John de Beauchesne & the First English Writing-Books

By Berthold Wolpe
Date Added: 21/07/2009


Since the beginning of the sixteenth century the use of Italic, also known in England at that time as the Roman hand, was favoured by scholars, some poets and courtiers, and became the accepted style for diplomatic correspondence. Petrus Carmelianus, Latin secretary to Henry VII and to Henry VIII, wrote a beautiful italic hand; so did Henry, Duke of Richmond, natural son of Henry VIII. Edward VI, Katherine Parr, Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth I, were all proficient in this hand. Other exponents of it were Leland, Udall, Cheke and Ascham, to mention only a few names of literary fame.

Among the writing-masters of the sixteenth century John de Beauchesne occupies a special position in that, although he was a Frenchman, he gave the Elizabethans of England their first native printed writing-book. Before him, the only writing-manuals available in this country were those imported from the continent.

Beauchesne was born in Paris at the end of the fourth decade of the sixteenth century. Little is known of his origins. Inquiries as to possible parish records have not so far led to any information, but an examination of the lists of printers and booksellers at Paris has revealed a number of persons bearing his family name: e.g. Abraham de Beauchesne, a bookseller active in 1532; Julien de Beauchesne, a printer in 1545; while Jeanne de Beauchesne, wife of a bookseller, died in 1572 a victim of the massacre of St Bartholomew's day.

John de Beauchesne may have been apprenticed to one of the Paris writing-masters of the day; possibly to Jacques de la Rue or, what is more likely, to Pierre Hamon. Both these masters of the pen produced copy-books in the fifteen-sixties. These years saw great unrest in France. Catherine de Medici, the Queen Mother, and the boy king Charles IX tried to suppress with fire and sword the growing movement of the reformers. As a Huguenot, the young Beauchesne preferred the more tolerant climate of England to the religious strife of France, which he left in 1565 to settle in London. An 'Account of Strangers in the Several Parts of London etc. at Easter 1567', mentions as living in 'The Warde of Farringdon Without' one 'John de Beaue Chesne, servaunt, 2 (yeares).' We do not know with certainty whose servant Btauchesne was. At any rate he undertook work for William Bowyer, the keeper of the Royal Archives at the Tower of London. He wrote a manuscript for him in 1567. This book of 140 leaves of vellum is written in fourteen different styles of script, including the italic hand, and is dedicated to the Earl of Leicester.

In 1569 the French printer-publisher Thomas Vautroullier, who had come to London a few years before Beauchesne and settled in Blackfriars, entered in the Stationers' Company register 'a book of copies, English, French and Italian'. He paid 10d for his license and next year registered another book 'containing an alphabet of copies for the secretary hand'. The fee was 6d in this case. These licenses were designed to protect the work, which came out in 157°, entitled: 'A Booke containing divers sortes of hands, as well the English as French secretarie with the Italian, Roman, Chancelrie and court hands. Also the true and just proportion of the capitall Rom(an)ae set forth by John de Beau Chesne. P(arisien) and M. John Baildon. Imprinted at

London by Thomas Vautrouillier, dwelling in the blackefrieres.' This was the first English writing-book and Vautroullier's first publishing venture in his adopted country.

It is very difficult to sort out the meaning of the two separate licenses. It is possible that Master john Baildon, who was a curate of St Mildred in the Poultry, supplied the models of a small book 'containing an alphabet of copies for the secretary hand' which was then added to john de Beauchesne's book. An indication of the combining of two books might be seen in the title lettering, which is cut on wood and has the addition – like an afterthought - of: 'and M. John Baildon' set in small size type3. The work is dedicated to Henry Fitzallan, 12th Earl of Arundel. The dedication is followed by a poem of 'Rules made by E.B. for Children to write by'. They give instructions for the making of inks, preparation of paper, selection and cutting of pens, penhold, etc. The Rules are composed in twelve stanzas and in their doggerel rhymes show a lot of sense and practical experience of teaching. The book is a small oblong quarto printed on twelve 8-page sheets with 42 wood-blocks of specimen alphabets and texts. They range from formal black letters and their derivatives such as Secretary, Bastard Secretary, Set Hand in the Common Pleas and Set Chancery hand, to roman capitals and lower-case, with the italic hand and variants called 'frisee', 'piaccevolae', 'renversee', 'couppee' and 'pattee'. These latter clearly demonstrate the influence of Pierre Hamon.

This is an altogether colourful variety of styles representing the whole scale of contemporary penmanship. Happily this diversity of hands is held together by a sequence of large decorated and historiated initials, forming an alphabet in themselves, in twenty-three pages in the beginning of the book4. The book obviously stimulated interest in handwriting, and the year 1574 saw the publication of 'A Newe Booke of Copies Containing Divers Sortes of Sundry Hands, as the English and French Secretarie, and Bastard Secretarie, Italian, Roman, Chancery and Court hands. Set forth by the most Excellent Wryters of the sayd hands for the instruction of the unskillful's. The Newe Booke of Copies has thirty-two specimens of lettering. The names of the 'most Excellent Wryters' are not given, but some of the specimens almost certainly came from the manuscript models used for Beauchesne and Baildon's 1570 book.

In both books the same woodcut of 'How you ought to hold your penne' is shown and the poem of 'Rules . . . for children to write by' is printed. Again a certain continuity has been achieved by the use of a complete alphabet of somewhat smaller decorative initials gracing twenty-four pages with various styles of hand.

In the book first described, ten pages are of the Italic style and only eight in the second, smaller book. This indicates that in the Elizabethan period and actually we[ into the seventeenth century the Secretary hand, an easy flowing derivative of gothic or black letter, remained the every-day form of handwriting. The new 'Italique' however was well on the way to superseding it. Two pages from the Newe Book of Copies, 1574 one of Secretary and one of italic, each with additional alphabets of capital letters, make their appearance in 'The Petie Schole with an English Orthographie' again printed and published by T. Vautroullier London, 1587.

A broadsheet written by Beauchesne as a calligraphic specimen is in Mr Philip Hofer's collection at the Houghton Library, Harvard. It shows seven styles of writing and was penned on a blank leaf of a copy of Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle and is subscribed in mirror writing: 'Johannes de Beau Chesne Anno 1575' and the date is the seventh day of December.

In the late fifteen-seventies Beauchesne travelled in Italy, but came back to France not later than 1579. He stayed at Lyon for about three years in the house of Guillaume Ouldry. From there in the Rue Merciere at the Sign of the Trinity he issued in 1580: 'Le Tresor d' Escriture, au que I est contenu tout ce qui est requis et necessaire a taus amateurs dudict art. Par jehan de Beauchesne Parisien, Avec privilege du Roi'. This work has been praised by Stanley Morison as 'one of the finest books of the period, superior to any book produced this side of the Alps'. It contains, on sixty-two wood engraved plates, specimens of italic, and French secretary; alphabets of decorative initials, of black letters, and of roman small letters and capitals. The Tresor d' Escriture is in a way more methodically arranged than the Beauchesne-Basildon book, which is perhaps not surprising as Beauchesne in this case was not only the author and designer but also his own publisher. The book is dedicated to Francois Mandelot, who was governor of that district of France. Le Tresor d' Escriture opens with two sonnets in praise of Beauchesne. It received the grant of a royal privilege protecting its copyright for six years. Before this time was up, however, the author returned to England. There is documentary evidence of this in one of the Cecil manuscripts: 'names of strangers, Farringdon Within, John de Beauchesne Frenche - Schoolmaster 1583'.

His next publication was 'La Clef de l'Escriture'. The unique copy is at the Newberry Library, Chicago. This undated writing-book (about 1595) is dedicated to the Ladies Mary, Elizabeth and Althea Talbot, daughters of Gilbert, Earl of Shrewsbury and granddaughters of Bess of Hardwick.

It is very likely that Beauchesne made the acquaintance of the Dutch map-engraver, Jodocus Hondius, who had worked in London for some years. The latter published in 1594 in Amsterdam his 'Theatrum Artis Scribendi', an anthology of handwriting. It contains six plates engraved after models from the hand of Beauchesne.

We find further reference to Beauchesne in the tax records of the period: the lay subsidies of 1 October 1599 mention him as living in the parish of St Anne's in the Black Friars. A few years after this, his talent was recognised by his appointment as writing-master to Princess Elizabeth and to Prince Charles, the children of King James I of England. To his pupil Princess Elizabeth, he dedicated a small oblong calligraphic manuscript in French and Italian. It is signed ‘Jehande Beauchesne. Aeta. Suae 72 ½ ' and is in the collection of the Newberry Library, Chicago.

In 1613 he was granted a yearly pension of £50 for the rest of his life for teaching Prince Charles, who was to become King Charles I, 'the art of writing'.

Beauchesne spent the rest of his days at Black Friars. The parish register contains this entry: 20th May 1620, 'buried John de Bushan'.

John de Beauchesne's manuals, published in London from 1570 on, started the tradition of English writing-books. Apart from the plates brought out by Hondius, all of Beauchesne's models were cut on wood, a technique most congenial to the strokes made by the broad-edged pen. The medium of copper-engraving, however, was employed in England for all subsequent publications. Handwriting became more baroque towards the end of his career and the new trend was to be intensified by the burin's swelling line. Some of his writing had already the mark of this style. But the real exponents of this manner were his successors, men like Martin Billingsley, Richard Gething, and John Davies of Hereford.