by Lady Amie Sparrow
Kingdom Arts & Sciences Festival
Persona Pentathlon Competition
March 7, 2009
This letter is a reproduction late Elizabethan letter written on paper in italic hand. The sender’s persona is a working-class Elizabethan woman who has an embroidery business and lives in London. She is writing to her husband who has traveled out of town for business.
Source Material for Calligraphy and Contents
The handwriting that I chose to emulate for this letter is italic. A sample of a letter in italic handwriting is found at the Folger Library. It is a letter from Elizabeth Wingfield to Elizabeth, countess of Shrewsbury dated January 2, 1576 or 1577. The reproduction I wrote myself based on historic letter text quoted in James Daybell’s book, Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England.
Strathmore Bristol smooth 100 lb.
Sheaffer Classic Ink, black
16th century reproduction letter
The persona of Amie Sparrow is a late 16th century Elizabethan woman living in London. She has three children and makes her living as an embroiderer. She runs her own small business and her daughters work for her. As a matter of necessity, Amie can write in order to manage those aspects of her business that require writing. England had a female literacy rate of 8% by 1600. (Daybell, p. 14-15. Footnote “Cressy, ‘Literacy and the Social Order,” 128.)
Her son and daughters are being taught to read and write, the daughters at home, the son at a free school. Amie learned to write at home with the help of a copybook which began to be published from about 1570 onwards. Jonathan Goldberg posits that copybooks in England were specifically aimed at women. (Goldberg, Jonathan, Writing Matter, p. 134.) She teaches her daughters using Frances Clemet’s The Petie Schole, published in 1587, which outlined the materials needed for writing.
Since Amie’s husband is in another town for business, she writes to him with news of the family. “Letter-writing within sixteenth-century marriages functioned as a pragmatic way of conduction business and conveying information; yet increasingly over the course of the period letters between husbands and wives simultaneously performed more personal functions and assumed an emotional significance.” (Daybell, p. 201.)
In the sixteenth century, parchment and vellum were reserved for legal documents and presentation copies of literary works. It was too expensive for everyday use. Instead, letters were written on paper.
“The first reference to a papermill in the United Kingdom was in a book printed by Wynken de Worde in about 1495, this mill belonging to John Tate and was near Hertford. Other early mills included one at Dartford, owned by Sir John Speilman, who was granted special privileges for the collection of rags by Queen Elizabeth and one built in Buckinghamshire before the end of the sixteenth century.” (British Association of Paper Historians.)
Sixteenth century paper was made from cotton rags. The quality of paper varied widely for Elizabethans, just as it does for us today. The best quality paper was creamy colored and many types were watermarked. Amie would not have afforded the best paper. Instead, she would have used an inferior grade which was brown or gray. (Daybell, p. 52 (Hunter,Dard, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, New York, 1947, p. 241)) Paper was sold in batches of 24 sheets, which was called a quire. For my reproduction, I tried to use Arches paper which is 100% cotton rag paper. The Arches mill has been in business since 1492 and produces paper that is as close to historically accurate as I could find that was available for purchase. Unfortunately, Arches cotton rag paper proved too thick to be folded into the proper letter-sized packet and I had to use a lower-weight paper, Strathmore Bristol Smooth 100lb. This is discussed more at the end of this documentation under, “Letter Folding”.
There is some academic difference of opinion about the size of a sheet of paper from which letters were cut. Some scholars claim that letter paper was cut from sheets measuring 35 cm x 47.5 cm. St. Clare Byrne says that the sheets were 12.5 x 16.5 inches, which would be folded in half to make a four-page letter. (Daybell, p. 51 (St. Clare Byrne, Lisle Letters, ii. 103.)) I have used a full sheet of 9 x 12 inches.
How spaces were used in letters followed social codes. Using a large sheet of paper for only a few lines showed respect to the recipient of the letter. (See how much money I’m spending on you by wasting paper? That’s because you’re important.) “Conversely, given the expense of paper, the leaving of large gaps of blank space, itself an act of conspicuous consumption, registered the letter-writer’s own social worth.” (Daybell, p. 48.)
The space left between the end of the text and the signature of a letter also showed respect. If you left a lot of space between the end of the letter and your signature, you were showing respect to the receiver. If you crammed your signature up against the text of the letter, it was considered and insult.
Despite social conventions, how women wrote their letters varied widely, as it does today. While many women used a full sheet of paper for only short letters, other women filled the entire space, including writing in the margins. Though this was by personal choice, household economics also played into the matter.
Quill and Ink
In the 16th century, there were no pens as we know them. Instead, quills were made from bird feathers. The most popular type was goose. Other types of feathers used were raven, duck, crow, peacock, and turkey. (Swan was the favorite of Elizabeth I.) For my reproduction, I have used a cartridge pen since my reproduction is more focused on content than materials.
Ink recipes were published in books and passed down orally. Many ink recipes can be found in John de Beau Chesne and John Baildon’s A Booke Containing Divers Sorts of Hands, published in 1569.
Sample Text from Letters
I have written my letter by looking at sample texts found in Daybell’s book and the spelling conventions found in the lessons in transcription given by the British National Archive. Some sample texts quoted in Daybell are listed below. This is only a small selection of a vast amount of quoted material he uses.
‘your long absence at this time hate [hath] bread shuch discontent in my mind that I canot be reed of it. You knowe that my time of payne and sorowe is nere and I am unproved of loging and other things nedfull. (p. 201)
‘my Syster Bolde doth verye earnestlye requeste you to doe so muche for her as to come downe to her for she woolde gladlye speake w[i]th you for dyuers cawses whereof you knowe some yo[u]r selfe alreadye. She sayth yo[o]r comminge might pleasure her muche at this presente yf yo[u]r busyness be suche as you can nott come, then I pray you sende me worde by this bearer. Butt I woulde verye fayne yf you coulde haue you to come.’ (p. 213)
‘look that your pickter be uery finely done and brot hether as son as may be or else I will do nothing but chide with you when you come to me.’ (p. 215)
‘I can not lieu longe wity out your company. You shall finde me a with [witch] for I will be reuenged of you for all the engeres [injuries] you haue done me.’ (p. 215)
Sample Closing Phrases
Wives used a variety of closing phrases for their letters; some were formulaic such as ‘yours affectionately’ or ‘best wishes’ (Daybell, 207) while others were more full of candor such as ‘By your loving wife that was never thus weary with writing.’ The list below gives a sample of closing phrases that show the range of emotions that women expressed to their husbands.
Your loving wife, howsoever
thine and no one else’s
your everloving wife
your faithful and obedient wife
Your assured and Lovinge wiffe
Emotion in the Text
Despite the formality of sixteenth century letters when compared to today’s letters, Elizabethan era women show a range of emotions in their text. Humor appears in letters where husbands and wives were lucky enough to have a love match. Chastisement, too, appears in letters where wives attempt to get men to take care of themselves, their finances, or their stations in life. Where there are a range of letters from a single woman over time, Daybell points out that young women who are new brides write with a certain timidity, while in later life, they are more self-assured and apt to state their opinions more openly.
Counter-intuitively, it is the letters of men who are filled with more emotion than those of women. But that discussion is outside the purpose of this paper. (For more information, see Daybell p. 209.)
Italic hand was introduced to England at the beginning of the 16th century by university scholars. It was adopted gradually and unevenly, first by women of the court who were highly educated and the daughters of humanists. Anne Boleyn did not write in italic, but her daughter Queen Elizabeth learned italic hand from her French tutor as a young girl. “Until the 1570s…, italic hand was a largely a fashionable social and cultural accomplishment for a learned minority.” Italic hand was information and more readable as opposed to secretary hand which was used for business purposes. Eventually “…italic was the hand used by the majority of English women by the end of the sixteenth century.” By 1590, italic was becoming popular with men, as well.
For a sample of italic handwriting, go to http://paleo.anglo-norman.org/samples.html#hum.
Note: Before italic hand, women wrote using later gothic, anglicana, cursive , secretary or mixed hands, a discussion of which lies outside the boundaries of this article.
“Spelling was pretty fluid at the time – people generally spelled words as they heard them pronounced.” Women, especially, tended to spell phonetically, parroting how they spoke. The first dictionary of English words wasn’t published until 1604, Robert Cawdry’s Table Alphabeticall :A table alphabeticall of hard usual English words. As you read the quoted texts in Daybell, you get a sense of how a person would have sounded and it is not the lovely English accent that we hear in the movies today.
Some 16th century peculiarities of spelling are pointed out in a course in transcription given by the British National Archives :
- Use of y for i, for example myne = mine.
- Interchangeable i and j. Iohn = John. Maiestie = Majesty.
- Interchangeable u and v, such as euer = ever. vnto = unto
- Long ‘s’. The ‘f’ has a cross stroke, even if it’s hardly noticeable, and the context makes it clear whether it is a long ‘s’ or an ‘f’. Writers would often use both long and short ‘s’, sometimes even in the same word.
- Use of a single consonant where you would find two in modern English, such as al – all.
- Use of two consonants where you would find one in modern English, such as allways – always.
wt – with
wch – which
Mr – Master (not ‘Mister’ at this time).
The lack of women’s formal education also shows up in women’s practice of running words together in letters, which shows how they might have spoken the words. “Lady Bacon wrote ‘a nowld’, for “an old, ‘tooutnot’ for ‘doubt not’, while Elizabeth Cavendish wrote ‘weonhores backe’ for ‘way on horseback’.
The text of the letter in period spelling is as follows:
My goode husband Mr Sparrow I haue no hope to see you in the sittye before may and therfore must stile continew my shut for a leter wch is won of the chieffest thing that I shall behold wth delite in your absens. without your comfard at home your dawter greatlie troubles me and cause me to feare greatlye for hr future. Elizabeth is hoples wyth nedle and thred for a handkercheef she wrought wth black works was awfull. Lady Hengrave hath fownde greatt fawt wyth the embroyderee sayenge she wolde talck wyth me farder and that she wolde wll chyde me for lettinge Elizabeth do it. I worry for Elizabeths future prospects and so haue deuised a cuning plan. I haue taut her reding and wryting and sense she is very prettie, I uant to put her out to work for Mr Knyvett who is a wool merchant wyth a shop and reech. It wold be a good match if she culd win him for if she must live by her embroyderee skills, she will be por indeede. Iohn is wel and lerns much at the free school. Mildred is more deere to me than my eyes ore hart. She works with a needle as Eliza canot and is a greate comforte for she can decorat sackcloth to look like a jerkyn of sylk. mor neus I can send you that I think will, make you mery is that I reade in a letter from Lampton that your Syster Margret hath born a litel boy that’s all head and veri litel body, but this is a secrit until you ar at home.
By yor loving wyfe that was err thus weare with writing
this 3rd day of March, 1597
The text of my period letter is as follows:
My good husband Mr Sparrow I have no hope to see you in the city before may and therefore must still continue my suit for a letter which is won of the chiefest thing that I shall behold with delight in your absence. Without your comfort at home your daughter greatly troubles me and cause me to fear greatly for her future. Elizabeth is hopeless with needle and thread for a handkerchief she wrought with black works was awfull. Lady Hengrave hath found great fault with the embroidery saying she would talk with me further and that she would well chide me for letting Elizabeth do it. I worry for Elizabeth’s future prospects and so have devised a cunning plan. I have taught her reading and writing and sense she is very pretty, I want to put her out to work for Mr Knyvett who is a wool merchant with a shop and rich. It would be a good match if she could win him for if she must live by her embroidery skills, she will be poor indeed. John is well and learns much at the free school. Mildred is more dear to me than my eyes or heart. She works with a needle as Eliza cannot and is a great comfort for she can decorate sackcloth to look like a jerkin of silk. more news I can send you that I think will, make you merry is that I read in a letter from Lampton that your Sister Margret hath born a little boy that’s all head and very little body, but this is a secret until you are at home.
By your loving wife that was ever thus weary with writing
March 15, 1597
Comparison of Lowercase Italic and Secretary Hands
The first sample is a redaction alphabet from Princess Elizabeth’s letter to her sister, Queen Mary, while Elizabeth was in the Tower of London, 16 March 1554. See British National Archives, Tutorial Document 1.
This second sample is a redaction alphabet in secretary hand from the examination of James Machary on 29 December 1588 regarding his enforced service onto a ship in Portugal. The tutorial implies that the letter was written by William Fitzwilliam, Lord Deputy of Ireland to Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State in England. See British National Archives, Tutorial Document 2.
Envelopes were not used until the 1800s. “…letters were folded into a regular packet approximately 8×10 cm.” This is approximately 3.1 inches x 3.9 inches. “The standard ‘tuck and seal’ format of folding involved creasing the letter twice horizontally, then folding it twice vertically, before tucking the left portion inside the right one, and sealing the seam with wax.”
This is where my use of Arches 100% Cotton Rag Paper fell apart. Arches has the look and feel of old-style sturdy paper. But at 140 lbs., it is so heavy that folding it into the standard shape as mentioned in the British National Archives and Daybell is impossible without the paper cracking apart like folded pasteboard. I tried to use 140lb Strathmore Bristol Smooth with the same result. I had to go down in paper weight to 100lb Strathmore Bristol Smooth before I could get a letter that folded without tearing apart.
The address is taken from historical records of Ipswich, England , which is 84 miles from London, a very long journey in the 16th century.
- Daybell, James. Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England. Oxford University Press, New York, NY. 2006.
- Goldberg, Jonathan. Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance. Stanford University Press. 1991.
- Preston, Jean F. and Yeandle, Laetitia, English Handwriting, 1400-1650: An Introductory Manual. Pegasus Paperbacks. 1992.
- Field, Richard. A NEVV BOOKE, CONTAINING ALL SORTS OF HANDS VSVALLY WRITTEN AT THIS DAY IN CHRISTENDOME, AS THE ENGLISH and French Secrecary, the Roma, Italian, French, Spanifh, high and low Dutch, Court and Chancerie hands, 1611. (Published online at http://www.shipbrook.com/jeff/bookshelf/details.html?bookid=2.)
- St. Clare Byrne, Muriel. The Lisle Letters. University of Chicago Press. 1981.
- Ziegler, Georgianna. Reference librarian at the Folger Library. Personal correspondence, December 2007.
- British Association of Paper Historians. http://www.baph.org.uk/general%20reference/history_of_papermaking_in_the_united%20kingdom.htm.
- British National Archives. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/
- Folger Library. http:/www.folger.edu/html/exhibitions_I/wingfield
- http://medievalwriting.50megs.com/scripts/examples/cursive15.htm by Dr Dianne Tillotson