The Duke of Sheffield to the Duke of Kent, May 1688

Yes, my giraffe is still sick? Beth's carafe is too thick?

My Dear Friend Lord Bresnan, Duke of Kent:

I only wish I could respond more appropriately to your last letter. The 12 pages seemed filled with all manner of important details and fascinating tales. However, as was true when we served together in the army, your handwriting is nigh completely illegible. I would have a better chance interpreting the scratchings on the walls of the Pyramids in Egypt than deciphering your frankly embarrassing chicken scratch.

As I am a gentleman, I will try to respond to the few bits I believe I was able to make out. First, no, my daughter Lavinia was not “married to a carriage blast.” She is still engaged to the young Earl of Buckingham and we’re quite pleased with it. I cannot agree that “The King ought to have his chickens greeted.” Farm animals should not require more than the normal introductions when meeting, even royal ones.

As to your assertion that your wife is “fooling around with a snack,” I can only offer my deepest condolences. The good Lady was not the slimmest woman when you married her; I can only imagine your disappointment with her current physique. Finally, I do agree that Holland will “provide an endless source of blackberries.” That goes without saying, does it not?

Please don’t bother to write back yourself. Perhaps young William can help. He’s almost four now.


Lord Brantelbury, Duke of Sheffield


As this letter demonstrates, penmanship is a vital part of letter-writing that is all too often overlooked. Yet bad handwriting can cause deadly confusion, especially in love letters. The sentence “I am so lucky to have met you,” when sloppily written, looks tragically similar to “Let’s take cyanide at midnight since we cannot be together.”  

Historically, poor penmanship accounts for a quarter of wars and, more generally, 13% of all bad ideas. The original, handwritten manuscript of Mein Kampf was actually a field guide to butterfly identification and was grossly misunderstood by Hitler’s publisher.

As people become more accustomed to typing everything, it’s not uncommon for their handwriting to get worse and worse until they can barely sign their own names. Meanwhile, chicken handwriting has vastly improved, so the phrase “looks like chicken scratch” no longer rings true.


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