WASHINGTON — Before the days of Blackberries and instant messaging, lovers often sharpened their goose quills, dipped them into homemade ink, folded their letters into little oblongs and sealed them with embroidery silk.
The Folger Shakespeare Library has dug into its huge collection from this period and come up with the manuscript of a tender missive to the first Queen Elizabeth from her longest favorite. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, addressed his letter formally, "To the Queens most excellente Maiesty," and sealed it with lime-green silk.
Ostensibly the letter is about preparations to meet the Spanish Armada launched against Britain in 1588. "I may not forgett vppon my knees to yeld to your moost swete maiesty all humble & dutyful thankes for your great confort I receive euer from your owen swete self," he wrote more intimately.
When he spells "most" with two o's, he draws little eyebrows over the o's -- making them into her pet name for him, "Eyes."
Leicester died shortly after the English defeated the attack. When Elizabeth died 15 years later, a subsequent note from him was found in a little box among her jewelry. On it she had written that it was his last letter.
The show illustrates the speed at which the most urgent communications moved 400 years ago. Consider the order from London instructing the Lord Admiral to speed up ammunition to English ships in the battle. Marked "hast[e]" four times, with the hours it reached post stations carefully noted, it traveled the 80 miles from London to Dover at 4 mph, taking 20 hours to complete its journey.
No letters of Shakespeare are known. But Francis Bacon, whom Mark Twain and other writers believe secretly wrote Shakespeare's plays, is represented by a letter showing his interest in secret codes. The best, he wrote, is one that outsiders do not bother to decipher because it does not look like a code.
Shakespeare is represented by an early edition of "King Lear," open to a vivid description of the deep emotional reaction by Cordelia, the king's loving and faithful daughter, to a letter being read to her about her evil sisters' ill-treatment of him:
" ... once or twice she heaved the name of 'father'
"Pantingly forth as if it pressed her heart,
"Cried 'Sisters, sisters, shame of ladies sisters,'
" ... then away she started,
"To deal with grief alone."
Also displayed is a series of letters by James I, Elizabeth's successor. They were a failed attempt by the king to get a confession from a young favorite whom he had made the Earl of Somerset. The earl was jailed in a sex and murder scandal. Somerset was sentenced to death, then pardoned by the king.
"Letterwriting in Renaissance England" will be on view through April 2.