When was the last time you signed yourself someone’s “very loving friend” at the end of a letter or told them you were theirs to be commanded (or, even more ominously, “used”)? Thought so. Perhaps the oddest thing about early modern letters are the sign-offs, because they sound alien to modern ears and often don’t quite tally with our notions of politeness, formality or friendship.
Take, for example the phrase “your very loving friend”. In the unlikely event that you were actually to consider using it to end one of your emails, it would probably be an email to someone with whom you have a close personal relationship – and even then it might seem too touchy-feely for comfort. In early modern letters, however, the phrase gets used everywhere, even in contexts where the writer and the recipient of the letter aren’t exactly friends and the contents of the letter suggest that there wasn’t much love lost between them at the time of writing:
This is a copy of an uncharacteristically angry letter from the Earl of Shrewsbury to his deputy lieutenants Sir Walter Aston and Richard Bagot, in which he claims they “never did any thing at my commandment, which might breed content” (i.e. they’re bloody useless at their jobs) and threatens to report them to the Privy Council for their poor performance of their duties. And yet the letter is signed “your Loving friend G Shrewsbury” and addressed to “my Loving ffrendes”. So clearly friendship in the early modern sense doesn’t mean quite what you might think. The same goes for this letter from the Earl of Essex to Richard Bagot (signed “your very louing frend R Essex” in the Earl’s own hand):
The nature of Essex’ loving friendship with Richard Bagot becomes clear halfway through the letter, however, when he writes “I muste entreate you, as my very good frende, and one in whome I presume to haue some intereste, that you will giue your vttermoste aide vnto the Sheriff […] for the removinge of Robbinson and his associates” (which may be roughly paraphrased as “you owe me, Bagot, so do as you’re told”). So if “your very loving friend” doesn’t have to imply love or friendship between the letter-writer and the recipient, what does it actually mean? Perhaps the best way to think about it is as a relatively neutral, multi-purpose sign-off – a sort of early modern version of “best wishes” and “yours sincerely” rolled into one. It’s also a sign-off that’s normally reserved for letters addressed to people who are the writer’s social equals or inferiors. That’s why in their grovelling reply to Shrewsbury’s letter (L.a.74), Walter Aston and Richard Bagot don’t sign themselves his loving friends but “your Lordships most humble at comandment” – a phrase that sounds obsequious to modern ears but is in fact just the polite acknowledgement of and submission to Shrewsbury’s authority required to pacify him and make him change his mind about that report to the Privy Council. For an example of a truly obsequious early modern sign-off, compare another letter from the Earl of Essex, addressed to the queen (X.c.11), which he concludes “… and with all humble, and reverent thoughtes that may be, rest ever to be commaunded to dye at your feete”. That’s a bit much even by early modern standards.