The Man with the Golden Pen

We’re very pleased to present a guest post by Derek Dunne on a fascinating event at the Blackfriars…



A duel of a different sort happened at the Blackfriars, Michaelmas Day 1595

Do you know who the best writer of Elizabethan London was? Not the most prolific, or the most poetic, or the most popular, but simply the best writer. This is a contentious question among scholars, but if contemporary accounts are to be believed, then the prize goes to Peter Bales. Bales’ superior penmanship brought him to the attention of Queen Elizabeth herself, earned him a place in Holinshed’s Chronicles, and would eventually lead him into the employ of ‘spy-master’ Francis Walsingham for a mission concerning Mary Queen of Scots. In this short piece, I want to introduce you to the most important Elizabethan writer you’ve never heard of and outline why his career matters to anyone with an interest in early modern entertainment, contemporary political intrigue, and the blurred line between the two.

Despite authoring such classics as The Writing Schoolemaster (1590, STC 1312) and The Arte of Brachygraphie (1597, STC 1311), Bales’ real fame was not to be found in print; it was earned with quill and ink. Bales was a writing-master and calligrapher, who ran his own writing school at the sign of the dolphin near the Old Bailey. In 1595, Bales was awarded the ‘golden pen’ after a public writing contest held in the Conduit yard of the Blackfriars precinct. The significance of the Blackfriars to literary scholars of early modern London is huge (this is where children’s companies performed, and would later be home to Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men), yet how is it that the victor of a writing competition is not better known?

The competition arose after a younger man, Daniel Johnson, claimed to be London’s pre-eminent writing master. Bales, 48 by 1595, took up Johnson’s challenge, and the two went head-to-head on Michaelmas Day for the prize of a golden pen valued at £20. Michaelmas Day was the start of the legal term, when London would be even busier than usual with lawyers and their clients. With Blackfriars less than 500m from the Inns of Court, such an event was certain to draw a crowd.

The contest proceeded through various writing challenges, involving a variety of hands such as “a full, a mean, a small, with line and without line; in a slow set hand, a mean facile hand, and a fast running hand”.[1] Contestants had “to write truest and speediest, most secretary and clerk-like, from a man’s mouth, reading, or pronouncing, either English or Latin”. Johnson, still in his twenties, was presumed to have the steadier hand. But the jury of five awarded the prize to Bales, who went on to re-christen his shop ‘The Hand and the Golden Pen’. Johnson was not a gracious loser, and proceeded to set up libels that accused Bales of wrongfully laying claim to the golden pen, and complained that he had not expected to perform before a multitude like a stage-play. This led Bales to issue his own defence called The Original Cause, the manuscript of which survives in the British Library collection (Harleian Manuscript 675).[2]

Catalogue of Harleian Manuscripts

This is the entry for the manuscript from the Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, Vol. I, available on Google Books

We have no evidence that there was anything as formal as an admission fee for the contest, which makes this record all the more remarkable. On top of the many paid entertainments of early modern London, from fencing displays to bear-baiting to tumblers and clowns we must add unpaid events such as calligraphy.[3] What does it say about our conception of early modern entertainment that a writing competition could draw a crowd in 1595? While this may not strike us as inherently entertaining, it was a demonstration of skill as important if not more so than fencing (or morris-dancing to Norwich for that matter). Such an event reminds us of the fundamental nature of the written word in early modern life. It also re-balances the scales somewhat between print and manuscript – where we tend to rely on texts that reached print (and are still extant), the more routine paperwork of early modern London would have been predominantly encountered in a hand-written medium.

Bales later turns up in George Buc’s The Third University, where in a chapter on the arts of calligraphy Buc describes Bales being awarded the ‘Armes of Calligraphie’, consisting of ‘Azure, a Pen, Or [Gold]’.[4] It is unclear if this is a separate contest to the one between Bales and Johnson, raising the possibility of a whole new genre of early modern entertainment. Where Shakespeare gained the ‘shaking spear’ for his family coat of arms in 1596, Bales’ coat of arms actually contained the pen for which he earned renown.

Buc Third University

From George Buc’s The Third University; image from STC 23338, EEBO

Bales’ facility with a pen could also be turned to the purposes of espionage, and in the 1580s he was ordered by Walsingham to copy and alter the letters of Mary Queen of Scots during her imprisonment. The interception of the Queen’s correspondence was then used to confirm her guilt in the Babington plot of 1586. It would appear Bales freelanced too, since he shows up again at the trial of the Earl of Essex in 1601, having copied several of the Earl’s personal correspondence under the instruction of John Daniell. Daniell had stolen the letters while working as Essex’s servant, and during the trial it emerged that Bales had been ‘forced to forge and counterfett my [Essex’s] hand in at least twelue serverall l[ette]res’.[5] Clearly Bales’ skills as a writer and imitator of hands were in high demand in political circles.

For someone actively involved in espionage, Bales conspicuously failed to keep a low profile throughout his career. In 1575, he presented Queen Elizabeth herself with a ring of gold and crystal, containing ‘within the compasse of a penie in Latine, the Lord’s praier, the creed, the ten commandements’, and some more prayers besides. This was notable enough to gain Bales an entry in Holinshed’s Chronicles, where it is noted that the Queen ‘did weare the same manie times vpon hir finger’.[6] Another of his ‘Micrographical’ performances involved the writing of a Bible small enough to fit inside a walnut shell. These ‘performances’ share something in common with the contest at the Blackfriars, and again help us to recalibrate what passed for entertainment in early modern England.


Extract from Holinshed’s Chronicles detailing Bales’ gift to Elizabeth I

Bales’ subsequent fame was such that he has his own insulting epigram in the Scourge of Follyby John Davies of Hereford.[7] Davies writes: ‘and how the same [golden pen] he won,/ From Writers fair, though he writ ever foul’.[8] This may have something to do with the fact that Davies was himself a writing-master, perhaps trained by Bales’ opponent Daniel Johnson.[9] Bales’ system of note-taking or ‘brachygraphie’ was an early form of shorthand, designed to allow someone ‘to write as fast as a man speaketh treatably, writing but one letter for a word’. His system was employed by Richard Topcliffe in his work rooting out Catholics. Bales takes up a full ten pages of the 1747 Biographia Britannica, or the Lives of the Most Eminent Persons who have Flourished in Great Britain and Ireland.[10]

Scourge of Folly

Davies, The Scourge of Folly (1611). Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In the land of hand-written documents, writing expertise may not crown you, but it can make you indispensable to those in power. It can even lead to a queen wearing your ring on her finger (while at the same time being recruited for Her Majesty’s secret service). From our modern perspective of word-processors and spell-check, we take the transcription of text for granted – instrumental rather than an end in itself. Not so for early modern England, where the art of writing was highly valued in and of itself, perhaps even more highly prized by some than literature (we don’t see Shakespeare, Middleton, Jonson or Fletcher advertising their golden pens). While Bales’ victory at the Blackfriars is virtually unknown today, he was clearly something of a celebrity at the time. The survival of his account reminds us to be cautious about privileging print over manuscript, or drama over other forms of entertainment – our sense of cultural importance may not have been shared by inhabitants of early modern London. If you were to ask an Elizabethan (or Elizabeth herself) who was the best writer of the period, you know what their answer would be.


Derek Dunne is the author of Shakespeare, Revenge Tragedy & Early Modern Law: Vindictive Justice (Palgrave, 2016). He is currently working on a new research project focusing on early modern bureaucracy, forgery, and literary production. You can follow him on Twitter via and .


[1] Writing masters of the time would have to be expert in a variety of different writing styles or ‘hands’.

[2] Quotations taken from Isaac D’Israeli’s description of the encounter in A Second Series of Curiosities of Literature (Vol. II, pp. 229-35 (1824) available on Google Books). D’Israeli consulted the manuscript personally, which I have not yet had the opportunity to do.

[3] Compare, for example, this bizarre example posted on Twitter by Callan Davies, involving dancing, fireworks, free bread and a shower of pears.

[4] George Buc, The Third University (Cap. 39, 1615 STC 23338). This is the same George Buc that acted as King James VI and I’s Master of the Revels, 1610-1622.

[5] The National Archives, State Papers 12/278/101 fol. 171r, ‘The Arraignment of Robt Erle of Essex and Henry Erle of Southampton at Westminstr the xixth of February 1600’, cited in Andrew Gordon, ‘Material Fictions: Counterfeit Correspondence and the Culture of Copying in Early Modern England’, in Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain ed. Daybell and Gordon (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), pp. 85-109 (pp. 102-3).

[6] Vol. III, p. 1262 (1586), STC 13569.

[7] Not to be confused with Sir John Davies, poet and lawyer, who got himself in trouble in 1598 for hitting Richard Martin over the head with a bastinado in the Middle Temple great hall.

[8] (1611), STC 6341. Elsewhere in the collection, Shakespeare is more kindly treated by Davies in epigram 159, dedicated ‘To our English Terence Mr. Will: Shake-speare’.

[9] ODNB:

[10] This is available on Google Books.

7 thoughts on “The Man with the Golden Pen

  1. I read your essay on Peter Bales (who ever he was) with interest. Forgive me that I am not a professional Shakespeare scholar but only a retired professor for medical brain research. The fun of my profession, throughout my life, was science and research i.e. trying resolving questions or doubts

    Allow me to ask some questions. If we learn that Peter Bales was simply „the best writer“, shouldn’t you define by any means your understanding of a „best“ writer? I suppose you mean „speediest“…Is the speediest Chopin piano player really the best Chopin player?
    I read about Bales chapt.1 the „Arte of brachygraphie“ that is, to write as fast as a man speaketh treatably, writing but one letter for a word. … for the speedie writing of true English.

    Can you really prove that Bales was „a celebrity of his time“? The same you can falsely read all over also for Shakspere…

    Why don’t you judge Peter Bales intellectual and artistic personality heaving read his „Oratio Dominica(1643) or his „Infirmity inducing to Confirmity“(1650!) Bales wrote „The writing schoolmaster in 1590“ . At that time he seems to have already been an experienced skilled scholar, lets guess of at least 25 years of age. That means he must have been born around 1565 , the years of Shakspere and Marlowes birth. Consequently his „Infirmity inducing to Confirmity“(1650!) must have been written at the age of 85! Do you agree with that?

    Is there any reason you do not mention Timothy Bright’s „Characterie“ (1588).- As you well know there are other words for „brachygraphy“ such as „tachygraphy“ or „stenography“. Bright (who ever he was) characterises him self as the inventor of brachygraphy.-

    You write „if contemporary accounts are to be believed“ the prize goes to P.Bales..-If I think of William from Stratford, is there any contempory account you can or should believe in?

    Was Peter Bales really „the most important Elizabethan writer“?

    Having read Bales printed works, he seems to have been a highly educated university man (Master of Arts) – Did his fame was really earned with quill and ink? was he than a scribe, a scribbler, a would-be-poet? Compatible with a master of arts?

    Is Your question (why the victor of a writing competition is not better known) perhaps a wrong question ?

    Is there any reason you do not mention or discuss John Willis (who ever he was) and his book :“The Arte of Stenographie (1602) and Thomas Sheltons significant early and late career with „Short-Writing“ (1630) or „Zeiglogaphia“ 1650 (A new Art of short writing) written as late as Peter Bales „Infirmity“.

    And so on and so on …

    Seriously, Are you satisfied with your article?


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  3. Thanks for this fascinating article. I’m writing a book on the early modern Blackfriars neighborhood so was especially interested in the public contest taking place in the Conduit Yard there. Can you tell me where I can find this reference? I had a look at some of the texts you cite but couldn’t find that particular topographical detail. Say hi to my friend Emma Depledge!


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