800 Years of English Handwriting

This exhibition explores the development of handwriting in England, from the medieval period to the end of the nineteenth century using documents in Derbyshire Record Office's collections.

Gift of a virgate of land in Seale (1207/1240) by UnknownDerbyshire Record Office

Medieval Writing 1100-1485

In the early Medieval period most people couldn't read and even fewer could write. Writing was largely the province of professional scribes often employed to write legal documents such as deeds transferring land ownership. Deeds were written in Latin.  They might often not be dated, but historians can use the style of handwriting to deduce roughly when a deed was written.

Deed of grant of the land of Greasby (1100/1125) by UnknownDerbyshire Record Office

The handwriting in the early 1100s is known as Carolingian Miniscule. It was easy to write, very legible and ideal for writing Latin. Many letter shapes are easily recognisable today.

Scribes made their life easier by shortening words with a mark or squiggle. The line over the c in the first word 'Ric' means it is shortened from Ricardus (the Latin form of Richard).

Royal charter to the Abbot of Saint Werburgh, Chester (1215) by King JohnDerbyshire Record Office

A hundred years later the writing was more decorative. This example from 1215 has very long ascenders (the line that goes above the rest of the word, in long letters like l and d).

The long S

The long S, which continued to be used until the 1800s, began to appear. What looks like l is actually s in 'dedisse et concessisse'.

Decorative capitals

Capital letters became particularly fancy. Here we can see a very elaborate capital H in the word Huius (abbreviated to Hus).

Quitclaim from Alice le Waleys to Isabel de Cressy of land in Buxton (1250/1300) by UnknownDerbyshire Record Office

In the 1200s a new style of handwriting developed which remained in use for over 200 years. It is known as Anglicana because it is unique to England.

It used a broad nibbed pen to create thick and thin strokes and could be written much more quickly than the previous upright and spindly hand.

By the middle 1200s the ascenders of letters like b and l are 'bifurcated' with a little curl on either side. The curl on the right developed into a loop which can be seen in 'Alice fil Willi Le Waleys' at the top of the page.

How to hold a pen, from a Sixteenth Century handwriting manual (1571) by John de BeauchesneDerbyshire Record Office

Secretary Hand

By the middle 1400s growing commercial interests meant that more people needed to write for business purposes.  Writing was no longer a menial task fit only for a scribe, but a necessary skill for educated men and women.  Importantly, people needed to write in English whereas Anglicana was better suited to Latin.  A new style of handwriting was needed.

'The Secretary Hand' from a Sixteenth Century handwriting manual (1571) by John de BeauchesneDerbyshire Record Office

This new form of writing was Secretary Hand, which was designed to be written quickly in English. It was the predominant hand from the 1500s to the early 1700s. Handwriting manuals were published to meet the growing demand for writing.

Plan of the Seale Estate in Derbyshire showing the 'Procession Way' (1500/1600) by UnknownDerbyshire Record Office

The writing on this plan shows some distinctive Secretary Hand letters which look strange to modern eyes. On the lower left is 'Ealinge Wodd close'. The c of close looks like an r, the s is the long s which looks like f.

List of Jewels given to Arbella Stuart (1608-02-23) by UnknownDerbyshire Record Office

This later example also shows some classic letter shapes, such as r which looks more like an x, e which lacks a full loop and sometimes looks like c, and the droopy h in the words 'Pearle rings and other things' on the top line.

Italic Hand from a Sixteenth Century handwriting manual (1571) by John de BeauchesneDerbyshire Record Office


During the 1500s and 1600s Secretary Hand was not the only style in use.  Handwriting manuals of the day included several different hands, including Italic. In the beginning, Italic was often used for emphasising certain words whilst the rest of the document was written in Secretary Hand.  Gradually, Italic became dominant and Secretary Hand disappeared from use.

Love poetry by Leonard Wheatcroft of Ashover in Derbyshire (1654/1657) by Leonard WheatcroftDerbyshire Record Office

In the mid-1600s, whilst many people would have written in Secretary Hand, the Derbyshire poet Leonard Wheatcroft used a mixed hand that is based on Italic. Most of the letters are similar to modern letter shapes.

A notebook containing recipes and jokes (1700/1750) by UnknownDerbyshire Record Office

Nearly a hundred years later, Italic was dominant. This book nicely illustrates the transition from Secretary Hand at the top to a 'Round Hand' based on Italic letter shapes. The writer may have learnt both hands and decided to switch, or it may be written by two people.

Round Hand is the basis of our modern handwriting and the carefully shaped letters in this example make it much easier for us to read than Secretary Hand.

Recipe for Bakewell Pudding (1837) by Clara Palmer-MorewoodDerbyshire Record Office

Over the first half of the 1800s those who could afford the paper and postage became prolific letter writers. Handwriting gained a pronounced forward slope and as people wrote faster, the letter shapes became smaller and less distinct.

Page from Wages book from Richard Arkwright and Company's Lumford Mill in Bakewell, Derbyshire (1786) by Richard Arkwright and CompanyDerbyshire Record Office

Where personal handwriting could be difficult to read, business writing was much clearer. The introduction of the factory system during the 1700s relied on clerks with excellent handwriting to write up the ledgers, wage books and minute books.

Handwriting copy book (1896) by Mary Elizabeth GoodallDerbyshire Record Office

The Round Hand used in business records is often known as Copperplate. It was written with a very fine nib and over the next century school children used copy books such as this one to practice Copperplate writing.

Pardon of Sir John Gell by King Charles II (1661-03-18) by UnknownDerbyshire Record Office

Legal Hands

Whilst business and personal writing developed from Secretary Hand to Italic, completely different hands were used for legal documents.  Chancery hand is one of the most distinctive types of legal handwriting.  It was used in the royal Chancery at Westminster for writs, patents and other kinds of documents written under the Great Seal.  All Acts of Parliaments were written in Chancery Hand until 1836.

Charter for the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Ashbourne (first page) (1585) by workshop of Nicholas HilliardDerbyshire Record Office

This beautiful example of Chancery Hand shows the distinctively round and even letter shapes written with a broad nibbed pen. Even the ascenders on letters like h, b and d have curls or loops at the top to add to the rounded effect.

The evenness of Chancery Hand can make it difficult to read, particularly as the 'minims' (the short vertical strokes in letters like m, n, u and i) look very similar in words like 'nominanimus' at top left.

Marriage settlement between John Franklin and Eleanor Anne Porden (1823-08-05) by UnknownDerbyshire Record Office

The process of writing out the final copy of a legal document onto parchment is known as engrossing. Engrossing Hand was similar to Chancery Hand in being round and evenly spaced. This hand was commonly used for deeds throughout the 1800s.

Engrossing Hand retained some elements of Secretary Hand. The letter c is written more like a modern r, and e lacks the loop, looking more like c. This can be seen in the first line here, which reads 'become incapable to act'.

Catalogue of paper making machinery (1840/1870) by Bryan Donkin Company LtdDerbyshire Record Office

New technologies

In the 1800s handwriting changed very little but new inventions brought about new tools for writing.  Writing became ever more affordable with the introduction of machines to mass produce paper and pens.

Quill pen used by Thomas Moore when writing 'Lalla Rookh' (1817) by Thomas MooreDerbyshire Record Office

Before the 1800s, people made their own quill pens and ink. Pens were usually made from the wing feather of a goose, cut using a sharp pen knife.

Compound printed labels for H C Stephens ink and steel pens (1889) by Bryan Donkin Company LtdDerbyshire Record Office

Metal pen nibs were first developed in the late 1700s but it was not until the design was improved that they became popular. A metal nib lasted much longer than a quill and by the second half of the 1800s cheap metal dip pens and ink made writing easier and more affordable.

Catalogue of paper making machinery (1840/1870) by Bryan Donkin Company LtdDerbyshire Record Office

Until the invention of paper making machines in the early 1800s, all paper was handmade and expensive. Machine-made paper was much cheaper, which meant that more people were able to afford to write. The texture of the paper changed as well.

Note from a governess to her employer (1896-06) by Sarah Elizabeth Hamp AdamsDerbyshire Record Office

Towards the end of the 1800s, with smooth paper, steel nibs and the rising popularity of the fountain pen, handwriting became broader and less angular than it had been at the beginning of the century. This didn't make it necessarily easy to read, as this example from 1896 shows.

Typewritten letter about a court case relating to a governess (1900-04-23) by Maude and TunnicliffeDerbyshire Record Office

By 1900 the invention of the typewriter was beginning to remove the need for handwriting for some business purposes. In the next century handwriting remained important but the typewriter, and later the computer, gradually took over.

Plan of Willersley Farm belonging to Edwin Lascelles Esquire (1759) by William BrailsfordDerbyshire Record Office

Now that we use computers for most tasks, comparatively few documents are written by hand.

For anyone delving into historical documents, however, dealing with old handwriting remains one of the great pleasures - and tribulations - of historical research.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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