Updated: Aug 14, 2022
In honor of National Letter Writing Day, let’s explore all things letters in Elizabethan times!
Quill pens were POPULAR!
Some facts you might not know about them…
Most were made from goose feathers, but Queen Elizabeth I preferred swan feathers… “Fancy.”
The feathers had to be specially prepared before use - See the video below for instructions! (00:28 - 03:20 mins)
They weren’t always long like we’re used to seeing in paintings. The nibs wore quickly, so new nibs had to be cut frequently. AKA: The pen got shorter and shorter the more it was used. When it became too tiny, the writer simply got a new pen. No biggie ;)
In films, you’ll often see those pretty feathers on the pen… Yeah, that didn’t really happen. The feathers were stripped away. AKA: The quill pen looked much more similar to a modern pen or pencil than most suspect.
Below: The featherless quill pen...
Above: What most people think of...
The Elizabethans quite fancied iron gall ink.
First, the oak gall - the main ingredient - must form. So a female wasps lays her eggs in growing leaf buds. The larvae then eat the gall tissue, which changes the oak bud into the oak gall-- that round thing that kind of looks like a nut and protects the larvae. Then, the oak gall must be retrieved and put in the special ink sauce... You know what, we could write a paragraph about the whole thing, but it'd probably be more fun to watch a video — so here’s a two-minute demonstration instead :)
The Enimie of Idlenesse
William Fulwood’s The Enimie of Idlenesse was the first letter writing manual printed in English. First published in the 1560s, it had released a whole ten editions by 1621!
Fun Fact: Scholars basically consider it a translation of the French manual, Le Stile et manière de composer, dicter, et escrire toute sorte d’epistres (1566).
Angel Day’s English Secretarie was a huge hit! Day told her writing students to adhere to “Aptnes, brevity & comeliness” in their letters.
One-fourth of all letters sent in the Renaissance were written by secretaries!
The etymology of “secretary” goes back to words that sound an awful lot like “secret”... because that’s what it meant. What they wrote down stayed between them and their master. Supposedly.
Fun Fact: Queen Elizabeth I’s Latin secretary was Roger Ascham. He assisted the queen with the letter that negotiated the release of English citizens from their imprisonment in Spain. On the letter’s last leaf, he signed his own name.
Even More Fun Fact: Before Roger Ascham became Queen Elizabeth I's secretary, he was Queen Mary's Latin secretary until her death in 1558. And before that, he was Sir Richard Morison's secretary (1550–52); Morrison was an English ambassador to the Habsburg emperor Charles V. Now here's the kicker: Before serving Morrison, Ascham was none other than Princess Elizabeth's Greek and Latin tutor (1548-1550)! And did we mention Ascham published a book on teaching Latin prose composition? Secretaries were certainly skilled!
OPENING & CLOSING
In Elizabethan times, there were no set headings and closings. (Ex.: Dear Mother; Kind Regards). That said, their formality was consistent. Below you’ll find commonly used phrases from the period. Note that these are taken from Dawson and Kennedy-Skipton: Elizabethan Handwriting; Southampton Shakespeare's Patron by Rowse; and The Lisle Letters by Muriel St. Clare Byrne.
Reading Help: Numbers were often written as lowercase Roman numerals, with the last “i” being a “j”. Also, (sig.) indicates the writer’s signature.
To a relative
Good uncle, after my heartiest commendations to you and to mine aunt...
To a friend
After my very hearty commendations...
To a mother
My humble duty remembered...
To a noble man
Right Worshipful, My humble duty remembered, hoping in the Almighty of your health and prosperity which on my knees I beseech him to long to continue…
To a noble relative
Your lordship's assured friend and kinsman
To an equal who has done (or perhaps been asked) a favor
Thus indebted to you for your pains taken for me, I bid you farewell. Sprowston, this xx of April. Your friend,
To a friend
Thus I commit you to god's good protection.
From Hampton Court the 2d of January 1592. Your very assured friend
To a parent
And thus with commendations from my partner and sister with thanks for our good cheer, and not forgetting Aunt Lettyce, with blessing to Mall, nephews Lewis, Harvey, and Nick, and Nan, with our humble duty to my mother we commit you to God this Saturday
To the Queen
And so I bid your Grace and the rest heartily farewell.
From my house in the Strand this xix of March, 1596, Your assured loving friend
To a noble mother
And so humbly craving your ladyship's daily blessing to us both, we most humbly take our leave, Tutbery the last of December 1605
Your ladyships humble and obedient son
To a brother
I pray you remember my duty to my good mother. This with my kindest commend to you and my good sister, wishing you all happiness, I rest your loving sister
Court at Woodstock
this 26th August 1599
To a kinsman
Your very assured loving friend and kinsman
To a mother
With the remembrance of my humble duty unto you, I humbly take my leave and rest,
Your dutiful and obedient son,
AFTER READING THE LETTER
After the letter was read, it would be folded and labeled with the date, sender’s name, and a brief summary of the message. The letter would then be safely filed with others.
The letter could be kept in a letterbook! This included both personal letters as well as letters from published books, popular letters in circulation, letters regarding finances, etc.
Letterbook - Circa 1615
Let’s end with some fun facts in the form of trivia! Answers are below :)
“Let there be gall enough in thy ink, though thou write with a goose-pen, no matter.” What is this quote from?
Henry IV Part I