The Parts of a Letter

To define a document as a letter implies a certain formal typology; that is, parts or sections a reader would expect to be present. The characteristic parts of an early modern letter are, in a number of respects, rather different from those we anticipate to find when we open a modern letter or email today. Although, in other respects, they might seem eerily familiar to us. Prototypically, an early modern letter will include a superscription, subscription and signature, and sometimes a postscript and contemporary additions, such as endorsements. Each of these parts had its own particular form and function, which are distinct from their modern equivalents, so it is worth reviewing them individually here. Reading Bess's correspondence is greatly enhanced by remembering that each part had its own purpose, set within its specific environment of composition, receipt and afterlife.

The Superscription

The superscription is typically found on the outer-facing address leaf and was therefore one of the most 'public' parts of a letter, especially during transit between writer and addressee. The superscription could ostensibly be read by anyone along the way before it even reached its recipient. At the very least it would have been read by the letter bearer, and might even have contained instructions or reminders about delivery, such as 'post haste' (i.e. the instruction to deliver the letter with all possible speed). The superscription was also the first segment of text read by a recipient and therefore the place to make the right first impression. For these reasons, the language of superscriptions is often highly charged and sometimes markedly different to that found in the main letter text, concealed within.

This fracture, between the language of the outer and inner parts of the letter, was especially true of address terms used in the superscription, which were often more formal than those found in the letter within. For example, in a letter written c.1571, George, sixth earl of Shrewsbury, addresses his wife Bess in the superscription as 'my wyfe the countes of Shrewsbury' (i.e. he incorporates the honorific title which the bearer would likely use to refer to Bess), but begins the body of his letter with the very familiar term of endearment 'my Iuell' (i.e. 'my jewel') ID 070.

We can compare this example to a later superscription, again on a letter from Shrewsbury to his wife Bess, which indicates the letter was first to be delivered to Shrewsbury's son (from a previous marriage), Gilbert Talbot, who was then to take the letter to his step-mother and mother-in-law, Bess: 'To my sune gylbard talbott to be delyverd to my wyfe the countes of Shrewsbury'. The reason for this two-stage delivery process was that Bess was ill, and Shrewsbury also suggests Gilbert read the letter to Bess, something which may explain the absence of one of his pet names for her; Shrewsbury's opening address inside is simply: 'wyf' ID 154.

The Subscription

The subscription likewise offered a crucial opportunity for the writer to fashion him- or herself in a way perceived to be appropriate to his or her relationship with the addressee. Variations in a writer's subscription formulae register the relative status of the relationship and can express attitudes such as deference, humility or subservience, or, conversely, authority or superiority. So, when writing to Elizabeth I in 1578, Bess subscribes herself as 'your magystyes moust bouden subgett and saruant' ID 120, but when writing to her servant James Crompe, around 1560, she subscribes with the much more curt and matter-of-fact 'your mystres' ID 100 in accordance with the relationship between writer and addressee.

That is to say, subscriptions tend to contain conventional phrasing, which was selected to best befit the relationship as it was judged or perceived (or, in some cases, hoped) to be between the correspondents. The use of the subscription to reflect and construct relationships is evident, not least, in adjectival elements, especially those used to express a writer's attitude or feelings toward his or her correspondent. For example, between friends of equal standing, we frequently find the adjective assured used in the subscription; such as the letter from Bess to Sir Francis Willoughby, 1594, subscribed 'Your lovinge cosin and assured frend' ID 102; and the one from Roger Manners to Bess, 1597, subscribed 'Your ladyship's most assured to be commanded' ID 046. Children, on the other hand, were expected to be humble and obedient, as is evidenced in the letters to Bess from her daughter Mary Cavendish Talbot and Mary's husband (Bess's step-son and son-in-law), Gilbert Talbot, 1577, subscribed 'Your Ladyship's moste humble and obedyent Lovinge chyldren' ID 085; and the one from her youngest son Charles Cavendish, c.1587, subscribed 'your ladyship's most humble and obedient sonne' ID 209.

The Signature

In conjunction with the subscription, the signature offered an opportunity for self-fashioning, this time for the writer to represent him- or herself visually on the page. We must remember that signatures are a graphic symbol somewhat apart from the rest of the letter text, and the form of a signature might be characterised by idiosyncratic flourishes, fancy pen decoration or distinctive spelling. In Bess's lifetime, perhaps best known is the unsurpassably iconic signature of Elizabeth I, who signed as 'Elizabeth R' and used characteristic letter-forms and curling calligraphy ID 172. But individual flair was certainly not limited to the Queen and many letter-writers who signed for themselves (as opposed to having a scribe sign for them) had their own unique signature.

Perhaps we might include, among the most remarkable of Bess's correspondents, the elaborately decorated signature of interrogator and torturer Richard Topcliffe ID 094, and the enigmatic cypher of Bess's fourth husband Shrewsbury (for example, ID 070). Such elaborate graphic displays in the signature were to some extent a security measure as they would have been nearly impossible to forge. But they also served as a way for an individual to inscribe his or her identity in a socio-political network built largely on the exchange of hand-written letters. For Bess's own part, from the moment she became countess of Shrewsbury she began to sign her name in letters and documents with a rather grand looking 'EShrouesbury' (for example, ID 185), or occasionally with her distinctive cypher 'ES' ID 180. Bess repeated her 'ES' cypher in commissioned tapestries, artwork, plasterwork and carved into the balustrades that stand against the skyline above the rooftop at New Hardwick Hall. Thus, we are left in no doubt at all that Bess was well aware of the authoritative impact of having an impressive signature.

The Postscript

If a postscript is present it generally appears on the page below the signature; or, if the writer ran out of space, placed in the margin. Sometimes a postscript was a genuine afterthought. Such as the one Bess adds to her letter to Sir John Thynne in 1567, 'I prey you comande me to my lady your wyffe' ID 114; or the one Shrewsbury adds to his wife's (Bess's) letters to his own servant Thomas Baldwin, where he tells Baldwin to 'send Apott of grene gengar in siroppe that is very good for my self' ID 190.

However, in other cases, the postscript seems to have been used for emphasis, as if it contains what might actually be described as the main or most important message of the letter. For example, the postscript to Bess's letter to Robert Cecil in 1603 tells him that her granddaughter Arbella Stuart has gone on hunger strike (Arbella, says Bess, 'is so wilfully bent that she hath made a vowe not to eat or drink') and bluntly expresses that she (Bess) herself is 'wearie of my lyfe' due to the stress caused by Arbella's antics ID 132.

Alternatively again, the postscript could form a separate meta-message, to accompany the main letter and comment on its reception. So, in the letter (discussed above) from Shrewsbury to his wife Bess in 1580, when she is ill, the postscript tells Bess to let Gilbert (his son) read the letter to her 'because the Redynge may perhapp trobell you' ID 154. To take another example, when Bess writes to Sir John Thynne in 1560, she adds a postscript to direct Thynne to send his reply to her servant, William Lacye: 'I pray you send your latter of ansore to lacy' ID 113.

The Endorsement

If present, an endorsement was typically added to the address leaf and contained a brief record of (variously) the sender, recipient, date and occasionally a summary of the letter's contents. Endorsements can therefore provide information about the reception and subsequent storage of letters. To take a typical example, we can see that the letter of June 1600 from Bess to Sir Robert Cecil passed through the hands of one of Cecil's many secretaries, who added the endorsement: '1600. 2 Iune. The Countesse of Shrewsbury to my Master' ID 125. In other cases, it was the recipient of the letter him- or herself (rather than a professional secretary) who added the endorsement, especially if he or she had a particular instruction or reaction to record. For example, the letter of thanks sent from Elizabeth I to Bess and Shrewsbury in 1577 is endorsed by Shrewsbury himself, who specifies that it is 'The queens majestes letter of the xxv of Iune 1577 to be kept As the dereste Iuell' (i.e. 'dearest jewel') ID 172.

As well as endorsements, we find other types of contemporary additions and these often relate to the circulation of the letter. For example, around c.1570 Bess recevied a letter from her eldest son Henry Cavendish, to report on the tragic outcome of a sword duel between their servants, which she then forwarded on to her husband Shrewsbury, to whom she added a note to say that she 'resauyed thys later meche to my greffe', and to ask him to 'retarne thys' (i.e. this letter) once he had read its unsettling contents ID 009.

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References and Further Reading

  • For a study of the way in which address terms varied between the outward-facing superscription when compared to the letter text within see Minna Nevala, 'Inside and out: Address forms in 17th- and 18th-century letters', Journal of Historical Pragmatics 5:2 (2004): 273-98.
  • An article which gives a clear and comprehensive overview of the available models for writing letters in early modern English, discussed in relation to actual correspondence, is by Terttu Nevalainen, 'Continental Conventions in Early English Correspondence', in Towards a History of English as a History of Genres, ed. by H-J. Diller and M. Gorlach (Heidelberg: Winter, 2001), pp. 203-24.
  • A comparison of the congruence (or lack thereof) between writing models and actual letter-writing activity in the period is provided by Sanna-Kaisa Tanskanen, '"Best patterns for your imitation": Early Modern Letter-Writing Instruction and Real Correspondence', in Discourse Perspectives in English, ed. by R. Hiltunen and J. Skaffari (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2003), pp. 167-95.
Author(s): Graham Williams, 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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