… or, The Subtle Yet Intriguing Wrapping Paper that Is Ripped and Folded Back to Get to the Gift Inside Comes Into Its Own
(and that, my friends, is an appropriate metaphor)
The early modern English letter was commonly written on an uncut sheet of paper, folded in half. The sheet was of a standard size, dictated by the size of the paper mould. Folding it once in the center of the long side created two folio-size leaves, like those in the Frst Folio edition of Shakespeare’s complete works. The text of the letter was written on leaf 1 recto (page 1) and continued on the following pages, as far as was necessary. For the recipient, that text was the most important thing. It still is to most researchers today, as a wonderful, and often extraordinary, window into the events of another world, revealing both the mundane and important.
The text is not, however, the only writing on the sheet. After the text was completed, the paper was folded again multiple times to create an envelope,1 ending with the text on page 1 hidden inside the folds and part of the usually blank leaf 2 verso (page 4) exposed. There the address was written, and the seam was sealed with wax by pressing into it a metal stamp, or matrix, with a reversed image incised into the surface.2 The letter was then given to a courier or post carrier, who delivered it to the recipient according to the instructions on the address. Logically, the life and importance of the writing on this “address leaf” should have ended there, with the vital but rather banal task of informing the courier where to take the letter, and to whom to give it.
For example, here is a fairly straightforward example:
The reality is much more complex, and often much less obvious. There were both strict conventions and considerable scope for nuance in the address itself, all likely glossed over by the recipient unless something was amiss or offensive. The address leaf then accumulated other accretions over time. Sometimes there were additional notations by the writer to the carrier(s) at the start of the delivery journey. The wax seal bore its own messages. After the letter left left the writer, postal workers might add notes, marks, or ink stamps that traveled with the letter and remained with it thereafter, all of which add their own complexities to the process.3 Finally, often there were more jottings made after delivery, such as filing notes made by the recipient, secretaries, or later archivists; and notes or scribbles by anyone with access to the letter and a need for a blank bit of paper.
The address leaf is thus unique, complex, and interesting in its own right. However, it can also be particularly frustrating to the modern reader. The writers of these notes generally wrote for themselves or to others who shared their conventions. In addition, many of the writing samples on this page consist of only a few words. This results in some of the most cryptic and formulaic writing, abbreviations, and physical artifacts in an Early Modern letter. All of this makes this leaf particularly challenging to accurately understand and transcribe. This series of Collation posts will explore the address, the seal, postal notes, and personal notes (delivery, filing, and scratch paper), borrowing heavily and shamelessly from the Folger exhibition catalog, Letterwriting in Renaissance England, by Alan Stewart and Heather Wolfe.
While this post breaks no new ground, but it does bring together a number of examples. I enjoy sorting things, and the Folger has imaged a lot of early modern letters.
The Address (aka The Superscription)
There was wide variation among addresses. “Superscriptions varied greatly in length and style and often strayed from the suggested formulas in [contemporary] letterwriting manuals.”4 The length of an address varied most widely along several axes:
- Social Status: Lower status writers used plentious honorifics to address higher status recipients. The length grew shorter as the status of the writer became equal to or higher than the recipient, or when the relationship between the two grew closer.
- The Recipient’s Position in Society: Any appointment(s) in government, the military, the Church, or other social institution was generally listed in the address, as were titles of nobility. As William Fullwood put it, one should place “… therwith the name of his dignitie, Lordship, Office, Nobilitie, Science, or Parentage.”5
- Complexity of Directions Required: The more familiar the courier was with the destination, or the more well-known the destination, the less detail was needed in the address. This is one reason for brevity in letters sent within a kin group. The courier could also receive verbal introductions for delivery, leaving the written address as a reminder.
- Formulaic and/or unique instructions to the courier, as considered necessary, helpful, or simply correct.
Here is an unusually complete address, with annotations following:
To my ever most Truely Honou=
red ffriend the worshipfull Colonell
Robert Bennett att his House
at Hexworthy in Lawhitton
neere Lauceston in Corn=
wall present these with
Speede for the States
To my ever most Truely Honou=
red ffriend the worshipfull
The honorifics, carefully calibrated to reflect relative social status, become more extravagant and dense the higher the status of the recipient relative to the sender. When transcribing, “Worshipful” is good to keep in mind, as it was virtually always used, often wickedly and idiosyncratically abbreviated, and the “W” sometimes extremely oddly formed.
The recipient’s title(s), either professional or hereditary.
The name of the recipient.
att his House
at Hexworthy in Lawhitton
neere Lauceston in Corn=
The location. While it appears somewhat vague (“att his House”, and “neere Lauceston”), the detail was sufficient to the purpose, just as a modern formulaic exact address is in our times. Moreover, it reads essentially like a modern address, from the specific to the general, to be read from the bottom up as the courier travelled towards the letter’s destination. Indeed, one can still find Bennett’s home by using Moyle’s address.6
A standard request to give/deliver the letter to the recipient, generally found below the address. See below for deciphering the various formulaic phrases of this request.
Speede for the States
“with Speede” is a commonly used plea for haste in delivery; “for the States Service” here lends more weight to the plea than a private letter could muster.
The Actual Address, in Its Many Variations
1. Extreme Brevity
Most of the shortest addresses I have been able to find are among friends and relatives. Elizabeth Harwick Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury in particular seemed to inspire superscriptionary brevity.7 Her Husband George Talbot wrote:
To my Wyfe the
Countes of Shrewsbury
That was positively loquacious in comparison to some others letters in the same collection:
(It is possible that the last one was a draft; while the letter was signed and folded, it was not sealed.)
2. The Ancestral Estate Address
Hexworthy (X.d.483 (71), above) was an ancestral estate, but the courier required more detailed directions. However, many letters to such estates had only the name of the recipient and the estate.
(The “dd” at the end of the last address means “delivered”, possibly from an earlier Latin phrase donum dedit.)
3. The Necessarily Long Address
Detail packed addresses were often necessary, in lieu of any street numbers whatsoever. This rather lengthy London address is to the same Richard Newdigate who required only “Arbury” when he was at his ancestral home (L.c.696, immediately above).
What else is there that is vital to say that the writer hasn’t already said here?
Some addresses, if a bit less lengthy, were every bit as quaint as one would expect of an early English address in 1633 (below, left), while others occasionally added important details (below, right):
4. A Single Component of the Address Is Sufficient
a. The Name Alone Suffices
There are examples of nobles addressing letters to each other by name, such as this 1633 letter from Sir Charles Cavendish, Welbeck, Nottinghamshire, to Sir Henry Slingsby (below, left).
They also did so when writing those of lower social class. This 1729 letter (below, right) from Henrietta Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, to Jacob Tonson, is friendly and respectful, if somewhat vexed; Mr. Tonson was the hoped-for conduit to the painting the Dutchess wanted. She closed with, “I am sir your humble servant, Marlborough”.
Slipping down yet another rung in the ladder of address by name only is the abrupt address from master to servant. The honorifics, which have been shrinking in size, have now disappeared. Examples of these letters rather rare in the Folger collections; they ended up in the hands of the servant, not the writer, and often no one is likely to have believed them to have long-term importance.
Here is one of the surviving examples, a letter from Lady Elizabeth St. Loe, from court, to James Crompe. Apart from the contents of the letter, in which she gives Crompe instructions, there is a rather abrupt salutation, and and her word choice in the subscription, “your mystres”, was understood by all here as the feminine equivalent of “master”, with all the authority, power, and social status differential that implied.
b. The Title of Nobility Finds the Holder
This appears to be a preferred method of address between nobles. It was serviceable in even the most formal circumstances, such as this letter (left) from from Sir Richard Wigmore to Queen Elizabeth I. It also worked well with lesser nobility, particularly as their domain was part of that title, as in this letter from William Lloyd, bishop of Norwich, Acton, to the Earl of Danby (right).
c. The Office Finds the Occupant
This worked on much the same principle as titles of nobility, with the individual having similar importance and findability. Presumably if necessary it could be delivered to the occupant’s hand, day or night, whether they were in their usual haunts or no, as their assistants and others would always know their whereabouts.
Indeed, the Lord Admirall was not even in London, as he was in the field directing the defense against the Spanish Armada at the time.
5. The Writer Hopes for the Best
When the recipient was prone to move frequently, yet was not of such importance or fame that they were easy to find anyway, the writer might have to trust to luck, hurling their letter in the general direction of the recipient. Vincent Skinner did this when writing to his brother, Captain Henry Fowke in 1596:
To my very Loving
brother Captein henry
At Mr Robinsons
howse in Mark Lane
or at Mrs newsoms
in powles8 Churchyard
There was a strong convention to tell the deliverer what to do, in one of several, often formulaic, phrases: even though there was no return address, the letter was addressed “To” or “For” the recipient. Some things are very slow to change. Today, when it can be difficult to place the recipient’s address and the return address on a package where their functions are self-evident, there is the temptation to clarify by adding “To:” above the recipient’s address and “From:” above the return address.
The courier frequently was asked to “deliver”, or “present”, or “give” this letter to the recipient. In the early modern period, these requests were often, but not always, found below the address. Because these phrases were subject to extreme abbreviation and idiosyncratic spelling and placement, their meaning may become clear only after looking at a number of examples. Also, because they were formulaic and often the last thing written by the sender, they might be scribbled hastily and largely illegibly, or at the other extreme, slowly, carefully, and elegantly. Both courses can make deciphering and transcription challenging without prior knowledge of these conventions. A second, more logical (if often vain) instruction was to exhort the courier to expedite delivery.
Here are examples of different conventions. Throughout, “these” is a common, even preferred, synonym for “this”, which is a bit of a ‘false friend’ for the modern reader. To simplify the statements, I replace the name of the recipient with ‘X’, and the destination with ‘Y’.
1. This [is] to/for X
See also: F.c.18, “These to” X at Y. (1683-9)
2. Present this to/for[e] X
The OED9 describes a close relationship between “for” and “fore” beginning in Old English, and notes such a use of “for” in Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well that is synonymous with “before” in the physical sense: “For whose throne ‘tis needfull … to kneele.” (4.4.3)
3. [May] this be delivered to X/Deliver this to X
“Delivered” was, as mentioned earlier, conventionally rendered by the abbreviation “dd”, which was also used to abbreviate the active “Deliver”.
L.a.232: “To” X of Y “dd this with speede” (1603) Sometimes the exhortation to hurry claimed center stage.
6. [Deliver] according to the direction[s given above]
a. Personal Notes
Although giving verbal directions to a courier was common, occasionally an extra, more detailed, note was written by the writer to the courier(s) on the envelope.
In addition to the address, which takes the form of a fairly detailed physical location, with an exhortation of speed (“present these with Speede for the States Service”), there is an additional instruction to the courier:
I pray mr Horcott
convay this letter accor=
ding to the direction
Perhaps if it was clear that the writer and the recipient both knew the courier’s name, he couldn’t hide if he was slow. “The direction” could refer to the address, to the exhortation to for speed, or to both. If it included the exhortation then this is the second (and rather passive-aggressive) plea for haste on a single envelope.
It is not unique, though; here is a second personal, signed note. Indeed, it is signed with all the care, gravity, and pomp Savile could muster, the way he customarily signed his name:
As with the previous letter, this one ends the address proper with an exhortation for speed, and continues with instructions to the courier:
geue thies with all
William Brigg or Iohn
Dransfeild I pray ^yow see this
letter convayd with all
speed to your Master in
It all leads me to be comforted by the relative simplicity of worrying how to write the names in the address on the letters I write. And if it makes me feel better, I have an old “RUSH” ink stamp that works every bit as well as those many and diverse handwritten personal pleas to couriers for speed did.
- Exactly how they were folded is a fun rabbit-hole, as there were many different, and often ingenious, letterlocking methods. For more on this topic see the wonderful Letter Locking website, as well as various blog posts and articles.
- And sometimes the ends of the packet were then wrapped in embroidery floss, for added security. The remnants of such floss can be seen on the address leaf of Folger MS X.c.126.
- For more on these topics see, among others, the following:
Gary Schneider, Print letters in seventeenth-century England: politics, religion, and news culture (Routledge, 2018)
Cultures of correspondence in early modern Britain edited by James Daybell and Andrew Gordon (UPenn, 2016)
Debating the faith : religion and letter writing in Great Britain, 1550-1800 edited by Anne Dunan-Page and Clotilde Prunier (Springer, 2013)
James Daybell, The material letter in early modern England : manuscript letters and the culture and practices of letter-writing, 1512-1635 (Palgrave, 2012)
- Letterwriting in Renaissance England (LiRE), p.40
- STC 11476. William Fulwood, trans. The enimie of idlenesse … London: Henry Bynneman, for Leonard Maylard, 1568, sig. a8 verso. Quoted in LiRE p.38.
- Plug “Lawhitton,” “Hexworthy,” and “Cornwall” into Google Maps and look about a bit. While Google Maps identifies “Hexworthy” as the present home of Cornwall & Devon Computers (called Hexworthy Manor), with the help of a photograph on the historical website Launceston Then!, it looks like Bennett’s actual house is still extant, right down the road. On the map, the house is pinned, overlooking The Vig (the road from Launceston to Tavistock), with Lawhitton to the north and Launceston further on to the north-west. The Greystone Bridge is to the south-east, where The Vig takes a 90 degree turn to the left and crosses the River Tamar. Everything is indeed in Cornwall. One can easily imagine a courier navigating to Lawhitton by way of Launceston, then asking locals where Hexworthy is, and then where Colonel Bennett lives, for the last bit.
- In my defense, I came upon this well before discovering that it was noted in Bess of Harwick’s Letters: “When Bess’s sons and daughters wrote to their mother they often used the straightforward formulation ‘To my Lady’, …. Since the bearer knew precisely the Lady intended, this was a sufficiently polite term—one which acknowledged the family hierarchy—and no further specifics were needed.”
- = [St.] Paul’s
- For: “I. Indicating position before something in space, time, or status; = before prep. in various uses. Cf. fore prep. B.I.1, B.I.2, B.I.3. I.1. Of place. I.1.a. Old English–1616 In front of; = before prep. B.I.1. Obsolete.” (OED) The OED gives no examples of this usage after Shakespeare.
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