The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

An example of early modern English writing paper

The crocodile posted on Friday was correctly identified by Philip Allfrey as a watermark of Queen Elizabeth’s arms encircled by the Garter. In his comments, Mr Allfrey provided a useful account of how he identified the watermark and the letter on which it appears. He also went the extra mile and used various Folger databases and the Gravell Watermark Archive to identify the papermaker, John Spilman!

Watermarks are the result of the papermaking process: a wire design is attached to the wire mesh in the bottom part of a paper mold, the pulp then settles more thinly around the thicker wires of the design as it drains, and thus the watermark becomes visible when viewed through transmitted light. 1 Here’s our crocodile watermark: 

crocodile mystery
Watermark depicting Queen Elizabeth’s arms within the Garter (the motto of the Order of the Garter, visible in this image, is “Honi soit qui mal y pense”).

The motto, fleurs-de-lys, and lions passant are easier to make out when compared to this engraved version of Elizabeth’s coat of arms:

Detail from Folger ART File E43 no.33 (size M), Elizabetha Angliae Regina [Coat of arms with motto] Honi Soit Qvi Mal Y Pense [graphic].
Detail from Folger ART File E43 no.33 (size M), Elizabetha Angliae Regina [Coat of arms with motto] Honi Soit Qvi Mal Y Pense [graphic]. Click on image to see the full engraving.
And here’s the letter in which the watermark appears, right in the center of the leaf (but not visible in this image):

Letter from Sir Francis Walsingham to Thomas Gresley and Richard Bagot, February 22, 1588/89.
Letter from Sir Francis Walsingham to Thomas Gresley and Richard Bagot, February 22, 1588/89.

There is nothing extraordinary about the text of this letter. In it, Francis Walsingham directs Thomas Gresley and Richard Bagot to settle a dispute between William Dethick and William Ward concerning jurisdiction over the manor court at Burton, and he strongly urges Gresley and Bagot to discourage Ward from his “mallitiouse dealinge.”

So what is cool about the letter? Well, Walsingham wrote it in February 1589 on paper produced in England by John Spilman, just days after Spilman received a patent to be the sole producer of white writing paper in England.

First, in order to appreciate this, we need to know who John Spilman was and what the significance of his paper mill was. Spilman, Queen Elizabeth’s jeweler, established a paper mill in Dartford, Kent, in 1588 to manufacture white writing paper. His mill produced the first writing and printing paper in England since John Tate’s short-lived paper mill in the late fifteenth century, and the mill is celebrated in a lengthy 1588 poem by Thomas Churchyard, Discription and playne discourse of paper, and the whole benefites that paper brings, with rehersall and setting foorth in verse a paper myll, built nere Darthford, by an high Germaine, called Master Spilman, Ieweller to the Queenes Maiestie (part of STC 5257). While there were other mills making brown paper for wrapping goods, he was the only maker of “white” paper until much later in the seventeenth century.

In order to further appreciate this, we need to know a bit more about Walsingham’s role in Spilman’s paper mill. On October 30, 1588 (about 12 weeks before he wrote his letter to Bagot and Gresley), Walsingham addressed a warrant to local officials ordering them to send “all suche highe Germaines that be workmen with Mr Spilman her Maiesties Jeweller in his Paper mill” to appear before the Privy Council, “where they shall knowe the cause of thier staye and sendinge for” (The National Archives, SP 12/217, fol. 114). Assuming that the summons to Privy Council resulted in the skilled foreign papermakers being allowed to remain in England, did Spilman provide Walsingham with a supply of paper in gratitude for his assistance? Or did Spilman become, as some have argued, an official supplier of royal stationery? Given the presence of Spilman watermarks (the arms with Garter, a crowned ER cipher, and perhaps, a crowned Tudor rose) in letters written at Court, this is certainly possible.

At a time when almost ALL paper was imported to England from the continent, it is very exciting to encounter examples of truly English paper. Henry Woudhuysen and I are currently collecting examples of Spilman watermarks in order to get a better sense of the extent to which Spilman’s paper circulated both inside and outside the court, so if you happen to notice any of his watermarks, we would be grateful for references or pictures.

  1. For more on papermaking, see Erin’s post on the subject.


  • You wrote that you are collecting Spilman watermarks. I have a document that claims to be of royal origin that has the watermark I R. I read at other places that Spilman used I R to for Iacobus Rex (James), but I can’t find a picture of the I R watermark online. Would you have a photo of his use of I R that I could compare my watermark to? Thanks!

  • Or even just the R, which I read he used for many of the royals (to stand for “rex”). If the R is the same it would be helpful to me 🙂

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