Limning as Gift-Giving: Embellishing Letters to “Eastern Princes” and “Remote Kings” – Anne-Valérie Dulac

An illuminated letter, written by the calligrapher Edward Norgate and dated 9 July 1621, from James I to the Ottoman sultan Osman II, announcing the appointment of Sir Thomas Roe as ambassador to the Porte and the recall of his predecessor Sir John Eyre. Source :

A Royal Warrant dated 10 March 1631 mentions Edward Norgate, one of the clerks of the Signet Extraordinary as having “for many years been employed in preparing for the Royal signature letters to the Emperor and Patriarch of Russia, the Grand Signor, the Great Mogul, the Emperor of Persia, and Kings of Bantam, Macassar, Barbary, Siam, Acheen, Fez, Sus, and other remote kings and princes”.[1] This rather long description makes it clear that diplomatic correspondence with “remote kings and princes” was a matter of specific artistic concern and care. From 1661 onwards, the garnishing of “letters to eastern princes” even became an official appointment.[2] Such discriminate treatment may be due to the fact that “England’s relations with Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Asia were established primarily to further the interests of its merchants. The exchange of royal letters was crucial to the maintenance of such relations; little wonder that establishments such as […] the East India Company, were asked to contribute to the cost of embellishing these missives”.[3]

In 1593, already, we know from the Khasseki Safiye that Elizabeth I had sent her a “special letter, full of marvels, whose paper was more fragrant than pure camphor and ambergris and its ink than finest musk, notifying indescribable and immeasurable consideration and love […].”[4] The Sultana’s lavish description of Elizabeth’s letter immediately and tellingly follows her account of the gifts she received. The fragrant and colourful missive served as a complement and addition of sorts to the gift-giving ceremony.[5] The multi-sensory impression made by the letter mattered as greatly as the words it bore, whose own impact depended upon the mediation of an interpreter.[6] Later beautifully illuminated letters, such as the ones sent by James I to Sultan Ahmed I on 17 January 1617[7], to Sultan Osman II on 9 July 1621[8] or to Emperor Abbas of Persia on 14 February 1622,[9] testify to the ongoing artistic value of diplomatic correspondence with the East. Although the one Elizabethan example I have given above is rather exceptional, thereby confirming the fact that “some letters were more like gifts than others”, such later “exquisitely limned letters were often works of art in their own right”.[10]

Rather significantly enough, the limners who ornamented the English monarch’s letters were sometimes also versed in the art of portrait miniatures, which circulated widely in diplomatic negotiations and are known to have played a significant part in Elizabeth’s own relation with Safiye and Thomas Roe’s negotiations with Jahangir, among others.[11] The flourished vellums[12] of diplomatic correspondence showcased techniques and materials near-identical to those used by limners of precious “pictures in small”, (including the use of liquid gold, precious pigments, watercolour and bodycolour). Edward Norgate’s Miniatura or the Art of Limning, even features a vast array of recipes which could have been used by limners of both letters and portraits in small volume.[13] Portrait miniaturists were then in fact still known as “limners” (the word “miniature” having entered the English language in this sense rather late in the 17th century): not only did they share a name, techniques and materials with embellishers of “patents and commissions of embassadours”,[14] but also equally contributed to asserting the agency of limners in extra-European diplomatic negotiations.[15]

[1] “East Indies: March 1631.” Calendar of State Papers Colonial, East Indies and Persia, Volume 8, 1630-1634. Ed. W Noel Sainsbury. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1892. 125-141. British History Online. Web. 18 May 2022.

[2] “The writer, flourisher and embellisher of letters to eastern princes was appointed by lord chamberlain’s warrant to the gentlemen ushers, daily waiters. He received a fee of £10 a document until Anne’s reign, when a salary was established of £60 per annum at the treasurer of the chamber’s office.””Salaired tradesmen: Other.” Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 11 (Revised), Court Officers, 1660-1837. Ed. R O Bucholz. London: University of London, 2006. 384-390. British History Online. Web. 18 May 2022.

[3] Carlo M. Bajetta (ed.), Elizabeth I’s Italian Letters, 1533-1603. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, p. 252.

[4] Lines 15-19 of a letter in Turkish from the Khasseki Safiye to Queen Elizabeth, written in the first decade of Rabi I, 1002/25 November-4 December 1593, translated into English by S. A. Skilliter, “Three Letters from Şāfiye to Elizabeth I”, in S. M. Stern (ed.), Documents form Islamic Chanceries. Oxford, Bruno Cassirer, 1965, p. 119-158, p. 132. The letter is now property of the British Library, London, Cotton MS Nero B. viii, f. 41.

[5] “In relations with non-European powers, royal letters were most commonly delivered at an audience in which a gift was also presented. This gift had often been paraded through the city in which the court was based before being processed through the royal compound to (and even past) the ruler. In such contexts the gift was calculated to convey the wealth of the English monarch and as a sign of the prestige with which they viewed the ruler to whom it was sent. A relatively bare letter, even one with silk threads, would have seemed incongruous when juxtaposed with such gifts”.

[6] Tellingly enough, most accounts tend to confirm that the original letter was presented before its translation. This is the case in Thomas Roe’s description of his presentation of James’s letter to Jahangir, for instance: “After many Complements, I vsed some words to him, deliuering his Majesties letter and showing my Commission, the Coppy wherof (I meane the letter) I then also deliuered in Persian […]” (Letter to the East India Company dated 25 January 1615), in Frederick Charles Danvers (ed.), Letters Received by the East India Company from its Servants in the East. London, S. Low, Marston & co., 1896, p. 10.

[7] Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Eng. hist. b. 172, fol. 57.

[8] The letter can be seen here:

[9] London, British Library, India Office Records and Private Papers. IOR/A/1/7B.

[10] Tracey A. Sowerby, “Negotiating with the Material Text”, in Tracey A. Sowerby and Joanna Craigwood (eds.), Cultures of Diplomacy and Literary Writing in the Early Modern World. Oxford, Oxford University press, 2019, p. 203-219, p. 218.

[11] About portraiture ‘(including portrait miniatures) and diplomacy, see Tracey A. Sowerby, “‘A Memorial and a Pledge of Faith’: Portraiture and Early Modern Diplomatic Culture.” The English Historical Review, vol. 129, no. 537, 2014, p. 296–331. JSTOR, Accessed 19 May 2022. About Elizabeth’s gift of a portrait miniature to the sultana, see Richard Wrag’s account, “A Description of a Voiage to Constantinople and Syria, begun the 21. of March 1593. and ended the 9. of August, 1595,” in Richard Hakluyt’s  Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, 12 vols. (Glasgow: James MacLehouse and Sons, 1904), 6:94-118, 94. About Jahangir and Roe, see Anne-Valérie Dulac, “Miniatures between East and West: The Art(s) of Diplomacy in Thomas Roe’s Embassy”, Études Épistémè [Online], 26 | 2014, DOI: William Segar and Edward Norgate are perhaps the most prominent examples of limners who excelled in both the limning of letters and portrait miniatures.

[12] The use of vellum rather than paper was yet another distinguishing feature of letters to “remote kings”. It was also best suited to travelling and changing weather conditions.

[13] The history of this treatise (which survives in two version, one in manuscript form and a later one which was intended for printing) can be read in Jeffrey Muller and Jim Murrell’s introduction to their edition of Norgate’s Miniatura or the Art of Limning (c. 1627–8, then 1648), ed. by Jeffrey Muller and Jim Murrell (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). About Norgate’s contribution to “limning” and the dissemination of terminology and techniques, see Anne-Valérie Dulac, “Miniatures in Translation: Words for a Gentle Art”, in Laetitia Sansonetti and Rémi Vuillemin (eds.), Language Commonality and Literary Communities in Early Modern England. Translation, Transmission, Transfer. Turnhout (Belgium), Brepols, forthcoming, p. 273-292.

[14] I am here quoting from John Fuller’s concise biography of Edward Norgate in The History of the Worthies of England: “[Norgate] became the best Illuminer or Limner of our age, employed generally to make the Initial letters in the Patents of Peers, and Commissions of Embassadours, having left few heirs to the kind, none to the degree of his art therein.” (London: Printed by J.G.W.L. and W.G. for Thomas Williams1662, p. 161)

[15] See Maija Jansson, Art and Diplomacy: Seventeenth-Century English Decorated Royal Letters to Russia and the Far East. Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History, Leiden, Brill, 2015. About limners/miniaturists see chapter 4 “Limners, Printers and Embellishers”, p. 55-67.