Old Signatures

Signing with your mark

By Susan Hall

Many years ago it was very unusual to find people who could read and write, this activity was usually left to clerks and well educated people, so when documents were needed, people would have to go to the clerks and pay them to do the writing.

There would be some element of trust placed on the person doing the writing, as the person they were working for would not be able to read it and correct any mistakes, particularly with spellings.

One of these documents could easily be a person’s will.

At Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies we have a group of volunteers who are in the process of cleaning and accessing the Hertfordshire Wills collection for damage and they have found some interesting signatures.

Because people could not write their name, they would have to put a mark on the paper, which would then be witnessed by others to say that that person had signed the document.

This Will is dated 1609 and top right is the "signature" of William Sleape of Sleepshyde, it looks a bit like a hangman's noose. You can also see the witnesses signatures, even one of those left his mark. His occupation is that of a Yeoman. ref 50AW25
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
You can see the Square drawing with the name Adam Brocke either side. His witnesses could not write either so they had made their own little drawings. Adams occupation is given as a Husbandman, dated 1606 and from St Peter's, St Albans. ref 47AW2
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
Dated 1606 this Will is that of Charles Aty of Watford, his mark looks like an E and an X, he was a labourer. ref 47AW1
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
John Carter, a butcher by trade from Grandborough in Buckinghamshire, his Will is dated 1602. ref. 43AW2
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
This will is dated 1602 and is that of Joan Smith of St Albans, although she could not write and has left her mark, one of her witnesses has a very elaborate signature. She was a widow with no occupation. ref. 43AW25
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
Here we can see lots of little drawings or marks which belongs to the Will of John Comber of St Peter's, St Albans and is dated 1600. ref.41AW7
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
John Smyth's mark looks like two people holding hands. He came from Park Street, St Stephens, St Albans, his occupation is not known. This Will is dated 1600 ref. 41AW26
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
Isabel Whitley of St Paul's Walden, was a widow when she made her will of 1597. Her mark is just a cross at the top, but, one of her witnesses has left a mark which looks a bit like an egg timer. ref. 38AW28
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
There are two marks on this will of 1597. The top one is that of John Brocke from St Peter's, St Albans. The bottom mark looks a bit like a flower and is the mark of John Gover. John Brocke's occupation was that of a Yeoman. ref. 38AW6
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
This mark was found on the will of Thomas Choppinge of St Peter's, St Albans and is dated 1595. ref. 36AW5
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
There are lots of marks on this, the will of Christopher Edwards. Dated 1594, Christopher came from Watford and his occupation was that of a ploughmaker. ref. 35AW6
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
Henry Hickman has clearly left his mark in the form of a cross but his witnesses, Leonard Hickman and William Parker have left little drawings. ref. 35AW14
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
Two marks here look like recognisable objects, and anchor and a headless man. These we found on the will of Walter Beche of Redbourn. Dated 1591. ref.32AW1
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
The will of John Brown. Dated 1591, John came from St Albans. He chose to make his mark as a symbol of his occupation, he was a Blacksmith, as can be seen in the text above. ref. 32AW4
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
John Brown's mark of a horseshoe 1591 ref. 32AW4
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
The will of Allen Fynche, 1577, the top is from one of his witnesses and looks like someone flying an aeroplane. His occupation is that of a Husbandman. 18AW9
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
John Synger, a Clerk Parson of Bushey, 1591, he could sign his name as you can see on the right, but some interesting 'signatures' of the witnesses. 25AW12
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
Raphe Scott, 1591 He has used what looks like a black bird, his occupation is that of Yeoman. 32AW20
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
Thomas Hodgkinson's will of 1578, someone's mark was that of a pair of scissors. 19AW24
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
The best one is from the will of James Chappell, 1577. His occupation is that of Husbandman and one of his witnesses drew a hand. This signature appeared again in another will in the same bundle. 18AW4
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
This page was added on 21/10/2014.

Comments about this page

  • Has anyone seen an example of a mark from a cooper? They had a unique mark that they used on casks that they had made, I am interested to see if they knew the mark well enough to use it instead of X or their name?

    By Terry (02/03/2018)
  • this is fascinating – i had heard of people making their mark and thought most of them were a simple X – it is interesting to see that so many personalised their marks, it can’t have been easy with an unfamiliar quill or scratchy nib 

    By Eva Cantin (20/11/2014)
  • How interesting – a tiny window into the lives of people who might otherwise be overlooked…

    By Ghislaine Peart (03/11/2014)
  • You can find out more about the medieval graffiti mentioned above by following this link: medieval graffiti

    By Daphne Knott (23/10/2014)
  • The Carter family are still thriving in the Granborough area. The production assistant at Buckinghamshire Archives was a John Carter and related to the Granborough Carters.

    By Jeff Cargill (22/10/2014)
  • I found this fascinating.  The Community Archives conference this summer had a session on medieval graffiti – people certainly knew how to make their mark.

    By Jennifer Ayto (22/10/2014)

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