Tutorial: Reading Early Modern Handwriting

Alison Wiggins and Graham Williams


To learn to read the handwriting of early modern letters is to open up new worlds. Thousands of early modern letters are, right now, sitting unread in archives and repositories. Many are becoming available as images online and, increasingly, are being made accessible to wider numbers of potential readers. The first reason to learn to decipher early modern handwriting (the science or art known as 'palaeography'), then, is to be able to decipher documents that are currently unknown and have been hidden away for years.

Some of the most interesting letters for us today are those that have received the least attention. For example, while Bess's own letters to her servants have been perennial favourites among her biographers, the letters that go in the other direction (i.e. from her servants to her) have not attracted so much interest. Yet, these letters can tell us a great deal about early modern power relations, conditions of employment and everyday life. For example, two of the letters in this web-edition (and presented below here, in this palaeography tutorial) are from Bess's trusted overseer James Crompe and her rabbit-keeper Edward Foxe; both are real gems for anyone interested in the histories of the lives of ordinary people.

But it is not only the stories of servants, women or the socially disempowered that remain to be told. In some cases, letters of the rich and famous remain unknown to history. A case in point is Bess's fourth husband, George Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury. Despite the fact that Shrewsbury was among the most powerful individuals in Elizabethan politics and society, no full biography has ever been written for him. The reason may well be due to his appalling handwriting, which he used to write most of his many hundreds of extant letters. We have selected one of Shrewsbury's letters for this palaeography tutorial (it is the final hand to be transcribed, rated as 'extremely difficult, illegible in places'). We have included tips for decipherment, in the hope that more of Shrewsbury's life will gradually be uncovered. Apart from his role within the wider Elizabethan social and political scene, it is only by a greater knowledge of Shrewsbury, the man who was such a key figure in Bess's life, that we can hope to understand more about Bess herself.

Palaeography, then, is the skill of decoding and deciphering old handwriting. But palaeography also means the ability to interpret handwriting. We can, in some cases, identify a writer from his or her hand (for example, we know that the enigmatic, unsigned letter ID 143 is in the hand of Bess's Scribe A). In other cases, handwriting can help to date a document or letter. In other cases again, the visual impact of elaborate calligraphy or the formalised use of white space to register deference can reveal to us nuances of the sender-recipient relationship. The ability to interpret handwriting, then, can enable us to identify at document (and answer the 'who, what, why?' questions) and to read between the lines and realise the full extent of the meanings being communicated.

There are things handwriting does not tell us. Handwriting does not reveal a person's character (as the spurious pseudo-science of 'graphology' would like to claim). But one of the ways in which handwriting can be revealing about a person is for what it can tell us about his or her level of education and training in the skills of literacy. It can include the literate skills of the early modern writer, but it also includes the literate skills of the reader or readers (i.e. it tells us about his or her, or their, level of 'reading literacy'). We know from references that Bess did read her own letters during her life. To take just one example, on 13 May 1580, Bess accidentally opened a letter from her fourth husband Shrewsbury to his servant Baldwin, and added a note to explain to Baldwin that:

a laburar brynging me this letter from my lord I openyd yt before I louked of the derectyon thenkeing yt had bene to my selfe ID 194

From Bess's mistake here, in 1580, we see a brief glimpse of one of the ways she could actually receive a letter. This letter came to her directly, unopened, and into her own hands (i.e. it was not processed by a scribe or secretary first, or read to her by a family member or upper servant). Furthermore, Bess hereself read the superscription (the 'derectyon', i.e. direction) on the letter packet, which was here written in secretary script.

Given the very diverse range of types of handwriting that appear across Bess's correspondence, we can deduce that Bess must have been a very competent reader and we can infer something about the range of her reading literacy. To read Bess's corrsepondence is to start to explore her reading experience. The more we read Bess's letters, the more their meanings are opened up to us. To read primary sources is to bring them to life and to contribute to the telling of history. It is, ourselves, to take a step closer to connecting with past lives and cultures, and one of the reasons palaeography can be so enjoyable.

The ideal way to learn palaeography is to find a good teacher and put in lots of practice. We hope this online tutorial will be a starting point. In the tutorial we present 18 letters, ranked according to approximate difficulty rating. The hands selected have been chosen, in part, because they illustrate a range of forms and features likely to be encountered elsewhere, especially in other contemporary letters. The links to other freely-available tutorials, of which there are a number, and to further letters on this site, provide further resources for refining and developing expertise. We suggest you start by reading the notes below and then work through the letters themselves.

The italic script

The two most widely used scripts during the period of Bess's lifetime were called italic and secretary. Whereas secretary script was usually only taught to men, italic was taught to both men and women. The reason italic was generally prescribed as a script suitable for women to write (although, again, men used it as well) is that it was considered easier to learn than secretary script. It also tends to be easier for us, as present-day learners, to learn too, because italic is the precursor of today's Romanised fonts. So for beginners in palaeography, italic is a good place to start.

The secretary script

The secretary script was older than italic, having come to England via France during the late fourteenth century, originally as a business hand, then used ubiquitously throughout much of the sixteenth century. The secretary script, once learned, was faster to produce, and it remained the preferred form of writing for clerks and secretaries even when italic came into prominence later in the sixteenth century. For present-day learners, secretary script immediately appears much more foreign than italic. This is largely due to the many secretary-script letter-forms that are unfamiliar from modern scripts and fonts: especially problematic for today's learners tend to be lower-case < e > (a closed circle with a loop, like a split-pea), < h > (which dips below the line), as well as < r > and < s > (both of which can take a variety of forms). To become a fluent reader of secretary script it is therefore worth reviewing and memorising these and other forms, for example, with reference to the helpful cut-out alphabet provided by English Handwriting: An Online Course [external site].

Practical tips for reading early modern English handwriting

  • forget everything you know about present-day English rules for spelling, punctuation and capitalisation
  • if possible, use a historical dictionary (like the Oxford English Dictionary [external site])
  • watch out for interference from letters in the lines above and below the line you are working on
  • keep in mind that every individual's hand will be (more or less) unique and that their handwriting is susceptible to tiredness, illness and stress
  • if you're not sure about a word, skip and come back to it
  • if you are not sure about something, try reading it aloud

Other online tutorials


Hands 1-9 (italic hands, rated: easy to read - moderately difficult)

Hands 10-18 (secretary hands, rated: moderately difficult to read - extremely difficult, illegible in places)

Links on this Site

References and Further Reading

  • We developed this interactive tutorial whilst teaching the Renaissance Palaeography module, 2008-11, at the University of Glasgow, and during our participation at the five-day Teaching Palaeography Workshop at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, December 2009. The emerging tutorial benefited from the responses we received from 52 National Trust volunteers at the Reading Bess of Hardwick's Letters Workshop, High Great Chamber, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, September 2011. We are extremely grateful to the contributing students, volunteers and colleagues at Glasgow, Washington DC and Hardwick Hall for their questions, input and enthusiasm.
  • Giles Dawson and Laetitia Kennedy-Skipton, Elizabethan Handwriting, 1500-1650: A Manual (New York: Norton, 1966).
  • Anthony G. Petti, English Literary Hands from Chaucer to Dryden (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).
  • Jean F. Preston and Laetitia Yeandle, English Handwriting, 1400-1650: An Introductory Manual (Binghamton, NY, 1992).
  • Jane Roberts, Guide to Scripts Used in English Writings up to 1500 (London: British Library, 2005).
  • Heather Wolfe, 'Women's Handwriting in Early Modern England', in Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women's Writing, ed. by Laura Knoppers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 21-39.
Author(s): Alison Wiggins and Graham Williams, April 2013

Developed by

Developed by The University of Glasgow

Technical Development

Technical development by The Digital Humanities Institute

Funded by

Funded by the AHRC

'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
Version 1.0 | ISBN 978-0-9571022-3-1
© 2013 The University of Glasgow
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