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Elizabethan Letter Writing

Updated: Aug 14

In honor of National Letter Writing Day, let’s explore all things letters in Elizabethan times!

 

PENS

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...







 

INK

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 :)



 

MANUALS


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).



English Secretarie


Angel Day’s English Secretarie was a huge hit! Day told her writing students to adhere to “Aptnes, brevity & comeliness” in their letters.

 

SECRETARIES


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.


Opening Lines


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…


Closing Lines


To a noble relative

Your lordship's assured friend and kinsman

(sig.)


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,

(sig.)


To a friend

Thus I commit you to god's good protection.

From Hampton Court the 2d of January 1592. Your very assured friend

(sig.)


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

17 December

(sig.)


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

(sig.)


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

(sig.)


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

(sig.)

Court at Woodstock

this 26th August 1599


To a kinsman

Your very assured loving friend and kinsman

(sig.)


To a mother

With the remembrance of my humble duty unto you, I humbly take my leave and rest,

Your dutiful and obedient son,

(sig.)

 

AFTER READING THE LETTER


Option 1

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.


Option 2

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

 

QUIZ

Let’s end with some fun facts in the form of trivia! Answers are below :)


  1. “Let there be gall enough in thy ink, though thou write with a goose-pen, no matter.” What is this quote from?

  2. Twelfth Night

  3. Henry IV Part I

  4. King Lear

  5. Merry Wives of Windsor

  6. What was used to close the outside of a letter as proof that the document was official?

  7. A sticker

  8. A watery solution

  9. A seal

  10. A signature

  11. “Were all thy letters suns, I could not see one.” This quote is from…

  12. Romeo and Juliet

  13. Timon of Athens

  14. Henry VI Part I

  15. King Lear

  16. “Doubt thou the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move, Doubt truth to be a liar, But never doubt I love.” This quote is from a love letter in which play?

  17. The Two Gentlemen of Verona

  18. As You Like It

  19. Hamlet

  20. Julius Caesar

  21. The Elizabethan alphabet contained how many letters?

  22. 23

  23. 24

  24. 25

  25. 26


Written by Mariela Rivero

Edited by Laura Yumi Snell

ANSWERS

  1. A. Twelfth Night

  2. C. A seal

  3. D. King Lear

  4. C. Hamlet

  5. B. 24