Elizabethan government


Papers, please! A short history of identification, part 1

My Moriarty mysteries tend to revolve around fraud, of which there was an abundance in the Victorian period. It was so much easier to get away with things back then — not that we’ve abolished fraud in our century. I wanted a character to present a forged check at a bank and wondered how he would go about it. What sort of identification would he have to concoct to succeed?

Turns out the answer was, “None.” Or, more accurately, “The time-honored method of having a person trusted by the receiver vouch for the presenter’s identity personally.” Even as late as 1886, that’s all we had. Amazing!

A book about everything

The first Japanese passport, 1866

I keep saying it and I keep being proved right: there’s a book about everything. In this case, it’s Edward Higgs’ Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification, 1500 to the Present (2011, New York: Continuum.) The book answered my question, but I don’t really recommend it. The major theme is that identification is imposed by the state for authoritarian purposes which could lead you right into a gas chamber if you’re not careful, which you won’t be, because Commerce has seduced you into a condition of blissful ignorant compliance. The tip-off, as usual, is an abundance of references to Michel Foucault in the introduction. 

We’re going to ignore the trendy polemics and look at how people identified themselves to — yes, of course, usually some state or financial institution. Who else would really care? Oh, doctor’s offices, one would hope; match.commies and their ilk; teachers, dry cleaners…. I’m kind of pro-identification, in the grand scheme of things. Give up a little, I guess, to gain a lot. Let’s not even talk about the benefit of having anything your heart desires delivered to your doorstep in two days!

Social proof

Simon Cole is quoted on p4: “In general, pre-modern societies already had an effective method of Three-Men-before-a-Judgepersonal, and criminal, identification: the network of personal acquaintance through which persons were ‘known’ in the memories and perceptions of their neighbors.” (Only a modern social scientist would put scare quotes around the word ‘known’ in this context. Yes, yes. We ‘know’ no one can ‘know’ anyone.)

And that was it. If you had to prove your identity, you brought some people (men) who knew you to say, “Yes, that’s him!” This is still happening in the Elizabethan period. A minor in the care of the Court of Wards who wanted to prove he had reached his majority had to collect testimony from people who remembered when he was born and have the said testimonials judged by a jury. His birth might have been registered in the parish church by mid-16th century, but more likely not.

Perkin Warbeck

I can imagine getting into this situation today, actually. I write as Anna Castle, but she’s not a legal entity. I don’t have any ID for her. What if something came up where I wanted to be recognized as Anna Castle over someone’s objections? (OK, that’s hard to imagine, because who would care?) I couldn’t whip out a driver’s license, a passport, or my university ID. The picture in my paperbacks isn’t that perfect and what if I’d changed my hair? I’d have to summon six friends brave and true to say, “Yep, Heidi and Anna are one and the same person.”

Without such personal testimony, people mis-represented themselves all the time. Easy-bleepin’-peasy. Perkin Warbeck fooled many people in the late 15th century into thinking he was Richard, Duke of York, and thus heir to the English throne.

There’s a long list of imposters on Wikipedia, surprisingly many from the 20th century — a time after which things like fingerprints and passports were available. 

Who are you?

Fernando Niño de Guevara, Grand Inquisitor of Spain (1600–1602)

What if you really wanted to be sure you had the right person? Let’s say you’re a member of the Spanish Inquisition and you don’t want to waste your time racking the wrong religious rebel. Valentin Groebner’s Who Are You? focuses on the problem of identification in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Quoting Higgs (p.8): “… we learn about the officers of the Inquisition pursuing heretics with the latter’s portraits painted on small linen cloths; of soldiers, city officials and beggars wearing badges of idenfication; of travellers with official letters of safe conduct; of pilgrims issued with health certificates; and of the attempts of Phillip II of Spain to use documents to restrict the passage of heretics, moriscos and Jews to the New World.”

Documents and badges could be easily stolen. And if you were any good as a spy, you could probably replace that linen portrait with a linen portrait of someone else. My people would substitute a portrait of the inquisitor himself — and now I have to go write that down because it sounds like a really great plot for a short story.


If you could get your hands on the person’s naked body, you could search for distinguishing marks like moles in the shape of badgers or whatever, tattoos, birth marks. Criminals would be branded or have an ear or a hand cut off. That’s hard to fake and fairly unambiguous. “No, officer, I lost that ear when my head was caught in a mechanical rice picker.”

How to identify yourself

Here’s a list of ways to identify yourself, provided by Higgs (p. 37):

  1. appearance – or how the person looks;
  2. social behaviour – or how the person interacts with others;
    Maori Chief 1784
  3. names – or what the person is called by other people;
  4. codes – or what the person is called by an organization;
  5. knowledge – or what the person knows;
  6. tokens – or what the person has;
  7. bio-dynamics – or what the person does;
  8. natural physiography – or what the person is; and
  9. imposed physical characteristics – or what the person is now.

So, if they walk you into your supposed office and someone rushes up and says, “There you are! We can’t start the meeting without our director of chicanery!”, your claim is substantially supported. Also, if you speak French, or are unable to speak French. Easier to fake the lack than the possession of knowledge.

I’m not sure where handwriting fits into this list. Is it bio-dynamics? But a very important form of identification before the twentieth century was a letter of recommendation — handwritten, perforce, by someone whose hand is known to the receiver. If you’ve ever taught or worked in a restaurant, you know how quickly you learn to recognize many different hands. 

Here’s a sample of Francis Bacon’s handwriting, which would have been familiar to many people in high places in England during his long life.

From “Certen notes of rememberance owt of the examinacions of H. Walpoole, Jhon Boast & others.”


Next time, we’ll look at more forms of non-documentary proofs of identity, edging our way up to the transformations at the turn of the 20th century.


Higgs, Edward. 2011. Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification, 1500 to the Present. New York: Continuum.

The more things change...

.. the more they stay the same. Perhaps it’s a special curse afflicting historians and writers of historical fiction, but I keep seeing resonances between the late Elizabethan period and our current political climate. Not straight lines, not full reproductions, but echoes and shimmery reflections.

Who knew what and when did they know it

Devin Nunes

A perennial political question. Sometimes I find it hard to remember why it matters. But here I am, on a morning in late February, reading the Washington Post in accordance with my daily habit, including this article about a memo about another memo. It’s all about the Trump-Russia collusion issue, which is tedious to watch play out in real time, but has potentially very important consequences.

Here’s the article, hope you can still read it. It’s “What we learned from the Democratic response to the Nunes memo — and what we didn’t,” by Philip Bump, February 25, 2018. I’ll give you the second paragraph for the gist:

“Understanding the memo released by the Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee requires the context of Nunes’s original memo, released to great fanfare earlier this month in an effort to paint the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference as politically biased. Nunes presented a scenario in which a Trump campaign staffer, Carter Page, faced federal surveillance on the basis of information collected by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was working indirectly for the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign through a research firm called Fusion GPS.”

This whole issue hinges on who knew what at what time. Not exactly the same as my Elizabethan example, but in the same realm.

Who said what to whom and when

As Queen Elizabeth approached her sixth decade, her courtiers began speculating about her Elizabeth-I-Allegorical-Posuccessor. Not openly — that would be treason — but since she refused to name a successor for fear it would result in her immediate assassination, speculation was all they had. The smart money was on King James VI of Scotland, so the most astute courtiers began cultivating his good will early on.

These astute courtiers included, obviously, Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, himself a very old man, but with a son’s future to secure (Robert Cecil.) Also eager to advance apace was the dashing Earl of Essex, the Queen’s favorite and a most impatient man. The earl was aided by his astute and articulate older sister, Penelope Rich, whose sole biography I was reading last night: Maud Stepney Rawson’s Penelope Rich and Her Circle (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1911.)

That biography quoted at length a letter (pp 234-235) to Lord Burghley from Thomas Fowler, one of his many informants, writing from Edinburgh in 1589. Fowler lightly conceals his subjects with nicknames — standard practice in those days. The language has been modernized by Ms. Rawson.

King James in 1606

“Your Lordship may be pleased to know that I learn that Mr. Richard Douglas, coming last from London, brought down one Ottoman (Robert Dale.) The said Mr. Richard… himself delivered a letter from the Earl of Essex to His Majesty, with credit: both these (gentlemen) were in commission from the Earl to deal largely with His Majesty, to assure him of the Earl’s service and fidelity, and Ottoman to carry back the answer, what was not meet to be committed in writing. … the said Mr. Richard hath a long scroll as an alphabet of cipher to understand them [the letters] by. I can tell few of their names, but the Queen’s Majesty is Venus, and the Earl the Weary Knight, as I remember, but always that he is exceedingly weary, accounting it a thrall that he lives now in, and wishes the change. [borderline treason!] She [Penelope] is very pleasant in her letters, and writes the most part thereof in her brother’s behalf, so as they should be showed to Victor (King James) which they were; and the dark parts expounded to him…. The said Ottoman had many secret conferences with the King, which pleased him exceedingly; and Mr. Douglas won credit where before he had none…”

The smoke from this gun is hugely more obvious than the fog surrounding Donald Trump’s financial relationships in Russia and Central Asia, but the “who sat next to whom and spoke for how long about what” style of evidence seems strikingly similar to me, but then the Elizabethans didn’t have an internet and they weren’t very sneaky about code names either.

What boots it, when all is said and done?

In the event of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, it mattered a lot who had said what to which friend of King James and when that What had been said to that Who. It turns out that Robert Cecil had gotten in earliest and made all the right pitches. He had the advantage of his father’s extensive network of eavesdroppers eager to do themselves a favor by writing poste haste. The over-hasty Earl of Essex had already gotten his head cut off for over-reaching by the time James came south. Penelope Rich’s husband divorced her, but she didn’t like him anyway. 

And it will matter a lot if it turns out that Trump really does or did owe a bunch of Russians a bunch of money at any time leading up to the 2016 presidential elections. It will matter a lot if any of his crew solicited the help of Russian troll-masters in manipulating American votes. Who sat next to whom at which event? Could matter.

I remind myself of the letters flying back and forth from England to Scotland throughout the last decade of the sixteenth century now whenever I open up another article about the latest step in this appropriately long and detailed Russian collusion investigation.

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