1647/8 document from the estate of John Penruddocke. Courtesy of the National Archives.


Palaeography Part 2: Reading Secretary Hand

We previously learned the skills to read, abstract, and transcribe documents written in simple hands.

Historically, English handwriting has not been so easy to read for our modern eyes.

Learning how to read Secretary Hand will help you better find answers in your genealogy.

What is Secretary Hand?

Secretary Hand was used in the British courts and parishes from 1500-1750, when it was slowly replaced by Italic Hand, or a hand similar to the handwriting we write with today. Secretary hand was a flowing, looping handwriting that was used to allow scribes to quickly copy documents. While Secretary Hand was used all over England during this time, many scribes wrote different due to their geography and time spent on a document.

Secretary Hand can become confusing and difficult to read, but by putting in the necessary effort you will be able to learn much more about your ancestors.

Lowercase Secretary Hand Letters

Many of the lowercase Secretary letters are very similar to our modern versions. There are many alphabet charts that you can find at the Society of Genealogists (reference TB/PAL).

Similar Lowercase Letters

There are many letters that will look similar to each other in Secretary Hand, especially if the scribe was writing quickly. Use reference from within the document, as well as your knowledge of the English language to help you sound out words to get the correct letter.

c/t: T usually has a cross through the stroke, while the c will most likely be connected to the letters around it.

d/e: the secretary E looks like our modern lowercase E but backwards; use context of the word to tell the difference. It is usually very easy to differentiate after some practice.

f/s: the long S found in a word looks similar to an F, but the F normally has a stroke going through the letter.

i/j: J sometimes did not have a descender because they were considered the same letter until recently.

u/v: Sometimes U and V can be confusing; try to use context to differentiate between the two, because they normally look the same in Secretary Hand.

Here is a sample lowercase alphabet chart that you can use as reference when transcribing a Secretary Hand document:

Uppercase Secretary Hand Letters

While there are a few set forms of lowercase letters in Secretary Hand, uppercase letters have very few rules. Try to look at many alphabet charts and practice with Secretary Hand documents to help you recognize the letter forms.

Similar Uppercase Letters

C/O: C usually has a cross going through the letter.

I/J: I and J were not separate letters until the 18th century. They can be transcribed as either I or J depending on context of the word.

U/V: U and V can be differentiated between with context.

ff/F: ff is sometimes used instead of an F. It can be transcribed as either ff or F depending on preference.

Here is an alphabet chart containing uppercase Secretary Hand letters that you can use when transcribing a document:

Secretary Abbreviations

Today when we abbreviate a word, we use contractions. Back in our ancestor’s time, abbreviations were quite different.

There were many ways to abbreviate, and you are likely to run into more than one abbreviation on each document.

The trick is to know what types of words are normally abbreviated; once you know this, you will be able to see them very quickly.


Words like ‘contraction’ have an ‘i’ in them, making the ‘shun’ sound. In Secretary Hand, an abbreviation mark, a dash or a symbol, would appear above these letters while omitting the ‘i.’ Also, words we use today ending in ‘tion’ were often written ending in ‘cion’ during this time.

The image text reads: petic[i ]oner


Today’s ampersand isn’t used quite often, but in documents written in Secretary Hand, this symbol is used quite often and does not look like the symbol we use today.

There are a few forms it could appear in; try to familiarize yourself with them.


Similar to the ‘cion/tion’ abbreviation, scribes would omit an ‘m’ from a word and add a mark or symbol above the abbreviation.

This can appear in any word that has a double m.

Superscript letters

Some abbreviations are written with letters omitted from the middle of a word, and the letters forming the end of the word were written slightly higher than the rest of the letters.


A thorn is a symbol that looks like our modern ‘y’ that is used to abbreviate personal pronouns and other words. It makes the word ‘the’ appear as ‘ye.’ Transcribe as ‘th’ rather than ‘y.’

Missing letters

Some words in Secretary Hand are missing letters with no apparent abbreviation mark. This is most common with names.

The text above reads: Parliam[en]t


Many prefixes starting with the letter ‘p’ were abbreviated by writing different symbols on the p’s descender (ex. pre, pro, par).

The text above reads: p[ar]liam[en]t

Secretary Transcription Exercise

Here is a sample transcription from a Secretary Hand document showing annual redistribution in 1647/8 of £50 from the impropriate rectory of Compston [?Compton Chamberlain] Wilts sequestered from the estate of John Penruddocke for the maintenance of the minister of Maydon Bradeley [Maiden Bradley] as noted by the Committee of Plundered Ministers (TNA SP 22/2A). Courtesy of the National Archives.

Try to do your own transcription and compare the two.

[1]        Att the Comittee for Plundred
[2]        Ministers Feb[ruary] 22 Anno D[omini] 1648
[3]        Whereas this Comittee have this 22th instant grannted
[4]        the yearely summe of fifty pounds out of the p[ro]ffitts of
[5]        the Impropriate Rectory of Compton in the County of
[6]        Wilts[hire] Sequested from John Penruddocke Esq[uir]e for
[7]        increase of the maintence of the Minister of Mayden
[8]        Bradely in the said County It is ordered that the
[9]        Comittee for Compounding w[i ]th delinquents be and they
[10]        are hereby desired to admitt of the said augmentac[ i]on
[11]        by abating part of the delinquents fine in lieu thereof
[12]        in Case he shall make his addresses to the said Comittee
[13]        to Compound for his said Delinquency
[14]        Gilb[er]t Mullington

Further Reading

For more information on books and guides here at the Society of Genealogists, please see these books:
Andrew Wright and C.T. Martin, Court Hand Restored or, The Student’s Assistant in Reading Old Deeds, Charters, Records, etc. London: Stevens & Sons, 1912 (Call no. TB/PAL 13).

Buck, W.S.B., Examples of Handwriting, 1550-1650. Chichester: Phillimore & Co Ltd, 1973 (Call no. TB/PAL 16).

Denholm-Young, N., Handwriting in England & Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1964 (Call no. TB/PAL 5. Reference Only).

Grieve, Hilda E.P., Examples of English Handwriting, 1150-1750 With Transcripts & Translations: Essex Record Office Publications no. 21.Chelmsford: Essex Record Office, 1954 (Call no. TB/PAL 18) and More Examples of English Handwriting from Essex Parish Records of the 13th to the 18th Century: Essex Record Office Publications no. 9. Chelmsford: Essex County Council, 1850 (Call no. ES/PER).

Hector, L.C., The Handwriting of English Documents. Dorking: 1980 (Call no. TB/PAL 11).

Ison, Alf, A Secretary Hand ABC Book. Tilehurst: 1982 (In the Textbook tracts box, Lower Library enquiry counter & Librarian’s Office Textbook shelves).

Jean F. Preston and Laetitia Yeandle, Handwriting 1400-1650.Birminghamtown, USA: Medieval & Renaissance Studies, 1992 (Call no. TB/PAL 12. Reference Only).

John Barrett and David Iredale, Discovering Old Handwriting. Princes Risborough Shire Publications Ltd., 1985 (Call no. TB/PAL 7. Reference Only).

Marshall, Hilary, Palaeography for Family & Local Historians. Chichester: Phillimore & Co Ltd., 2004 (Call no. TB/PAL 8. Reference Only).

If you cannot make it to the Library, here are some online tutorials that may help you:

The National Archives, Palaeography: Reading Old Handwriting 1500-1800: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/

Paleo Anglo Norman Early Modern Palaeography: http://paleo.anglo-norman.org/

English Handwriting 1500-1700: An Online Course: http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/ceres/ehoc/index.html

Medieval Writing: http://medievalwriting.50megs.com/

Oxford English Dictionary: http://www.oed.com/

BYU Script Tutorial: http://script.byu.edu/

Source Notes

Alphabet Charts:

Deposition signed by Edward Farnham from the Committee for Compounding with Delinquents, 1645 (TNA SP 23/86 p. 169).

A warrant to pay Cromwell’s officers of fourteen days, dated 18 April 1645. The document is signed by Thomas Fairfax and Richard Cromwell (TNA SP 28/29).

Will of Lawrence Spencer, Gentleman of London, 14 April 1720 (PROB 11 573/379), www.nationalarchives.gov.uk.


Written by Abbie Black 2013

© Society of Genealogists 2017

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