Hands 10-18: Secretary Hands (rated moderately difficult to extremely difficult and illegible in places)

Hands 10-12 (rated: moderately difficult)

Hand 10: Bess's eldest son Henry Cavendish, 1605 ID 011

On 31 December 1605 Bess's eldest son, Henry Cavendish, penned a New Year's greetings to his elderly mother at Hardwick Hall. His letter is immaculately set out and displays visual features intended to register respect from Henry towards his mother the dowager countess. We can observe the wide left-hand margin, the widely-space split subscription and the attractively-executed space-filler lines, all of which register deference and hierarchy. Combined with these is his equally immaculate handwriting and we can observe:

  • the regularly-spaced horizontal writing lines
  • the consistently-sized letter-forms
  • the even pen pressure applied throughout
  • the careful attention to small decorative details, such as the clubbing on the final < s > of 'thankes', and the curled approach-stroke to the < v > of 'vs' (both in line 2)
  • the initial capitals that are slightly elaborated for decorative effect, for example, the < R > and < H > of 'Ryght Honorable' (line 1) and the < T > of 'Tutbury' (at the start of the subscription)
  • the attractive modulation of line thickness by skilful turning of a pen, which include switches between thick and thin in a single graph, such as the < y > of 'your' and the < L > of 'La.' (line 2)

By the time he was writing this letter, in New Year 1605, Bess's relationship with her 'bad son Henry' was beyond repair. Henry perhaps retained hope that his mother would have a change of heart, and that the 'symple newyears gyfte' from himself and his wife Grace, along with his most carefully presented letter would help to build bridges. But it was not to be. Henry he had been cut from Bess's will in 1603, he never managed to get himself reinstated and does not seem to have attended his mother's funeral.

Although Henry's letter perhaps did not make the impact he had hoped for, it provides us with a good place to start when it comes to learning to read secretary handwriting. The letter-forms of secretary script are not familiar to modern readers, and therefore need to be memorised before fluent reading can be achieved. Henry's neatly executed letter-forms makes them readily identifiable and key examples to begin by learning are:

  • < h > which dips below the line. For example: 'humbly' (final line), 'humble' (line 1, which is a slightly fancier version), 'Ryght' (line 1), 'thankes' (line 2) and 'homely' (line 4, where the lobe of the < h > has disappeared altogether).
  • < e > which is closed, like a circle with a loop or line through, with the apperance of a split pea. For example: 'thankes' (line 2) and 'boulde' and 'present' (line 3).
  • < s > which is long with a hooked top, like a walking stick. For example: 'present' (line 3) and 'symple' (line 5).
  • < s > which is sigma-shaped and is used in the terminal position (i.e. the '6-shaped' form is used when < s > is the last letter of a word). For example: 'tymes' (line 3) and 'thynges' (line 4).
  • < r > which is open and double-footed. For example: 'Honorable' and 'owr' (line 1), 'for' and 'your' (line 2).

Hand 11: Bess's secretary Timothy Pusey, 1602/3 ID 131

Letters written by professional scribes and trained secretaries are generally another good place to start when learning secretary script, because these individuals were conscientious about forming their letters well, and were paid to do so. Soon after Bess became dowager countess of Shrewsbury (i.e. after her fourth husband, the earl of Shrewsbury, died in 1591), she employed Timothy Pusey, the man who was to become her most trusted secretary and who is referred to in Bess's wage lists as just 'Timothy'. By 1602/3 Timothy (coded in this web-edition as 'Scribe C') had become Bess's right-hand man when it came to running her estates and businesses. We therefore find Timothy's hand throughout Bess's account books and financial records and it is clear that he understood all aspects of his mistress's financial and legal matters.

If required to do so, Pusey would also pen letters for Bess in his neat, well-formed secretary script, such as this one to Sir Robert Cecil. The letter concerns the sensitive matter of the antics of Bess's granddaughter, Arbella Stuart. The letter itself and the superscription are in Timothy's hand; the subscription is in the italic hand of a second scribe (coded in this web-edition as 'Scribe B'); and the signature is by Bess herself. It is a division of labour that suggests the letter was written in stages (passed between scribes and then passed back to Bess for final authorisation) in a manner that we know occurred within other contemporary secretariats.

Among the letter-forms that tend to present most problems for today's learners are the following. It is therefore essential to learn these at the outset:

  • < h > which dips below the line. For example: 'sayth' and 'the' (line 2).
  • < e > which is closed like a split pea. For example: 'maye' and 'please' (line 1).
  • < s > which is long with a hooked top. For example: 'please' (line 1) and 'she' (lines 1 and 2).
  • < s > which is sigma-shaped in the terminal position. For example: 'is' and 'as' (line 1) and 'highnes' (line 3).
  • < r > which is open and two-footed. For example: 'Secretarie' and 'Arbell' (line 1) and 'hither' (line 3).

We can also observe, here, and familiarise ourselves with, a couple of common abbreviations used by Timothy:

  • The elaborate 'p' brevigraph ('p' with a loop through the tail) used to abbreviate 'per', 'pre', 'par' and so forth. For example: 'parties' (line 2).
  • Fossil-thorn, identical to < y >, for 'th'. For example: 'yt' (i.e. THAT, line 2).

Hand 12: Bess's neighbour John Manners, 1604 ID 045

A slightly more challenging example of a secretary hand is the writing of Sir John Manners, particularly the letter he wrote to Bess in 1604 ID 045. Although Manners' letter is carefully written, his handwriting is not quite so fastidiously controlled as the two previous letters we have seen (Henry's and Timothy's). So, we can observe that his writing slopes slightly to the right and that the writing-lines are not completely even in their spacing. Furthermore, while Manners' letter-forms are clearly distinguishable for the most part, there are a few features which can make his hand more difficult to discern, in particular:

  • Descenders tend to be rather loose and trailing. So watch out for those that frequently extend into the next word, or overlap with letters from the lines above or below, such as: the tails of < y >, 'yor' (lines 5, 7), < g >, 'good' (line 9) and the first-person singular pronoun 'I' (lines 8, 9).
  • Manners adds decorative flourishes to certain letters. For example, the fancy approach strokes to the < a > of 'and' (line 5 and first word of line 11) and the < v > of 'very' (line 1); and the extended loop below the line of the < h > of 'haddon' (line 13).
  • The thick, looped ascenders of < d > are often acutely forward-leaning. For example: 'kynd' (line 1), 'and' (line 3) and 'doth' (line 5).
  • There are extensions or large 'spurs' on certain letters, such as < a >: the indefinite article 'a' (lines 1, 6), 'and' (lines 3, 5) and 'about' (line 6).
  • Manners sometimes uses abbreviations, such as a looped horizontal line above a word to indicate a missing letter or letters. For example, above 'sone' to abbreviate 'sonne' (line 5) and above 'Maners' to abbreviate 'Manners' (in his signature) and there is also the very common abbreviation 'lre' for 'lettre' (line 1).

Hands 13-16 (rated: difficult)

Hand 13: employee of Bess's husband Shrewsbury, Richard Topcliffe writes in a mixed hand, 1577 ID 094

Topcliffe's hand presents arguably the most attractive secretary-script handwriting among all of Bess's many correspondents. His writing is set out on the page evenly and spaciously. The balance of relative proportions throughout - between the neat lobes and bodies of letters and exaggerated ascenders/descenders - achieves a graceful and aesthetically-pleasing overall impression. The sweeping approach strokes and enlarged hooks and loops are dramatic-looking and show elegant penmanship. We might observe, in particular, the enlarged approach-strokes on < w > and the generous tails on long-< s > and < f > which extend into the left-hand margin. He completes his letter with his distinctive and rather fine calligraphic signature.

This particular letter was written to Bess whilst Topcliffe was in the employment of her husband, Shrewsbury, some decade before a rift occurred in the relationship between the two men. Topcliffe went on, after the rift, from the mid-1580s, to became notorious for his role as the government's chief torturer and interrogator of prisoners, and his name became a byword for evil cruelty. The contrast - between Topcliffe's attractive handwriting and his depraved reputation - is therefore a reminder to us that we must always eschew any temptations towards erroneous graphology. That is to say, we must steer clear of spurious attempts at character analysis based on handwriting.

Hand 14: Bess's contact regarding Mary Queen of Scots, the bishop of Galloway, writes to Bess in Scots, 1571 ID 029

Alexander Gordon, bishop of Galloway, writes to Bess (countess of Shrewsbury) regarding arrangements for the keeping of Mary Queen of Scots, for whom Bess was co-custodian. His hand is neat and clear, apart from the damaged state of the letter itself. However, one point of particular interest to be aware of is that Galloway's letter is one that Bess received that features Scots forms, which include:

  • use of < w > where we would expect < v > in present-day English. For example: 'werry' VERY, line 1; 'delywerit' DELIVERED, 'hawe' HAVE, line 2.
  • use of < z > where we would expect < y > in present-day English. For example: 'zowr' YOUR, lines 2, 5; 'zow' YOU, line 7; 'zwar' YOUR, subscription.

Hand 15: Bess's servant James Crompe, c.1566 ID 018

Bess's servant James Crompe writes to his mistress Bess (Lady St Loe) around 1566 in his assured, competent secretary hand. Crompe's writing is slightly more difficult to read than the previous hands we have seen as it is more cursive and displays some of the features that tend to arise when writing quickly. For example: the flattened minims of the < n > in < sent > and in < thyngke > (in both cases the < n > looks like a horizontal line in lines 1 and 5 of the second page of the letter).

Letters such as this one by Crompe give us an insight into levels of literacy among Bess's employees. It is no surprise to find that Crompe, who was one of Bess's upper, managerial level, if you will, servants, had very good literate skills. Correspondence was evidently essential to Crompe's role and his letter is partly a response to a previous letter (now lost), from Bess, in which she sent him instructions for the finishing of the great gallery at Chatsworth.

We might observe the matter-of-fact language of Crompe's letter (i.e. by contrast with letters from contemporary courtiers or legally-trained scribes, which are stiff with rhetorical flourishes and technical formulae). Likewise, we might observe the minimal punctuation, absence of Latinate spellings, lack of capitalisation and few abbreviations (i.e. this is not a clerkish letter). On the contrary, and pleasingly for us as modern readers, Crompe's letter comes across as refreshingly unaffected and we see an evident level of mutual trust been employer and employee.

There are natural-sounding touches to the letter's language: such as 'in the mean season' (i.e. 'meanwhile') and 'he is acraftye yomon as I am tolde' (i.e. 'he is a crafty yeoman, so I am told'). But we must be careful, when we observe Crompe's use of a double negative ('I do nat here nothing from harry cokes wyffe', i.e. not ... nothing), to remember that this form was not stigmatised as it is in present-day English (stigmatisation did not happen until much later, well into the seventeenth century; Advances in English Historical Linguistics, ed. by Jacek Fisiak, Marcin Kygier, 1996: 267). That is to say, it is important to grasp that while Crompe's letter is unaffected and unpretentious in expression, and is neither clerkly nor rhetorical, it nonetheless demonstrates he had a high level of literate proficiency.

We might compare Crompe's letter to one from Bess's rabbit-keeper at Chatsworth, Edward Foxe, written in c.1565, which is ID 028. Foxe was evidently a lower-ranking servant than Crompe, but, again, we realise that Bess's rabbit-keeper could compose a very competent letter. In fact, the impression we gain from Foxe is that letters were constantly coming and going at his social level.

Hand 16: Bess's son William Cavendish, 1604 ID 021

By the end of Bess's life, William Cavendish had become her favourite son and chief beneficiary in her will. In the letter selected here from 1604 he writes a note to his mother with a brief news-update and to say that he will come to visit to her as soon as parliament ends. His letter is written in his own secretary hand, which is the most cursive hand we have seen so far and therefore the most challenging to read. We can observe certain features where graphs are either formed in an unclear way (by comparison with the model of the script on which they were, most probably, based), or are not fully finished or executed, both of which can make decipherment more difficult. For example, to read this kind of hand fluently it is necessary to become familiar with:

  • < e > which is sometimes open and not fully formed. For example: the second < e > in 'dewtie' (line 1) and in 'doe' (line 4).
  • < e > which is sometimes open with a loop on one side and should not be mistaken for < d >. For example: the first < d > in 'dewtie' (line 1), the first < e > in 'desired' (line 4), and in 'towne' (line 8) and 'me' (line 10).
  • < t > without a cross-bar through the ascender, or where the cross-bar is at the foot of the ascender. For example: 'to' (line 1), the second < t > of 'trust' (line 2), in 'wayt' (line 3), 'Saterday' (line 6) and 'out' (line 8).
  • < h > where the lobe is entirely gone, flattened. For example: 'shortly' (line 3) and 'thought' (line 12).
  • < h > which sometimes has a long curling tail. For example: 'the' (line 11).
  • < r > which can resemble a reversed epsilon, or large backward-looking '3'. For example: 'for' (line 9) and 'afore' (line 10).
  • < c > which looks like half a box, or a right-angle. For example: 'call' (line 12) and 'michelmas' (line 13).

Hands 17-18 (rated: extremely difficult, illegible in places)

Hand 17: Bess's brother James Hardwick, c.1565 ID 031

In this letter, written 20 January, probably in 1565, James Hardwick, writes to his sister Bess (Lady St Loe) and excuses himself for not coming to see her in person. As he explains at some length, he is suffering from a painful 'cough of the lungs', but his reason for writing is to ask his sister for money, which he offers to pay back with interest.

We can only wonder about Bess's reaction to this letter from her perpetually debt-beleaguered brother; but we can speculate she may not have been delighted at the prospect of deciphering his execrable handwriting. James Hardwick's crabbed hand is one of the most challenging to read amongst all of the letters sent to Bess. While based on secretary script, many of his letter-forms are poorly executed, for example we find that:

  • single-compartment < a > is often highly compressed, so that the lobe is flattened and angular, a pip rather than a pea. For example, the indefinite article 'a' (first letter of line 7) and the < a > of 'and' (line 14).
  • terminal sigma-shaped-'s' which is, likewise, often highly compressed. For example: 'as' (twice on line 11).
  • < ld > where the ascenders of the two letters clash. For example: 'wold' (line 2), 'could' (line 5) and 'aldwecke' (line 20).

Another point worth mentioning here regards numbers. In early modern letters we can expect to find either Roman or Arabic numerals or to find numbers written out as words. All of these were used by early modern letter-writers, such as in references to money or dates. Here, in James Hardwick's letter, we see that he asks his sister Bess for 'one handrythe poundes' (line 16) or, failing that, for 'fyftye poundes', i.e. he writes out the numbers as words. However, when it comes to dates, he uses numerals, as in 'xxijth daye' (line 23) and 'xxth daye' (line 29) of January. James's form for < x > is not to be confused with his letter-form for < w >, which could be mistaken for < xx > in 'Hardwyk' (his signature) and 'wyth' (the first word of line 16). We should also observe that James has an alternate, more cursive, form for < x > which he sometimes uses, such as in 'next' (line 12).

Hand 18: Bess's fourth husband, George, sixth earl of Shrewsbury, 1580 ID 154

Bess's fourth husband, George, sixth earl of Shrewsbury, is infamous among historians and palaeographers for his atrocious handwriting. His scrawl is frequently attributed to gout (the name Shrewsbury himself gave to his affliction), although it may have been another rheumatoid or arthritic condition, or a combination of conditions. Whatever the exact diagnosis, there is no doubt that, out of all Bess's correspondents, Shrewsbury's hand is the most difficult to read. Indeed, his hand is one of the most problematic from the entire sixteenth century, and that Bess herself could decipher his 'uglyography' tells us she must have had excellent reading literacy.

Shrewsbury's writing is, if anything, most visibly influenced by secretary script. Although, as we can see from the letter selected here, ID 154, his writing is certainly not uniform with the professionalised secretary-hands of those scribes who wrote for him, such as ID 079. Some of the more distinct secretary-script forms of Shrewsbury's writing are observable, such as: flat-topped-'g', as in 'good' (line 5) and 'bagshaw' (line 6); < h > which dips below the line, as in 'here' (line 1); z-shaped-'r', as in 'Arre' (line 1); long-'s', as in 'sory' (line 1); and terminal 6-shaped-'s', as in 'Intellygens' (line 15).

To learn to read a hand of this difficulty requires patience and persistence. When faced with such malformed writing we must take time to learn the writer's own particular letter-forms and peculiar idiosyncrasies. To some extent each reader must do this for him- or herself, through practice. Nevertheless, it is worth giving some specific tips for reading Shrewsbury's hand, based on close observation of its forms and features made during preparation of this web-edition. Snags and issues to watch out for are as follows:

  • Shrewsbury seems to have struggled with the completion of vertical strokes in letter-forms. Therefore, letters comprised of minims, such < m, n and u >, are frequently flattened into nothing more than a horizontal line. For example: the < m > of 'am' (third word of line 1), 'Remedy' (line 3) and 'may' (line 7); the < u > of 'sureste' and 'causenge' (both in line 3); and the < n > of 'nyght' (line 6).
  • Further to the previous point, watch out for places where several minimus appear close together and cause the word to completely flatline. For example: < un > in 'found' (line 6) and 'emene' in 'Remenes' (line 10).
  • Where either < m, n or u > appears in the terminal position, the final minim often dips well below the line. For example: 'in' (lines 7, 8); 'you' (lines 7, 8); 'in him' (lines 10, 16); and 'them' (the first word of line 3 of the postscript).
  • Shrewsbury had a tendency not to close lobes and he often omitted the rounded compartments of letter-forms such as < a, o and e >. For example: the three (in each) barely-visible instances of < e > in 'Recovered' (line 1) and 'desees' (line 2); the completely flattened lobe of < a > in 'as' (line 1); and the open lobes of the two instances of < o > in 'ho so' (i.e. WHO SO, line 2).
  • Further to the previous point, the lobe of < d > often gapes wide open, and the ascender may be very short, and may be either angled or looped or backward-kicking. For example, we can compared the forms of < d > in: 'Recovered' (line 1), 'desees' (line 2), 'gylbard' (line 3), 'god' (line 5) and 'husband' (in the subscription).
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

Funded by

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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
Version 1.0 | ISBN 978-0-9571022-3-1
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