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STEP 2: Secretary Hand alphabet

These letter shapes were commonly used throughout the period 1500-1700. All of the examples shown here are derived from Bodleian Library manuscripts. The date next to each letter indicates the date of the manuscript from which they are taken.

Some letters are quite similar to the modern forms, but others are totally different. Letters such as 'h' can at first appear difficult, but very soon become recognisable because of their strangeness. You need to learn letters that occur in English words frequently: vowels, 'c', 'r' and 't' for example. The letter 'e' has several forms and it is advisable to familiarise yourself with these as quickly as possible. Some Secretary Hand letters resemble different modern letters and this needs to be quickly understood. For example, the Secretary Hand 'c' looks a bit like a modern 'r', and the Secretary Hand 'r' resembles a modern 'w'.

Bear in mind that the rationale for Secretary Hand was speed for legal and business purposes. Letters are joined together to allow this. Pairs of letters are often joined in the same way. For example, 'th', 'ch' and double letters such as 'll'. Pay particular attention to the different  forms of 's'. There is a long 's' often used in the construction of 'sh', 'sl' and 'st'. There is a short 's' rather like the modern one. There is also an 's', shaped a bit like the number 6, which is only ever found at the end of a word.

The letters 'u', 'v' and 'n' are almost interchangeable in Secretary Hand scripts and in fact 'u' and 'v' are the same letter following the practice of the Roman alphabet. If you get stuck with a word in which one of these occurs, try each of the different letters to see what makes sense. There is no 'j' in the Secretary Hand alphabet and the letter 'i' stands for both 'i' and 'j' and should be used according to context.

One of the key points of the Secretary Hand alphabet is that capital letters can look very different from their lower case equivelant. It should also be borne in mind that capital letters were used fairly randomly in some documents. Expect to find names with lower case beginings and capitals in the middle of sentences.

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I-J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U-V | W | XYZ

a | b | c | d | e | f | g | h | i-j | k | l | m | n | o | p | q | r | s | t | u-v | w | x | y | z

STEP 2: Secretary Hand alphabet

Capital letters

A

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A early 16th century

Early 16th century

A 1570

1570

A 1642

1642

B

B 1570

1570

B 1588

1588

C

C 1538-40

1538-1540

C 1570

1570

C 1575

1575

D

D early 16th century

Early 16th century

D 1594

1594

D 1620

1620

E

E 1570

1570

E 1594

1594

E 1608

1608

F

F 1570

1570

F 1620

1620

G

G 1538-40

1538-1540

G 1570

1570

G 1608

1608

H

H early 16th century

Early 16th century

H 1570

1570

H 1687

1687

I-J

There was no distinction between ‘I’ and ‘J’ in the Secretary Hand alphabet. They should be transcribed according to the modern usage. For example ‘Iudges’ should be ‘Judges’.

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I-J 1538-40

1538-1540

I-J 1570

1570

I-J 1642

1642

K

K 1594

1594

K 1608

1608

K 1642

1642

L

L 1538-40

1538-1540

L 1570

1570

L 1642

1642

M

M early 16th century

Early 16th century

M 1538-40

1538-1540

M 1570

1570

N

N 1570

1570

N 1608

1608

N 1642

1642

O

O early 16th century

Early 16th century

O 1642

1642

O 1687

1687

P

P early 16th century

Early 16th century

P 1570

1570

P 1575

1575

Q

Q 1588

1588

Q 1594

1594

R

R early 16th century

Early 16th century

R 1570

1570

R 1608

1608

S

S early 16th century

Early 16th century

S 1587

1587

S 1608

1608

T

T early 16th century

Early 16th century

T 1570

1570

T 1642

1642

U-V

There was no distinction between ‘U’ and ‘V’ in the Secretary Hand alphabet. They should be transcribed according to modern usage. For example ‘Vniversity’ should be ‘University’.

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U-V 1582

1582

U-V 1643

1643

W

W 1592

1588

W 1643

1643

XYZ

These are larger forms of the lower case equivalents.

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Lower case letters

a

a Early 16th century

Early 16th century

a 1570

1570

a 1642

1642

b

b Early 16th century

Early 16th century

b 1570

1570

b 1642

1642

c

c Early 16th century

Early 16th century

c 1570

1570

c 1642

1642

d

d Early 16th century

Early 16th century

d 1570

1570

d 1642

1642

e

e Early 16th century

Early 16th century

e 1570

1570

e 1620

1620

e 1642

1642

f

f Early 16th century

Early 16th century

f 1570

1570

f 1687

1687

g

g Early 16th century

Early 16th century

g 1538-40

1538-1540

g 1620

1620

h

h 1538-40

1538-1540

h 1570

1570

h 1642

1642

i-j

There was no distinction between ‘i’ and ‘j’ in the Secretary Hand alphabet. They should be transcribed according to the modern usage. For example ‘Maiesty’ should be ‘Majesty’.

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i-j 1538-40

1538-1540

i-j 1570

1570

k

k 1538-40

1538-1540

k 1642

1642

l

l Early 16th century

Early 16th century

l 1620

1620

m

m Early 16th century

Early 16th century

m 1538-40

1538-1540

m 1570

1570

n

n Early 16th century
n 1538-40

1538-1540

n 1642

1642

o

o 1570

1570

p

p 1588

1588

p 1620

1620

q

q 1538-40

1538-1540

q 1570

1570

q 1687

1687

r

r 1570

1570

r 1570

1570

r 1587

1587

s

This six-shaped ‘s’ was only ever used at the end of words.

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s Early 16th century

Early 16th century

s 1620

1620

s 1570

1570

t

t 1538-40

1538-1540

t 1570

1570

t 1642

1642

u-v

There was no distinction between ‘u’ and ‘v’ in the Secretary Hand alphabet.. They should be transcribed according to modern usage. For example ‘haue’ should be ‘have’.

Top

u-v 1538-40

1538-1540

u-v 1570

1570

w

w 1538-40

1538-1540

w 1594

1594

x

x 1538-40

1538-1540

y

y 1538-40

1538-1540

z

z 1538-40

1538-1540