Hands 1-9: Italic Hands(rated: easy to moderately difficult)

Hands 1-3 (rated: easy)

Hand 1: Bess's granddaughter, Arbella Stuart, aged 12 years old, 1587/8 ID 106

Bess had ensured that her granddaughter, Arbella Stuart, was provided with a fine humanist education, which included mastery of several languages and expert penmanship. As a result of this training, Arbella possessed a very attractive presentation hand that she employed on occasions when she wanted to impress an addressee (she also had an informal hand that she used for more relaxed letters and for drafts). The letter selected here, ID 106, is the earliest we have from Arbella, written in 1588, when she was only 12-years old. Even at this young age we can see how well educated she was by the flowing letter-forms she writes.

In particular, we can observe how Arbella formed almost every graph individually, with deliberate pen-lifts in between. Additionally, the clubbing and cross-over flourishing visible on the ascenders and descenders of many graphs indicates the time and care she invested in her written composition here. For example, we can observe: the curled pen-links formed between < ch > and < ck > in 'which' (line 3) and 'thanckes' (line 8); the clubbed extensions to < h > when it appears in the terminal position, such as 'health' (line 5) and 'with' (line 7); and the calligraphic embellishments to the < L > of 'Lady' (line 1), the < k > of 'token' (line 8) and the < Y > of 'Yor' (in the subscription). Arbella was a most accomplished child, as was appropriate to a claimant to the throne. Furthermore, her handwriting in this letter shows how the italic script afforded opportunities for stylised flourishes and exquisite penmanship.

There are more examples from among Bess's correspondence that offer comparisons. For example, there is the superscription in the hand of Elizabeth Cavendish (Bess's daughter), on her letter of thanks, c.1574, which features clubbing and calligraphic extensions on letter-forms ID 041. Evidently, Elizabeth was keen to make a good first impression and she also decorated the outside of the letter-packet with ribbon (although we can observe that she switched to a plain, unembellished style of handwriting for the letter itself). Another example is the scribe Bess used for ID 210, a letter to Lord Paget, written some time in the c.1570s when she was countess of Shrewsbury. We do not know the identity of the scribe of this letter, but it would be tempting to suggest (given the examples of Arbella and Elizabeth Cavendish) that here Bess may have been using her daughter or granddaughter to write for her. However, without a precise date for the letter it is not possible to be sure, and the scribe could equally have been one of Bess's servants or attendants.

Hand 2: Bess's grandson-in-law, Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, c.1607 ID 003

The handwriting of Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, the husband of Bess's granddaughter Aletheia (Talbot) Howard is a sign of his humanist learning. Indeed, Howard was an educated, cultured man, one of the great art collectors of seventeenth-century England and a patron of literature. His letter to Bess features many of the italic letter-forms familiar to us from present-day Romanised fonts. However, there are a few unfamiliar forms to watch out for and to learn.

Often the most distracting graph for first-time readers is long-'s'. Here we can see that Arundel's long-'s' has both a hooked top and tail and is used in the initial- or medial-word position; for example, 'should' (line 1), 'likewise' (line 4) and 'blessinge' (line 10). Long-'s' is not to be confused with < f >, which it somewhat resembles, but which can be distinguished by the cross-stroke; for example, 'vnmindfull' (line 1) and 'if' (line 2). Alongside long-'s' Arundel uses the small italic form of < s > in the terminal position; for example, 'fauors' (line 3) and 'happines' (line 9). A word which contains both forms is 'Ladishippes' (line 3).

Other letter-forms we can observe are the interchangeable < u > and < v >; for example, as in the word UNMINDFUL spelled 'vnmindfull' (line 1), and RECEIVE spelled 'receiue' (line 4). We find Greek epsilon-'e' throughout; for example, 'exceeding' (line 4). In addition to these, the use of contractions differs from present-day English; for example, LADYSHIP'S is rendered by Arundel using the common abbreviated 'La:' (line 8 and in the subscription).

Hand 3: Bess's daughter, Mary (Cavendish) Talbot, c.1607 ID 089

By the time Mary (Cavendish) Talbot wrote this letter, in c.1607, she had been seventh countess of Shrewsbury for over 15 years (having in 1591 succeeded her mother Bess, now the aging dowager countess). As is evident from her letter, Mary was a very competent writer and her hand is well-executed, fluent and clear. Certainly, Mary's hand lacks attention to the stylistic minutiae we saw above, in the presentation hand of the child Arbella, but such painstaking neatness would be not only unnecessary but infra dig in a letter from one grand countess to another.

We can observe, in Mary's letter that her writing tends to slant to the right, while the strokes remain fluent and demonstrate her easy, competent penmanship. While her handwriting is clear, it is not tightly controlled and for this reason it is slightly more difficult to read than the previous two examples. Forms to watch out for include:

  • two-pronged-'r', for example, 'remembered' (line 1), 'trew' (line 9) and 'increse' (line 10)
  • < d > where the lobe is not fully closed, for example 'duty' (line 1), 'god' (line 2) and 'and' (line 8)
  • < h > with a pointed lobe, for example 'declineth' and 'that' (line 8)
  • the following common abbreviations are used by Mary: 'La:', 'Lo:', 'wth', 'wch', 'Q', 'K' (that is, for Lady(ship), Lord(ship), with, which, Queen, King)

Hands 4-5 (rated: challenging in places)

Hand 4: Bess's daughter-in-law, Grace Cavendish, 1589 ID 008

In the letter selected here, Grace (Talbot) Cavendish writes to her stepmother and mother-in-law, Bess (countess of Shrewsbury), to thank her for forwarding another letter from Henry Cavendish (Grace's husband and Bess's son) written during his travels to Constantinople. This neatly-presented note may at first glance look straightforward to read but - as is sometimes the case with italic hands - there are several features of which we must be mindful. In particular, we can observe that:

  • Lobes are sometimes compressed vertically and very narrow, such as the < o > graphs in 'most' and 'from' (line 1).
  • The second stroke of < e > tends to be very slight (for example, 'Cavendyssh', line 2), or is sometimes extended upwards to form a decorative feature (for example, 'thanke', line 1). In each case, < e > is not to be confused with < c > or < l >.
  • < c > is very shallow and not to be confused with < i >. For example: 'escape' and 'account' (line 16).
  • The link between the two minims in < u > is often invisible in < u >, and sometimes in < n >. For example: 'your' (line 1), 'thus' (line 14), 'honor' (line 15) and 'wythout' (line 16).
  • Somtimes, the size of space between graphs is virtually identical to the size of space between words (i.e. which makes it difficult to tell where one word begins and another ends). For example: 't h y s 2 7 o f', i.e. 'this 27 of', in the final line of the letter.

Hand 5: Bess's son, Charles Cavendish, c.1600 ID 006

In this letter of c.1600, Charles Cavendish updates his mother Bess (dowager countess of Shrewsbury) on his progress with negotiations over an arranged marriage in which Bess has had some influence. The distinct style of Charles's handwriting compared to that of his sister Mary (discussed above) most likely reflects differences in how they were trained to write, or by whom. Furthermore, Charles's hand presents us with an example of a looser, more cursive and less controlled italic than we have seen so far, which means his hand is slightly more challenging to read. In particular, we can observe that:

  • The ascenders of < d > are acutely sloped (horizontal in some cases) and often very long and trailing, so that they interfere with the surrounding words. For example: 'duty' and 'day' (in line 1, where the ascender of each < d > overlaps with the ascenders of < bl > and < th > in the previous words).
  • The descenders of letters such as < y, p, g and long-s > are long and looped and often clash with the words below. For example: 'vtterly' (line 3, where the loop of < y > clashes with the < r > of the word 'for' in the line below); and 'gladly' (line 7, where the loop of < g > overlaps with the < e > of 'she' in the line below, the loop of < y > with the < nd > of 'and' below and, also, where the < y > from the word above interferes with the < ly > of 'gladly').
  • Often two-pronged-'r' is rather open and should not be confused with < v >. For example: 'rememberd' (line 1), 'brother' (line 2).
  • Sometimes the loop of italic-'e' is not completely distinct, and is not be confused with < c > or < l >. For example: 'conference' (line 2), 'sayes' (line 3) and 'vtterly' (line 3).
  • As a result of variations in pen pressure, some graphs are thickened or blotted. For example, 'sayes' (line 3), in which the lobe of < a > is filled with ink, and 'tould' (line 18), 'wished' (line 19) and 'she' (line 19), where the ascenders are thickened with ink.
  • The letter contains a number of mistakes, such as the crossings out and insertion above in lines 18 and 19.
  • In places, Charles had smudged the wet ink and a word is fully or partly obscured (in lines 18-20 and 26).

Hands 6-9 (rated: moderately difficult)

Hand 6: Bess's own hand, c.1560 ID 101 and c.1600 ID 002

These two letters, written in c.1560 and c.1600, give us examples of Bess's own hand some 40 years apart. The first was written was Bess was Lady St Loe, aged around 38 years old ID 101. The second, which is a postscript added to a scribal letter, was written when Bess was dowager countess of Shrewsbury, having reached the age of 78 ID 002. As we can see, Bess's handwriting and distinctive personal spelling system changed little during this the second half of her life and, aged almost 80, she remained quite capable of putting pen to paper herself. Her hand shows no signs of decrepitude for several more years.

Bess's handwriting reflects the level of education you would expect of a gentlewoman, born into a mid-level gentry household. But we can observe, in particular, that her writing is very competent and fluent, she was able to write efficiently and was very capable with a pen.

Bess's letter-forms are frequently more angular than curved, by comparison with, say, the more undulating writing of her daughter Mary or granddaughter Arbella. The effect is to give Bess's handwriting a somewhat jagged or 'saw-tooth' appearance, especially where several minims appear close together, such as 'aunte' (line 19, ID 101), 'womane' (line 1, ID 002) and 'resoune' (line 4, ID 002). We can also observe the large size of the lobe or body of letters, relative to the ascenders/descenders, which gives Bess's writing a distinctively bold and blocky look.

Hand 7: Bess's friend Lady Frances Cobham, 1564 ID 015

When a heavily pregnant Lady Frances Cobham wrote to her good friend Bess (Lady St. Loe) in 1564, she gave little heed to the formalities of epistolary presentation. Her superscription is casually worded to 'mi good cosyn', she took very few pains over the folding or presentation of the letter-packet and, when it came to the letter inside, no margins were allowed for at top or bottom. Evidently, such niceties were deemed unnecessary for this letter to her close friend, the main purpose of which was as a covering note for some sewing materials, sent to keep Bess up to date with the latest fashions at Court.

The entire letter is written in Cobham's own hand and, again, in the handwriting, we can observe a lack of care and attention over details of presentation, a feature which makes the reading more difficult. Towards the end of the letter, as Cobham runs short of space, the lines become crowded together and several words have a rather scratched appearance, such as 'lyke to yow' at the start of the penultimate line.

The other reason Cobham's letter can present challenges for modern readers is due to the idiosyncrasies of her personal spelling system and her use of words that are now obsolete. Her idiosyncratic spellings include the first-person singular pronoun in minuscule form 'i' (the first word of line 1), 'wlode' (WOULD, line 2), 'scleue' (SLEAVE, line 10), 'innoufthe' (ENOUGH, line 12) and roauffes' (RUFFS, lines 18). Two of the obsolete words Cobham uses are sewing terms: 'bassted' (line 10) and 'caylle' (line 14). Rare words and outlandish spellings such as these can be off-putting for present-day readers trying to decipher meaning. A historical dictionary can help, or, for unfamiliar spellings, try saying the word aloud.

Hand 8: Bess's contact at King James's court, James Montague, 1605/6 ID 048

Many Elizabethan writers who had been trained in both italic and secretary scripts would, almost inevitably, end up reproducing a mixture of forms from both in their writing. This sort of blending of scripts was common and is found among Bess's correspondents, such as here, in the handwriting of James Montague ID 048.

We can observe Montague's use of certain italic forms (which will be immediately familiar to present-day readers) such as small-'s' as in 'most' (line 1) and italic-'h' and -'r' as in 'this' and 'bearer' (line 1). At the same time, and alongside these, appear certain secretary graphs. For example, 'togeether' (line 7) features double Greek-'e' but the third < e > is the closed-secretary type, which is also found in 'papistes' (line 9) and 'Kinge' (line 9). We also find the majuscule form of < C >, as in 'Caudish' (first word of line 4), 'Court' (in the subscription) and 'Commons' (last word of line 11).

Hand 9: one of Bess's scribes, 1602 ID 128

Another example of a letter written in a mixed hand is this one to Elizabeth I, penned for Bess by a scribe, 9 January 1602. We can observe the mix in the scribe's use of three different forms of < e >: italic-'e' similar to the modern form, as in 'expres' (line 2); Greek epsilon-'e', as in 'message' (line 4) and 'here' (line 6); and secretary-'e', as in 'talked' (line 7). Likewise, we find four different forms of < s >: long-'s', as in 'sufficiently' (line 1); short italic-'s', as in 'expres' (line 2); sigma-shaped secretary-'s', as in the abbreviation 'Ma.ties' (lines 3, 4); and the double 's' ligature (or eszett), as in 'message' (line 4) and 'assure' (line 22).

We do not know the identity of this scribe, though the mix of elegant italic forms with secretary graphs indicates a well-educated writer, almost certainly a male. Other features of the writing which suggest a high level of education are Latinate spellings, such as 'gratius' (lines 1, 4), 'doubtfull' (line 8), 'allegeance' (line 13) and 'subiect' (in the subscription). Bess's son William Cavendish's hand is very similar-looking to this one, when he acts as scribe for his mother in 1592 ID 163. So it is would be tempting to suggest this is William again, or another relative or well-educated upper male servant.

Author(s): Alison Wiggins and Graham Williams, April 2013


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Developed by The University of Glasgow

Technical Development

Technical development by The Humanities Research Institute

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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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