No, it’s not Lady Gaga’s hairline or the frizz on one of those creepy troll dolls. 1 Last week’s crocodile mystery is in fact a close up of silk embroidery floss that had been tightly wrapped around a folded letter, with seals placed over the floss on the front and back of the packet to secure it. When the floss was cut to open the letter, the floss frayed, and the seals remained intact.
The Folger has a handful of other examples of this uncommon letter-locking technique, including one that we acquired in November 2012 at a Bonham’s auction: a 1617 (probably late summer) letter from Anne, wife of James I, to her husband’s favorite courtier, George Villiers, then earl of Buckingham (Hamnet record). The queen signs the letter at the top as “Anna R” and seals it with her royal AR cypher (“Anna Regina”). Note that the color of the silk floss and the “pleated” creases are similar in both letters.
The letter, written in a neat italic hand to “My king dog” (“dog” was her nickname for Buckingham), is a request that Buckingham ask the king to excuse her from traveling to Woodstock to meet them, which would be a “farre and incommodious” journey for such a short stay (3 days). Anne, whose health was in decline, most likely refers to the king’s visit to Woodstock from September 6-10, 1617. The content of the letter, which reflects the queen’s awareness and approval of Buckingham’s continued and growing influence on the king, was reason enough to bid on the letter. But the queen’s generous use of the French fermesse symbol ($) on the address panel and at the end of almost every line (representing fidelity in love) and the intimacy of the physical format of the letter as sent, made it an especially attractive item to acquire.
Silk-flossing was one of a number of ways to lock a letter in early modern (pre-envelope) England, and was much more tamper-resistant than the more common tuck-and-seal method, especially when the floss was threaded through the letter.
Letters sealed with silk floss were always folded in the same style: the letter was pleated, or folded multiple times in a series of peaks and valleys, resulting in a small narrow rectangular packet often no bigger than a credit card. Letters closed in this manner were also almost always in the autograph italic hand of the sender, rather than written by a secretary. When the above letters were sent, the packets would have looked like the packet below, with a seal on the front and back of the packet.
While silk-flossed letters were written by both men and women, it is probable that the actual flossing of these letters was largely women’s work, or at least dependent on women’s tools: a needle and thread. In a postscript of a letter from Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, to Thomas Windebank, one of the clerks of the signet, Cecil discusses a letter that he has received from Elizabeth to be sealed and sent to James VI: “… tell her Majesty that I will try how finely I can seale vp her lettre, but my howse is such a Friery now, without any women, as If she send not my Lady Skydmore to me with a Needle and a thredd, I must go to some of my Neighbours either at Essex howse or Russell howse for some of those vtensils…” (SP 12/274, fol. 69, February 26, 1600). 2
Silk-flossing was initially, in the late 1570s, an exclusively royal practice in England, but by the time that Queen Anne wrote to Buckingham in 1617 it was used sporadically by numerous aristocratic men and women and a few others as well. The tone of silk-flossed letters was familiar and affectionate, and the subject matter varied widely, including letters of gratitude, request, intimacy, and diplomacy. If you received a letter like this in Tudor/Stuart England, you’d know its general purpose and tone before you even opened it. You’d recognize the handwriting as that of an intimate friend or family member, perhaps discern something from the symbolism of the color of the silk floss, and be prepared to read words of gratitude, love, or request. Just as when we open snail mail and email today, our forebears used a wide array of visual and textual clues to interpret a letter’s message even before reading the missive’s contents. The pleated, small shape of the letter strengthened its impact, enclosing the hand and words of the sender in an intimate gift, more private than a letter folded and sealed in a more traditional manner. The senders of silk-flossed letters, including Elizabeth I, James I and his wife and children, many earls and countesses, and a few literary figures such as John Donne, Mary Sidney, and Mary Wroth, used the format very sparingly. However, given the more private nature of these letters, it is possible that the format was more common than we think, and that perhaps the most personal and interesting of letters sent in this manner no longer survive precisely because of their small, intimate size.
- These were not real guesses from our readers, but the musings of Collation editorial staff when faced with an absence of comments to our previous post.
- Thank you to Anna Bertolet for pointing me to this reference. For more information on silk-flossed letters, see my essay, “‘Neatly sealed, with silk, and Spanish wax or otherwise’: the practice of letter-locking with silk floss in early modern England,” in In the prayse of writing, ed. S.P. Cerasano and Steven W. May (London: The British Library, 2012).