarchy - and no further specifics were needed. When Bess herself wrote to a social superior, we may see the decorum of the address leaf correspond to the contents, which explains the deferential nature of her letter to Lord Burghley in April 1591:

To the ryght honorable my very good Lord the Lo: burgley Lord Treas[o]rar of England ID 159

Although this formulation sounds hyperbolic to us today, it was of vital importance to get the titling right; not only did it signal correct social deference, the address reinforced the importance of the communication itself, imbuing it with the authority of the recipient. Since courtiers were often promoted or given new appointments and subsequently changed their titles, their correspondents in the countryside would have to follow news from court very carefully in order to address their letters correctly. We might also consider the similar triple address Bess places on a letter to her husband, Shrewsbury, c.1577:

To my Lord my husband the earle of Shrouesbury ID 183

Shrewsbury was her husband, but the additional information adds deference and impresses upon the carrier the importance of his errand. To these letters, we might usefully compare another written by Bess to one her servants around 1560. The address leaf here simply reads 'To James Crompe', and the letter begins without any of the rhetorical ceremony we associate with courtly correspondence: 'Crompe I do vndearstande by your leters that...' ID 100.

It is interesting to note other marks common on address leaves. A number of addresses among Bess's correspondence are lightly scored with diagonal pen marks additional to the writing, for example, ID 014 from George Chaworth, ID 021 from William Cavendish and ID 048 and ID 049 from James Montague. A similar device, but more of a decorative swirl, is found regularly below the superscriptions of letters from Gilbert and Mary Talbot to Bess, such as ID 080. These lines may be a 'knot', defined by the OED as 'A design or figure formed of crossing lines; an intricate flourish of the pen.' However, their purpose is not entirely clear, although it does seem likely that these marks would prevent anyone tampering with the address leaf.

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References and Further Reading

  • The British Library letter with the long address is found in MS Cotton Vespasian F12, fol. 191 (a microfilm of this restricted item exists at shelfmark M2582).
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 Digital Humanities Institute at The University of Sheffield
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