In a culture obsessed with ritualistic displays of politeness and duty it is perhaps not surprising to find wide-spread anxieties among letter-writers over sycophantic flattery, shallow words and deception. In this vein, a rhetoric of sincerity (a word first used in English in the sixteenth century) was often employed to convince addressees of a congruence between a writer's outward expression and inward thoughts and feelings. We can observe the rhetoric of sincerity in action in 1606-8, when Bess's granddaughter, Aletheia Howard, countess of Arundel, writes to apologise for not having presented her duty as frequently as she should: she assures her grandmother Bess that 'you haue no child that can more cencerely and affectionatly strife to serui you then my selfe' (i.e. 'you have no child who can more sincerely and affectionately strive to serve you than myself') ID 237. Sincerity was extraordinarily important to Bess, and her correspondents and was central to maintaining social relations. As it is always important to keep sincerity in mind as we read Bess's letters, it is worth reviewing, here, some of the various ways in which it could be performed.

The possibility of being insincere was, of course, not unique to Bess's period. However, there are three period-specific developments to which the special significance of sincerity may be attributed: 1) the centralisation of the English state and the concurrent rise of the self-serving, flattering courtier; 2) Elizabethan theatre and its analogies with everyday life as a stage; and perhaps most importantly, 3) the Protestant Reformation. In particular, the everyday language of sincerity that we find throughout letters from the period was greatly influenced by Reformation discourses, which often emphasise the importance of the inner thoughts or of the heart of an individual (as opposed to superficial, external appearances).

It is in these same terms that letter-writers frequently express duty or love. For example, in the letter from Bess to her fourth husband Shrewsbury, 1570s, in relation to a man named 'Alsope' who owed them money, Bess reports that she has given Alsope an extension to pay off his debt, based on Alsope's 'outhe and promes that he wyll not fayll to paye yett' (i.e. 'oath and promise that he will not fail to pay it'), and she assures her husband of Alsope's 'trewe dewtyfoull harte towardes you' ID 184.

Likewise, we find that Shrewsbury used this type of language. Such as, in his letter to his wife Bess of 1568 where, to stress the sincerity of his affections, he closes the letter by emphasising that his words and feelings are in alignment: 'as the pen writes so the heart thinks' ID 065. While at first glance these lines from Shrewsbury might sound like a clever bit of lover's language, his phraseology was in fact a common convention in the period. We find a very similar instance in a letter from Burghley to Shrewsbury in 1590, where he states that: 'if my hand war answerable to my hart I wold enlarg my letter, with soch abundance of thanks and offers of service, as your Lordship shuld be combred with a long readyng' (London, Lambeth Palace Library, Talbot Papers MS 3200, fol. 39).

The language of sincerity was especially important in cases of contentious relations, which is why it appears in several later letters between Bess and her by then estranged husband Shrewsbury. For example, in a letter of 1584 Bess sets out to defend her own transparency and genuine honesty (in her words, 'the innocency of my owne harte' ID 116) against Shrewsbury's claims that her previous expressions of wifely love and duty were all but a false 'Siren's Song' (i.e. 'Siren song', a pointedly gendered accusation of duplicitous words) ID 119. As their marriage broke down, Shrewsbury took a vehement stance against Bess. At one point he discontinued her allowance and claimed that her public displays of wifely dutifulness were but a ruse to disguise her greedy intentions. For her own part, Bess took pains to emphasise that she had maintained her sincerity throughout. She wrote to Shrewsbury, c.1585, to say that while his 'extreme dealing' may ruin her and her children financially, there is nothing he can do to control her inner integrity and what she knows in her heart to be her consistent feelings of true dutifulness towards him, her husband; she tells Shrewsbury that he cannot 'force me so much as in my harte to thenke, or onst to wyshe the ovarthrow of you or your house' ID 229.

The speech act verb protest has, perhaps, the most obvious and direct links to Reformation discourses ('Protestantism' is derived from protest) and beginning in the sixteenth century became a ubiquitous component in the rhetoric of sincerity. For example, Bess wrote to Robert Cecil and John Stanhope (lords of the Council) in 1603 'I protest before the lyving god' ID 130 in order to emphasise her belief that Lord Hartford was not privy to clandestine marriage dealings between his (Hartford's) grandson and Bess's granddaughter Arbella Stuart. When Arbella's illicit (although, as it turned out, mostly fictional) marriage plotting came to light, it is not surprising that Bess (Arbella's guardian) was keen to prove to the Queen she knew nothing of her granddaughter's scheming.

Next, Elizabeth I sent her commissioner, Henry Broncker, to investigate these goings on at Hardwick Hall, and he was ordered not to confer with Bess before seeing Arbella. At first, the Queen's order made Bess anxious to think that she herself might be under some sort of suspicion. However, as she wrote her subsequent letter to Elizabeth, she eventually came to realise the wisdom of the Queen's ways:

when I considered your Majesties great wisdom in it, I did in my harte most humbly thank your Majestie for commaunding yat course to be taken./ These matters were vnexpected of me, being altogether ignorant of hir vayne doings, as on my saluation & allegeance to your Majestie I protest. ID 128

In this extract, Bess very clearly engages with the early modern rhetoric of sincerity: she specifies the thanks 'in my harte' and she performs a speech act of sincerity in protesting her 'saluation & allegeance to your Majestie'. Comparable to protest is the speech-act verb profess, which was commonly used to convince an addressee that the words written were an accurate reflection of true feelings. This use of profess is evident in a letter from Anne Talbot to (her step-mother-in-law) Bess, c.1575, in which she (Anne) apologises for not writing as often as she should, but with an assurance that she is:

as I haue alwayes professed and as dewtye doth bynd me, ready at your Ladyship's comandement, and In any thynge I maye showe yt ether at thys tyme, or when occassyon seruet[h] yf I be not as wyllynge therto as any chylde of your owne, then lett me be condemened accordynge to my desertes ID 092

Bess herself used profess in her own writing, as in her letter to Burghley, c.1586, in which she bemoans the lack of true friends following estrangement from her husband Shrewsbury, and then tries (desperately at this point) to convince Burghley of her own sincerity in professions of bondage to him. She asks him to:

know and beleue my professyon in all harty and reuerent affectyon towards you ... whether ther be trewthe and constancye in my professyon, that I refare to the wholl course of my Lyfe past, and dealing with all parsons that haue had to doe with me./. I beceache your Lordship to conceaue the best you shall neuar be deseued in me ID 230

The situation at this point was undoubtedly awkward for Bess. On the one hand, Burghley was Shrewsbury's 'best friend' (as Bess herself admits elsewhere, 'I know your Lordship hath euar ben his beste frend' ID 156). However, in order for Bess to regain her allowance and rights to land contested by Shrewsbury, she knew that she needed to win Burghley's sympathy. In her letter, therefore, Bess aims to perform a show of genuine 'affectyon' (i.e. 'affection') for Burghley to refute the image of the deceptive, greedy manipulator she has been made out to be by her bitter estranged husband. For Bess, the stakes were enormously high and it was imperative that the words of her letters were believed and taken to be a true reflection of her inner character.

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References and Further Reading

  • Two further accounts of sincerity are provided by Graham Williams. The ideology of sincerity and its implications for early modern English are discussed in: '"that thought never ytt entered my harte": Rhetoricalities of Sincerity in Early Modern English', English Studies 93:7 (2012): 809-32; and the somewhat surprising relationship between sincerity and the subversive effects of sarcasm, particularly in relation to a group of letters written by one young woman in the early-seventeenth century, is discussed in: '"I haue trobled wth a tedious discours': Sincerity, Sarcasm and Seriousness in the Letters of Maria Thynne, c. 1601-1610', Journal of Historical Pragmatics 11:2 (2010): 169-93
  • A socio-cultural perspective on early modern notions of sincerity is provided by Jane Taylor, '"Why do you tear me from Myself?' Torture, Truth, and the Arts of the Counter-Reformation", in The Rhetoric of Sincerity, ed. by E. van Alphen, M. Bal and C. Smith (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2009); Anna Bryson, From Courtesy to Civility: Changing Codes of Conduct in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); John J. Martin, Myths of Renaissance Individualism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). A more literary approach is offered by William Slights, The Heart in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Author(s): Graham Williams, April 2013

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