So you think you’ve seen bad handwriting? Here’s Secretary Hand…

I’ll readily admit I don’t always have the most legible handwriting. I also know I’ve seen some downright undecipherable handwriting over the years. And then I came across Secretary Hand.  “What’s that?” I can hear you asking.  I don’t blame you. I had no idea what this was myself until I bought and downloaded digital copies of some Last Wills and Testaments for some 17th Century English Roane from the UK’s National Archives (

Secretary Hand was a style of writing predominantly used throughout Europe from the 15th Century to the 17th Century. This style of writing was invented to create a more legible form of writing – and writing that would be recognizable throughout Europe.  This may have been a truly legible form of writing in the time it was used…the irony is not lost on me in the modern era. As the name would suggest, it was largely used by clerical secretaries and scriveners (a scribe by any other definition).

In short, Secretary Hand was used for official documents.

Considering the amount of research I was able to achieve with Thomas ( , I hoped accessing his will would fill in some remaining gaps. I have a list of contemporary 17th Century English Roane family members that I can’t place on the family tree. Two of them are mentioned in this will. However, as my luck would have it, I can’t quite decipher the sentences in which their names appear.

These documents didn’t come with any transcriptions. What I have are digital copies of the originals. To me, that makes these documents even more precious. Each and every annotation, ink scratch and blot and all of the imperfections puts me in touch with a precise moments in time; the times when these documents were written, and then read.

Thomas Roane, Sergeant of the Poultry’s Last Will and Testament is a perfect example:

The last Will and Testament of Thomas Roane, Sr, Sergeant of the Scullery
The last Will and Testament of Thomas Roane, Sr, Sergeant of the Scullery – click for larger image

Thankfully, there are some pretty good online resources to help decipher Secretary Hand.

FamilySearch has a handy interactive online video tutorial that I highly recommend:

FamilySearch also has a handy Secretary Hand alphabet printout:

In and amongst the handful of English Roane wills I bought, there was one for a Bartholomew Roane. Bartholomew Roane is a name I have seen time and time again. He is associated with the Roane heartland of Northampton as well as London. Yet, I have come no closer to establishing how he’s related to the lines of English Roanes I’ve traced so far. All I can say with any certainty is that he belongs to an even earlier generation of the family. His Last Will and Testament threw up an extra surprise in addition to Secretary Hand:

Last Will and Testament of Bartholomew Roane
Last Will and Testament of Bartholomew Roane – click for larger image

Yes, that’s right, it’s in Latin…a language I haven’t seen, much less read, since I was in Year 10! It’s not surprising given that his will was written in either 1572 or 1573. I really ought to have expected it.

So while I make slow progress transcribing Thomas’s will, and the other wills written in English… Bartholomew’s will have to wait.

So bear this mind: if you’re seeking to add to your late medieval European ancestral knowledge by accessing their wills, expect to grapple with Secretary Hand 🙂

For me, it’s worth the struggle. These documents truly are unique windows into a past age. These aren’t wills as we know them today. They are in as much as they deal with the disposition of property and inheritance. But they also contain so much more – things our modern wills don’t.

Once I’ve successfully and fully finished transcribing the wills I have, I’ll start to post them.

In the meantime, I won’t complain about other people’s indecipherable handwriting again!

One thought on “So you think you’ve seen bad handwriting? Here’s Secretary Hand…

  1. I love reading these old Wills – it is a challenge but the satisfaction in transcribing them is like solving a difficult puzzle. There are good tutorials on the National Archives website which explain about the common abbreviations used (pre, pro, per abbreviated as p’ eg perfect as p’fect).
    The spelling can be very phonetic also – ‘day’ written as ‘daie’ and that sort of thing.
    I wish you the best of fun transcribing.

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