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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

The Royal Style

People who speak one language do not always write in the same. For example, because the Scottish education system does not teach children to read, speak and write Scots with a view to gaining literacy, those who are raised as Scots speakers are usually at home writing in English, the only language we are systematically taught to write. It was often the case in former times. Some of the public notaries, who were raised speaking Scots, found themselves far more at home writing in Latin, the usual language in which they practised their profession. In the case of Queen Mary it is clear that during her 13 years’ stay in France she learned to write in French and for the rest of her life it was French that she preferred. However, reigning monarchs often had little time to sit and write letters due to the sheer volume of business that was brought before them and so it was usual for them to dictate or delegate correspondence to secretaries.

The state apparatus of Scotland issued every kind of document in Queen Mary’s name, and did so in either Latin or Scots. Although spelling in those days could vary, there were established customs for writing, including set phrases and words used for particular kinds of documents. Style could vary from very formal – using Latin, Greek and French words – to more informal – employing words and turns of phrase commonly used by the people. Often, a notary writing in Scots would use legalistic terms from Latin but couple them with equivalent words commonly spoken so that the people hearing would better understand.

Judging by the material that has survived from Queen Mary’s reign, it is clear that Mary must have dictated some of the more personal letters sent to particular nobles, read through them, and then signed her name, sometimes adding a couple of words or even a postscript. Though she preferred to write in French, she clearly spoke and read Scots too. But the bulk of the correspondence coming through her chancery was more routine and would have been delegated and dealt with by secretaries writing in a formulaic way.

The following letters illustrate the styles used by the Scottish government when writing to people on both diplomatic and regional affairs. The first is a letter in Scots addressed by Mary from Holyrood Palace to Queen Elizabeth of England in the year 1562. In it Mary describes sending her ‘secretar principall’ (private secretary) to Elizabeth to discuss political matters and that the English queen is to treat with him as she would with Mary herself. The language is formal, addressing the English queen with all due diplomatic courtesy and is signed by Mary as ‘zour gud suster’.

To the richt excellent, richt hiech and michty princes, our darrest suster and cousin, the quene of England.

Richt excellent, richt heich and michty princess, oure darrest suster and cousin, we grete zow hartlie weill. We have presentlie directit towartis zou our richt trousty and weilbelovit the zoung larde of Lethingtoun, our secretar principall, for sic gud offices as he hes in charge of ws, quhilk ze will sufficientlie understand be his report; praying zou in our maist hartlie maner to gif him als ferme credence thairin as ze wald gif unto our self. Thus richt excellent, richt heich, and mighty princess, our darrest suster and cousin, we commit zou to the tuitioun of Almichty God. At our palace of Halirudhous, the first day of September, and of oure regnne, the xix yere,

Zour gud suster and cousin,                             


The second example is a letter written in Mary’s name from St Germains in France to her cousin lord Gray in Scotland, in the year 1560. The letter is a little more informal, and personal in style, in which Mary thanks Gray for the service he did for her mother and hoping that, during this uncertain time, he will continue his allegiance to Mary. She ends by asking that he write to her with his advice and signs it ‘zour gud friend Marie’.

TRAST COUSING, efter hartlye commendatioun; nochtwithstanding of the gude report hes bene maid to ws of zou, zeit We are verray blyith to se be zour lettres the intire affectioun ze haue evir had to our vmquhill Motheris seruice and ours, and is nocht vnknawing to ws the contentement sche had of zow, with the gud will to maik zow knaw the samyn, quhairas we will haue na les of our part, traisting ze will continew zour gude affectioun, and the condign offices ze haue vsit, induring thir trubles, amangis zour freyndes, to continew thame in thair dewtie and obedience aucht to ws; Praying zow to gif nowther fauour nor censour to na thing bot to [quhat] ze beleue be conform to our intentions; quhairof ze sall evir be aduertist, as the maters sall succeid in thir parts, of ze quhilks We pray zow aduertis ws of zour advis, be frequent vriting. Sua We pray God preserue zow.

At St Germains, the aucht day of October [1560],

Zour gud friend MARIE.

Our third example is another letter sent from Mary to lord Gray in the year 1565/6. This time Mary writes to tell Gray that the parliament will reconvene again and that she would like him to attend and support her with his advice. The language is quite formal and is signed (‘subscriuit’) by Mary at Holyrood.

To our traist cousing, the Lord Gray.

TRAIST COUSING, We grete zow weill.

Oure perliament, quhilk wes appointid to haue bene haldin the ferd day of Februar instant, is be wis continewit vnto the xij day of Merche nixtocum; and leist ze mycht be ignorant of the said continewatioun, and thairthrow absent zour self fra cuming to oure said parliament, We haue thocht gud, be this oure lettre, to put zow in remembirance of the said continewatioun, and to desire and pray zow effectiouslie that ze will nocht faill to be at ws in oure burgh of Edinburgh the ferd day of the said moneth of Merche, for zour avys and opinioun to be had in sic things as ar to be treated in oure said perliament; As ze will do ws acceptabill seruice and plesour in that be halff.

Subscriuit with oure hands, at oure palice of Halirudhous, the xxiij day of Februar, 1565.

MARIE R.                                                                                                  

The letter in our fourth example is a typical letter sent in Mary’s name to one of her subjects, in this case Douglas of Lochleven, commanding him in 1566 to meet her with his retainers at Peebles and then serve her for 15 days in dealing with disorder and justice in the Borders region. The phrasing and terms of the document are in standard 16th century Scots.

To our traist freind the Lard of Lochlevin.

Traist freind We greit zou weill

We intend God willing in proper persoun to repair schortlie towart Jedburgh and ther to do justice to our puir opprest subiectis That oure bordour anys quietit We may the mair esalie put ordour in the in cuntre in the quhilk Jornay it is neidfull that we be weill and substantiouslie accompanyit with oure gude and trew subjectis Praying zow therefore that ze accumpanyit with zoure houshaldis and substanciouse freindis bodin in weirlik maner address zow to meit ws at Peblis the xiij day of august nixtocum And swa to accumpany ws for the space of xv dayis efter zour cvming to Jedburgh As ze will do ws verray acceptabill plesure and seruice.

Subscriuit with oure hand At Alloway the last day of Juij 1566 MARIE R.                              

The fifth and final example of Mary’s correspondence is a letter addressed by her from Bolton in England to the archbishop of St Andrews in 1568. She clearly had a Scottish secretary at hand and signs it ‘zour gud cusigne’. In the letter Mary mentions writing in ‘ciphere’ - meaning code – to lord Fleming whom she says will update the archbishop further and she promises to write ‘at mair lenth’ when she next gets the chance. Like the other letters above it is written in the language typical of the 16th century Scottish administration.

To Ane Reverend fader The Archibishop of Sanctandrois

Reuerend fader We greit zow veil We haif ressauit zour vrytingis be the bischope of Ross and hes vnderstand the samyn We haif vrittin in ciphere to my Lord Flemyng quha will mak zow participant therof And sall wryt to zow at mair lenth quhen the nixt occassioun servis Referring the rest thairto and to zour gud discretioune Swa committis zow to the protectioune of God Almychtie.

Off Bowtoune the xxvij of September 1568, Zour gud cusigne MARIE R.