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These unique guides will assist you in tracking down your ancestors, whether you’re a first timer or an expert.

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Reading old documents can be a challenge. Sarah Hutton helps unravel the mysteries of old handwriting


eing able to read old handwriting allows you to consult a vast array of rich, primary sources which will help you take your family history back to the 17th century and earlier. However, at first glance it can look not just tricky, but almost illegible to the modern reader. For this reason, many people are put off examining documents from an earlier age because they believe it will be far too difficult. Yet, although it is true to say that the study of old handwriting requires a certain amount of time and concentration, a little practice and patience will give you the basic skills to approach documents with a lot more confidence. In this booklet we’ll look at:

• The types of handwriting you may come across in commonly used records

• How to set about reading a document • A worked example of a common handwriting style You can test your transcribing skills, while a list of books and websites points to places where you can learn more.

A little practice and patience will give you the basic skills to approach documents with a lot more confidence  3

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tyles of handwriting are known as hands. Their different types range dramatically, from relatively clear and uniform letter forms, such as those making up Caroline minuscule and Anglo-Saxon Square minuscule, through to far more complex hands which can cause considerable difficulty to the modern reader, such as those found in Chancery or early modern Secretary scripts. As you conduct your research, you will need to be prepared to deal with a variety of hands, all of which will have quite distinct letter forms. In time, you will come to recognise these, which will help you decipher similar documents. Each hand requires individual consideration. In this booklet, we will focus primarily on those in which many of the records you may consult as a family historian are written, namely secretary and italic hands. The majority of documents, such as wills, deeds, manorial surveys, examinations and letters written in the 16th and 17th centuries were written in these hands. Most scholars of the period could write in both styles, and would distinguish firmly between them. You will often notice titles or key pieces of information being highlighted by the scribe when he temporarily switches to the other hand. However, the general


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educated classes often wrote a more mixed hand, which would draw heavily from both styles. Secretary is far more stylised – and thus harder – than italic, and although the two existed side by side for some time, secretary hand eventually waned and was replaced by italic. Both of these hands could be written in a cursive style (from the Latin currere – to run) so called because it was written at speed and “ran” across the page. This style of writing meant that the pen didn’t leave the page between letters, which can make deciphering individual letters notoriously tricky. It is a method you will frequently see employed in less formal documents which weren’t composed by professional scribes, as it was a far lower grade of writing than one which separated the letters out.


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This chart picks out some of the key letter forms which make up these two hands.

Secretary hand The letter “a” is a familiar shape, but can feature a hairline diagonal stroke when it occurs at the beginning of the word (this also happens with “o”).


Italic hand a

The letter “a” in italic is also a familiar shape and has a straight back.

The letter “c” can be difficult c to spot in secretary hand as it doesn’t have a bottom stroke, so can look rather like an “r”.

The “c” in italic is shaped like its modern day counterpart.

The two “e” forms in e secretary hand can be quite tricky to spot. The first type is a backwards “e” inherited from the earlier documentary hand, the other “e“ is made up of two separate strokes.

The “e“ of italic hand is much more familiar, but can sometimes feature a hairline diagonal stroke at the top right hand side.

g The “g“ has a characteristic flat top in this hand, which can, at certain points, be very pronounced, making it look rather like a “y“.

The top of the “g“ in italic is much rounder, and thus more similar to modern handwriting.

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Secretary hand

Italic hand

The famous secretary “h“ is h one of the key ways to pick out this hand. Notice how it loops across the top to go back across the ascender, (see overleaf) and then loops again elaborately below the line at the bottom. Sometimes the “h“ can be very loose, with the curve missing and just this flourish attached to the bottom of the ascender.

The italic “h” is far more similar in form to its modern equivalent.

The letter “r“ can take different forms, but the square shaped style is particularly characteristic.

The “r” has a familiar shape, making it easy to spot.


There are two kinds of “s“ in s this hand: the smaller version, where the final curve comes up and back across the letter, rather than curving down; and the “s“ with the long descender, which looks just like the secretary “f“ but without the cross-stroke. (see overleaf). The letter “t” curves to the right and thus can be taller than the “l”, “b’” and “h”.


This long, curly “s”, which goes down well below the line, is very characteristic of this hand.

The letter “t” is roughly the same height as an “e” or an “a”, unlike the “t” in modern handwriting. 7

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c b c p F



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What is an ascender? Imagine a writing line at the bottom of a letter “c� and a line at the top. Letters with a stroke which goes above this line are said to have ascenders. What is a descender? Letters which have a stroke which goes below the line are said to have descenders.

What is a cross-stroke? A cross-stroke is the line which cuts across the centre of a letter.

TNA:PRO LR 2/206

The document opposite is written in italic, while the one below is predominantly in secretary hand.




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hen reading modern text, without really being conscious of it we are often able to identify whole words at a glance.

Look at this sentence: The huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. The oredr of the ltteers in the wrod can be in a total mses but you can sitll raed it wouthit any porbelm. While this way of scanning and comprehending whole words is very useful in today’s world, it can lead to incomprehension and mistakes when trying to read documents in an old, unfamiliar style of handwriting, and for this reason it is important to approach any new document methodically.

ENLARGE THE DOCUMENT If possible, make an enlarged copy of the document. It is much easier to read individual letters and words when they are bigger and, of course, you can touch and mark the paper when it is not an original. If it is not possible to make a copy, then investing in a decent magnifying glass, will make your life a lot easier.


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PUT TOGETHER AN ALPHABET Whatever type of hand you are examining as a beginner, however simple or tricky it may first appear, try not to give in to hasty guesswork as this can lead to all kinds of problems later on. When faced with a new document, start by putting together an alphabet for yourself. You will then find that more and more of the words become clear. Pick out the words you definitely know and use these to get an example of as many letters as you can. For some documents you will need a list of capital letters too, as sometimes these can be surprisingly different to their lower-case equivalents.

a d

b e


One of the main reasons why making an alphabet like this is so helpful, is that it allows you to distinguish between letters which look similar to each other – one of the most difficult problems you will encounter with an unfamiliar hand. Look at how, in the example above, the “d” and one form of the “e” look very similar. 11

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Other letters to watch out for are: c and r As we have already seen, in secretary hand, the “c” looks surprisingly like an “r”. It is really important to compare these letters to your alphabet every time you come across them. s and f The main problem with these letters is the tendency of the “s” to drop below the line. In secretary hand, as we have seen, this is particularly troublesome as the “s” looks much like the “f”. Always watch out for the cross-stroke. n, m, i, u and v These letters always need special attention, and the best method is to count the downward strokes (or minims). For example the word “minim” itself contains 10 minims.

In the example above you have three minims, and fortunately the first has a dot above it, so you are able to spot the “i” in spinster. Unfortunately this is not always the case, so when in doubt, count.

ABBREVIATIONS When reading old documents you will very quickly come across what look like very strange squiggles 12

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and dashes above or in between letters. These are actually abbreviation marks – they have been put in by the writer to show that he or she has deliberately omitted one or more letters. This was done for two reasons: speed of writing, and to save space on the page, as parchment was very expensive. It’s a good idea, as with the individual letter forms, to note down the abbreviations you meet. You will begin to find that the more documents you consult, the more you will come across text written in similar hands with abbreviations you have met before. This will start to build up your confidence and allow you to move through documents more quickly and easily, as what you see becomes increasingly familiar. Abbreviations were standard across Europe, and any educated person would have understood them at a glance. A modern equivalent would be the abbreviation sign @ which means “at”, and is recognised by everyone today. Below are some of the forms of abbreviation which were common from around 1500 up to 1800. • Suspension is a letter or letters (often followed by a full stop) which represent a word. Thus:

M. for majesty Lo. for lord This type of abbreviation is commonly used today, as in BBC for British Broadcasting Corporation. 13

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• Omission of “m” or “n” is represented by a dash or wavy line written over the preceding vowel. The context will make it clear whether it is an “m” or “n”. For example:

demad – dema[n]d • Omission of “i” is represented by a dash or wavy line over the following “o”. For example:

commisson - commiss[i]on It is worth noting that the location of the dash or wavy line may not always follow this rule. The author of the document may choose, instead, to put the dash at the end of the word on the final “n”. • “P” abbreviations can be as follows: per or par



p[er]son or p[ar]son



• Abbreviation to denote a plural. For instance: is the lower case abbreviation for “es”, “is”, “ys”. For example oates 14

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• Superscript letters such as:

wt - with wch - which Mr - Master (not Mister at this time). • Use of the Old English “th” letter, called a thorn, which looks like a “y”. For example:

ye - the. Note that this is pronounced exactly like “the” in modern speech. It is not pronounced “Ye”, as in “Yes”. Any modern café calling itself “Ye olde tea shoppe” is actually perpetuating the Old English “th” symbol. So you would transcribe ye as “the” and yt as “th[a]t”.

TRANSCRIBING Once you have started to decipher individual words in the document, you are ready to try producing a transcription. To make this as good and accurate as possible, you need to bear the following in mind:

• When copying a document always retain the original spellings. Do not translate the words into modern spelling. For example: “cryme” should be transcribed as “cryme”, not as “crime”. • Don’t try to reproduce the letters as they appear 15

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in the document; always transcribe them as modern letters. For example, if two letters are joined together (a ligature), separate them in your version. • If there are letters you aren’t sure about, use a consistent system. That way, when you come back to your notes in a few days or weeks, you will be able to remember which words and letters you were certain about and which were educated guesses. • Always expand abbreviations and put the letters which were omitted in square brackets. • Mark the ends of lines where they occur in the original document. You can do this by starting a new line whenever this happens in your document, or by using a vertical stroke to mark the point, before carrying on along the same line. Below, an example of a transcription:

I humbly crave but only one worde of answer fro[m] your selfe. 16

TNA:PRO KB 27/1309/12

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Left: Coram Regis roll showing a portrait of Elizabeth I, Easter 1589.


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he extract we are looking at has been taken from a document dated August 1618, which forms part of the manorial survey for the Manor of Beere and Penally in Pembrokeshire. It consists of two pages from the records of the Office of the Auditors of Land Revenue. Drawn up for the landowner, these surveys provided a description of all aspects of the manor. Surveys varied in length and detail, but could include information on boundaries, details of the extent of each property, the customs of the manor and the rental – often the longest part. They may include a list of the tenants’ names, details of land they hold, the form of tenure by which it was held, the use to which it was put, the amounts of rent due each year and the services tenants owed the lord of the manor, along with the rights of the tenants themselves. Surveys were often made when ownership changed, or to try to discover ways in which the yield of the manor could be increased. The manor of Manorbier and Penally consisted of two parishes of the same names. It contained four villages: Manorbier, Jameston, Manorbier Newton and Penally. The manor came into Crown possession in 1461. In 1618 it belonged to Charles, Prince of Wales, the future Charles I. The survey into the possessions and revenues of the Prince of Wales was commissioned by the 18

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prince’s council, which appointed John Stepneth and Thomas Canon as commissioners. The document is predominantly in secretary hand, but titles, place names and proper names are in a different script, such as italic, to make them stand out. 3




6 1 8


David Robbyn houldeth one Mesuage by the tenure aforesaid At the yearlie rent of house The p[ar]ticulers land

A house A garden Arrable Moorie grounde Rockie & stonie grounde

TNA:PRO LR 2/206 folio 101


xiij s ob

20 02 02

Acres 24

1 In this document the amounts of money are in Roman numerals, but the quantities of land are in Arabic numerals. The money is in pounds, shilling and pence, or £ s d and “ob.” is short for obulus, the Latin word for a half penny. The Roman numeral “i”


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by itself, or at the end of a number, is usually represented as a “j”. 2 A messuage is a portion of land, generally with a house and outbuildings on it. Watch out for this “s”, which to modern eyes looks rather like an “f” 3 Notice how the ascender of the “d” is at such an angle that it is cutting through the “l”. 4 Notice the hairline diagonal stroke on the “o” and “a” as first letters of these words. 5 This is a good example of a spelling which you might not expect. Transcribe the letters exactly how they are, and don’t be tempted to change this into a modern “y” ending. 6 Notice the “p” abbreviation here, and also the difference from modern spelling. 7 This is a good example of a classic secretary flattopped “g”. 8 This is a version of the ampersand sign, &, meaning “and”.

Try transcribing this part of the document yourself:


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TOP THREE TIPS • Knowing the background to the document will help enormously with reading the handwriting. Many types of documents contain standard phrases or formulae. It is much harder to read a document if you do not know what kind it is. If you know the phrases which are likely to appear in a particular document – such as a will – you should be able to read them more easily when they appear. You can then use the phrases you are certain about to help decipher other words. • Be prepared to tackle an old document letter by letter if necessary. Make an alphabet for the document you are using. If you can’t work out what a letter is, do a few more lines then go back and see if you can now identify it. • Abbreviations in English documents are not as frequent as those in Latin, but they can still cause problems for the beginner. Making a note of the ones you come across will make life easier.


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Websites If you want to practise getting to know old handwriting, or learn more about Latin, The National Archives (TNA) has several helpful online tutorials. Palaeography The study of old handwriting is known as palaeography. An interactive guide at gives online lessons, then marks your transcriptions of 10 documents dating from the reign of Henry VIII to 1760, as well as providing 30 documents for further practice. An advanced site, which is still under construction, will give tutorials in Latin handwriting between 1086 and 1733. It aims to show the different kinds of abbreviations used and, through interactive transcribing exercises, allow you to build up confidence at your own pace. Latin Anyone interested in deciphering Latin handwriting might like to look at TNA’s Beginners’ Latin website – a guide to the Latin used in documents between 1086 and 1733. It takes you step by step through the basics, with the opportunity to practise what you learn through a series of activities and sentences taken from original documents at Kew. You’ll find it at TNA is currently working on an online course in 22

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advanced Latin, which will let users develop their Latin skills through a series of lessons, activities and practice sentences.

READ MORE ABOUT IT Michelle P Brown A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (The British Library, 1990) Michelle P Brown Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: a guide to technical terms (British Library, 1994) Paul Chambers Medieval Genealogy: how to find your medieval ancestors (Sutton Publishing, 2005) Eileen A Gooder Latin for Local History: An Introduction (Longman, 1978) H E P Grieve Examples of English Handwriting 1150-1750 (Essex Record Office, 1995) L C Hector The Handwriting of English Documents (E. Arnold, 1966) David Hey, The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History (Oxford University Press, 1996) Hilary Marshall Palaeography for Family and Local Historians (Phillimore, 2004) Charles Trice Martin The Record Interpreter (Phillimore, 1982) L Munby Reading Tudor and Stuart Handwriting (Phillimore, 1988) K C Newton Medieval Local Records: A Reading Aid (Historical Association, 1971) Jean Preston and Laetitia Yeandle English Handwriting, 1450-1650: an introductory manual (Binghamton, New York, 1992) Denis Stuart Latin for Local and Family Historians: a beginner’s guide (Phillimore, 1995) 23

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How to read old handwriting  

From Ancestors Magazine Issue 57