Letterwriting in Renaissance England

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Demonstration of the proper ways to hold a pen in A booke containing diuers sortes of hands, 1602. Folger Digital Image 154.

Letterwriting in Renaissance England, part of the Exhibitions at the Folger opened on November 18, 2004 and closed April 2, 2005. The exhibition was curated by Alan Stewart, Guest Curator, and Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts.

It could be argued that the letter was the single most important genre of the Renaissance: not merely one literary form among many (though it was that too) but the very glue that held society together. Letters were the “ligaments” tying the world together—the primary form of non-oral communication for hundreds of years, with the power to inform and influence people over long distances, for better and for worse.

This exhibition devoted itself to the myriad processes of letterwriting: the penning, sending, receiving, reading, circulating, copying, and saving of letters. Examples range from the early sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, the period in which the Folger Shakespeare Library has its strongest collections, but also the period in which the culture of letterwriting underwent several massive transformations from the rise of the printed book, popularizing the letterwriting manual, to the growth of a reliable postal system.

The text of a letter provides one part of the story, while its very tangibility—the folds, the grime and fingerprints deposited by the writer, deliverer, and readers, the broken seals, the inkblots, the idiosyncratic spelling, the location of a signature—tells another. An understanding of a letter’s written and unwritten social signals brings into focus a fuller, grittier, and ultimately more convincing picture of everyday life in early modern England.

Exhibition materials

Writing Tools

In a world where much of our long-distance correspondence is accomplished by telephone and email, it is already becoming something of a novelty to return to pen and paper. But in Renaissance England, where all correspondence was handwritten, resorting to “pen and paper” was not quite as simple as it sounds. In order to perform the physical work of penning a letter, a writer had to assemble a range of materials.

Goose feathers needed to be transformed into quill pens, iron gall nuts into ink; and paper needed to be treated so that the ink would not be too easily absorbed. Quills needed to be refilled regularly and replaced often. Made of walnut, this inkwell has an opening to insert a quill at each corner. One of the openings is for the “quill in waiting.”

This seal matrix is made of a silver-lead alloy and brass, and is now probably missing its ivory or wooden handle. Seals were highly personalized, often containing the initials of the sender, or the family crest or shield of arms. To seal the outside of a folded letter, letterwriters kept desk seals, or seal matrices, and often had seal or signet rings as well. Individuals often had both official and personal seals for sealing letters, so that the nature of their business was evident to the recipient before opening the letter.

Writers would keep writing supplies stored in boxes, which were often outfitted with drawers and generally had slanted tops, serving as a comfortable writing surface.

Items included

  • LOAN from George Way, Staten Island. Writing Desk (English oak), 1654.
  • LOAN from George Way, Staten Island. Inkwell, 1691.
  • LOAN from George Way, Staten Island. Seal matrix, 17th century.

Letterwriting Manuals

Learning to write letters formed an integral part of early education, and letterwriting manuals provided students with hundreds of exemplary letters to use as models for all kinds of situations.

William Fulwood’s The Enimie of Idlenesse was the first letterwriting manual to be printed in English. Published in ten editions by 1621, it was essentially a translation of the French manual, Le Stile et manière de composer, dicter, et escrire toute sorte d’epistres (1566). But perhaps the most influential English letterwriting manual was Angel Day’s English Secretarie. In it, Day insists that letterwriters should adhere to a new ABC—“Aptnes, brevity & comeliness”—in their letters and emphasizes the importance of letterwriting as a modern, social transaction.

Items included

  • William Fulwood. The enimie of idlenesse: teaching the maner and stile how to endite, compose and write all sorts of epistles and letters: as well by answer, as otherwise. London: Henry Bynneman, 1568. Call number STC 11476.
  • Angel Day. The English secretorie. VVherein is contayned, a perfect method, for the inditing of all manner of epistles and familiar letters, together with their diuersities, enlarged by examples vnder their seuerall titles. London: Printed by Robert Walde-graue, 1586. Call number STC 6401 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Angel Day. The English secretary, or Methode of writing of epistles and letters. London: Printed by P. S[hort], 1599. Call number STC 6404 Copy 2.
  • Angel Day. The English secretorie, or, Methode of vvriting of epistles and letters: with a declaration of such tropes, figures and schemes as either vsually, or for ornament sake are therein required. London: Printed by Thomas Snodham, [1621]. Call number STC 6407.2.
  • Jehan de Beau-Chesne. A booke containing diuers sortes of hands, as well the English as French secretarie with the Italian, Roman, chancelry & court hands. London: Richard Field, 1602. Call number STC 6450.2 and LUNA Digital Image.


Letterwriting not only required the ability to read and write, it was also a demanding business. It is not surprising, then, that one-fourth of all letters sent in the Renaissance were written by secretaries. As the etymology of the name suggests, a secret -ary was privy to his master’s secrets. From royal secretaries writing for monarchs to itinerant scribes writing for illiterate customers, secretaries were a crucial, often invisible, part of the letterwriting process.

This letter negotiating for the release of English prisoners in Spain was written by Roger Ascham, the Latin secretary of Queen Elizabeth. Relations between Elizabeth of England and Philip II of Spain were always delicate, but the official correspondence between them is a model of decorum. Ascham’s secretarial duties ranged from taking this kind of dictation to teaching Elizabeth to write a good italic hand and to read Greek. Against the image of the anonymous secretary, Ascham does not disappear from view. Instead, he signals his presence very publicly by signing the letter himself on the last leaf.

Items included

  • Elizabeth I. Letter signed from Elizabeth I, Queen of England, to Philip II of Spain. Manuscript, 17 February 1565/6. Call number X.d.138 (2) and LUNA Digital Image.

Love Letters

Most surviving letters from early modern England concern themselves either with affairs of state or financial matters. Amongst this dry paperwork, however, one occasionally encounters a letterwriter who cuts through the formal prescriptions, conventions, and strained wit to reveal anger, a playful sense of humor, an urge to gossip or describe—and, especially, love. For as John Donne puts it in a verse letter to his friend Sir Henry Wotton as “more than kisses, letters mingle souls; / For thus friends absent speak.”

Very few “real” love letters survive, despite the proliferation of printed collections devoted to the genre, and their frequent appearance in Renaissance literature. Why is this? Were they stored separately from routine business letters? Were they burned to prevent discovery? Rare examples from women writing in the seventeenth century reveal an increasing emotional frankness and desire for intellectual conversation.

Jane Skipwith's ca. 1610 love letter to her cousin. Folger Digital Image 5762.

Jane Skipwith's Love Letter

In an inexperienced but carefully written italic hand, Jane Skipwith, writes this letter to her cousin and lover. In this letter she refers wryly to his father’s attempts to marry him to an honorable woman with a large dowry (honor "dothe goe fare with most men nowe dayes"), adding that she "writ not this out of any mistrust I haue of your loue," and in another letter, written just two days after this one, she frets that the carrier has arrived without a letter from him, "and if you knewe but how wellcome you[r] letters are to mee: you would not bee soe sparing of them."

Transcription of Jane Skipwith's Letter To her Cousin Lewes Bagot


To my good frend mr
Lewes Bagott giue this


My best beloued cosen I am v^e^ry glad to here from you, that you ar well, and I would haue you thinke that it tis one of the greates[t] comfordes I haue in this world to here of your well farer; I am very sory to here that your father is still in that humer of offering you more wifes; but as for this; shee hathe a greate porshone; wich I thinke if I hade; hee would not so much missl[i]ke of mee as hee dothe; and besides shee is honorabell wich dothe goe fare with most men nowe dayes; but I protest I writ not this out of any mistrust I haue of your loue; for I haue euer found it more then I haue desserued; yett I know not what shall deserue; and thus with my best wishes; for your good fortune; and happy^n^es in all your bussines I rest euer –

your truly louing
frende while I breath
Jane Skipwith
the xiii of
my sisters loue
may not bee for
gotten to you; lett mee here
you as soune as you can

Jane Skipwith's Seal

Used to close the outside of a folded letter or to authenticate a legal document, seals were highly personalized, often containing the initials of the sender or the family crest or shield of arms.

Each of Jane Skipwith's love letters to her cousin, Lewes Bagot, is lovingly folded into a tiny packet and closed with a red wax seal of a turnpike, or turnstile, the Skipwith family crest. The seal was placed over embroidery floss. The floss would have to be cut before Bagot could unfold and read the contents of the letter.

Lydia Dugard's Love Letter

This letter tells part of the story of Lydia and Samuel Dugard, who were first cousins and in love. A letter from Lydia to Samuel describes her daily life and feelings in striking detail. Because of their close familial ties they tried to conduct their relationship in secrecy, although in this letter Lydia reports that after being questioned by her mother’s closest friend, “I confes’d some of the truth. I am not sorry I did so.” As their correspondence swelled, Lydia began intertwining Samuel’s first initial with her own in “their” signature. In 1672 Samuel, a fellow at Trinity College, Oxford, defied university regulations forbidding fellows to marry; when he was discovered shortly thereafter, her was forced to resign. Lydia died in childbirth three years later.

Transcription of Lydia Dugard's Letter To her Cousin Samuel Dugard

[no superscription]


Feb: 6. 1669

Dear Cousin

How glad I am to hear of your better health you may easily guise, when I shall tell you how much tis wish’t for and desired by mee, how like you I grow when I am told the contrary, and how apt I am to fear the worst when there to others thinking there is so litle ground of fears that should some know perhaps they’d smile and say my thoughts were too much taken up, and it was care ^needles^ to be so much consern’d for anothers wellfare. but sure you won’t be one of those, won’t blame me for that which your self is the cause of. till the cause be removed the effects will continue, and till you sease to bee what you are (which I beleive will never be) I cant allter or grow weary of loving one whose deserts call for the greatest respect and whose affection I should be ungratfull too did I not answer with the like. but I begin to chek my self for writing so truly, and taking such a liberty as will cost me a blush when I think you are reading it. it is a fault (for some would call it so, if you dont,) I am often run in to, which I somtimes blame my self for, but which I the lese unwillingly allow my self in because (if I have not forgot) I speak with lese confidence and more feare by word of mouth then in paper. if you dislike it, tell me, and Ile promise to be guilty of it no more. I did not think such reports would have bin spread abroad from our Whitford Journy. a year or two since it would have troubled me much, but now since I am so used to hear people talk of you and mee, I matter ^it^ but litle and can hear all they say. a Gentalwoman at London hearing my Uncle had two sons said she beleivd one of them would not allwayes call me cousin. she told me she wish’d me very well and bid me to be well advised, and not rashly dispose of my self. with abundence more of good counsell, she urged me so much and beg’d me so earnestly to tell her the truth, that at last, being tired with her importunity since she was my Mothers great freind, since she lov’d me almost from my cradle, since I realy beleivd sheed be faithfull, and sinc I was tired with her importunity I confes’d some of the truth. I am not sorry I did so. if I had bin silent she would have thought (it may be) I was inveagld, and should undervalue my self. but when I told her what you was. she changed her advice and cautions into approbacion and said she liked it a great deal better then if I had lov’d some young gallant though he had a good estate...

Items included

Donne's Marriage Letters

Today, John Donne is best known first as one of the English language’s greatest poets, but in the seventeenth century he was also celebrated as a letter-writer. Given Donne’s background, the letterwriting is unsurprising, for like many of his educated contemporaries, he spent time working as a secretary to the top-ranking legal official in England—the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton. While working for Egerton, Donne fell in love, and fell into a scandal that threatened to wreck his life. The scandal also prompted him to write a flurry of letters that are among the Folger’s most prized possessions.

In December 1601, John Donne secretly married Anne More, the niece of his employer’s wife. Unable or unwilling to face his father-in-law in person, Donne did what any good secretary would do—he broke the news of his marriage in a letter. In it, Donne begged Sir George not to “destroy” him and Anne, since “it is easy to give us happiness.” His efforts were to no avail. Sir George did not approve of his daughter’s marriage, since Donne, the son of a London ironmonger, had a reputation as a womanizer and a possible Catholic. As a result, Donne was fired from his job as secretary and thrown into London’s Fleet Prison. In a series of eight letters, Donne argues for his freedom, his job, and his wife. Although he eventually reconciled with his father-in-law, Donne was unemployed for the next thirteen years, forced to rely on the generosity of friends and relatives. His marriage lasted until 1617, when Anne died in childbed. Devastated by the loss, the poet never remarried.

Items included

  • John Donne. Autograph letter to Sir George More. Manuscript, 2 February 1601/2. Call number L.b.526 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Donne. Autograph letter signed from John Donne, Fleet Prison, to Sir Thomas Egerton. Manuscript, 12 February 1601/1602. Call number L.b.528 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Donne. Autograph letter signed from John Donne to Sir George More. Manuscript, 13 February 1601/1602. Call number L.b.529 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Donne. Autograph letter signed from John Donne to Sir Thomas Egerton. Manuscript, 13 February 1601/1602. Call number L.b.530 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Donne. Autograph letter signed from John Donne to Sir Thomas Egerton. Manuscript, February 1602. Call number L.b.534 and LUNA Digital Image.

Secret Letters

In times of political and military unrest, letters were especially vulnerable to interception despite the lengths to which their bearers would go to hide them. Given the often delicate nature of the correspondence, some letters were written in cipher.

This letter, lacking both an address and a seal, was written during the Civil War on behalf of King Charles I, then trapped at Oxford. The writer, George Digby, earl of Bristol, writes to an unidentified party, either Prince Rupert or Prince Maurice, advising that as a result of Oliver Cromwell’s recent incursions, Rupert needs to march on Oxford in order to prevent the city being besieged. Owing to its acute political sensitivity, the letter has been written partially in cipher—or rather a combination of ciphers. Several major players are denoted by numbers: King Charles is 241, Prince Rupert 354, the Marquis of Hertford 223, and so on.

Items included

  • George Digby. Autograph letter signed from George Digby, Oxford, to Prince Rupert or Prince Maurice. 27 April 1645. Call number X.c.125 and LUNA Digital Image.

Postal "Systems"

The greatest challenge to letterwriters was the postal “system.” For the average individual, “mailing” a letter involved either paying someone to carry the letter, or sending it along with a friend headed in the desired direction. Carriers, bearers, messengers, or foot-posts, as they were variously called, were the lifeline between families and friends, court and country, and one nation and another.

Trevelyon's Foot Post

The foot-post in this illustration wears a pouch of letters around his waist, holds a letter superscribed “To his frinde liar” in his hand, and carries a large post-bag with the inscription: “Newes from all parttes is in my sacke With lies and tales it Loades my backe.” Trevelyon’s image emphasizes the power of letters to disseminate information, whether it be false or true.

England's First Postal Service

In 1635, Charles I established the first official national postal service in England, a continuously running post between London and cities in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. It was thought that opening the king's post to personal mail would pay for the rising expense of conveying the king's official mail.

Ogilby's Book of Roads

A foot-post’s work was difficult: wagon wheels and inclement weather made the highways impassable; wages were in serious arrears; fresh horses were frequently unavailable; maps were unreliable. Letters arrived late, or not did not arrive at all.

A number of innovations in the Renaissance, however, made the post more reliable than it had been in the past. For example, strides were made to standardize the maps of English roads navigated by the letter carriers. John Ogilby’s road book, narrow enough to fit in a traveler’s pocket, made it easy to distinguish between post-towns, cities, and market-towns by marking the former with asterisks, and the latter two with capital letters and italics.

Items included

  • Thomas Trevilion. Trevelyon Miscellany. Manuscript, 1608. Call number V.b.232 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • By the King. A proclamation for the setling of the letter office of England and Scotland. London, 1635. Call number STC 9041.
  • John Ogilby. Mr. Ogilby's pocket book of roads with the computed & measured distances. London, 1679. Call number O177a and LUNA Digital Image.

Afterlife of Letters

Letterbook manuscript, compiled ca. 1615. Folger Digital Image 68577.

What happened to a letter after it was read? The recipient, or his clerk or secretary, would often fold the letter and write on the top of the outer leaf an endorsement consisting of the date, the name of the sender, and a brief summary of the letter. The letter would then be filed in a bundle with the endorsements visible for quick recall and easy retrieval.

Other times, letters were preserved in letterbooks. Personal letterbooks took many forms. They could contain copies of letters actually sent and received by the compiler, as well as letters collected by him or her—including copies of historical, scurrilous, or anonymously-written letters that circulated widely, letters taken from printed books, advice letters from parents, letters preserved for legal and financial reasons, or letters simply worthy of imitation.

Items included

  • John Martin. Letter book of John Martin. Manuscript, ca. 1652-1668. Call number V.a.454.
  • Autograph letter signed from Katherine Hamilton, Lady Paisley, to Colonel Robert Warcupp. Manuscript, November 1681. Call number X.d.375 (14) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Letterbook, ca. 1582-ca. 1615. Manuscript, ca. 1615. Call number V.a.321 and LUNA Digital Image.

Supplemental materials

Letterwriting in Renaissance England children's exhibition

Related publications

The exhibition catalog can be purchased from the Folger Shop.

Published in conjunction with our exhibition, Letterwriting in Rennaisance England, John Donne's Marriage Letters is a facsimile edition edited with an introduction by M. Thomas Hester, Robert Parker Sorlien, and Dennis Flynn and an afterword by Heather Wolfe. It consists of 18 documents relating to Donne's secret marriage to Anne More in 1601 and his relationship with the More family in the ensuing years, including 8 extraordinary letters written in the immediate aftermath of his marriage. The first time the letters have been published as a group, this edition is also the first time they have been published in facsimile.