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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.

Elizabeth I. Letter to Philip II of Spain, penned by Roger Ascham. Manuscript, 17 February 1565/6

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