Literary scholars have had little reason to think of Signet clerks or the French secretaries who crafted missives for Lancastrian kings and their consorts. A notable exception is George Ashby (d. 1475), the author of three substantial poems, including the Active Policy of a Prince and A Prisoner's Reflections. I have recently identified Ashby's hand, attributing to him eleven documents as well as CUL, MS Mm.4.42, the holograph text of Active Policy of a Prince. This essay will introduce and identify the handwriting of a number of Lancastrian Signet clerks and French secretaries of Henry V and Henry VI. As such, this will be the first discussion not only of their hands, but also of the scripts used by these two closely coordinated offices. Together with its companion piece, ‘The Handwriting of Fifteenth-Century Privy Seal and Council Clerks’, this essay will help to delineate the use of the secretary family of scripts in the four main writing offices that relied on it in England's central government: the privy seal secretary, which was also in use in the Council during the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V; the lettre-courante-based secretary script of the Signet; and the French lettre courante deployed by the king's French secretaries.
In the course of the fourteenth century, the Privy Seal, which used to serve the monarch's personal communication, became increasingly involved in general government and inter-office communication. The Privy Seal developed into a clearing-house for government business with a wide remit, from conducting foreign correspondence to issuing warrants for the Great Seal. With the Privy Seal ceasing to function solely or predominantly as the king's private seal, a third seal began to assume such functions. This seal was initially called the ‘secret’ seal, but towards the end of Edward III's reign the keeper of this seal was called the king's secretary, and the seal itself became known as the Signet. Unlike the other writing offices, such as Chancery, Exchequer, or Privy Seal, which were based in Westminster, the Signet was headquartered in Windsor Castle, although its clerks were mobile, constantly accompanying the king and his secretary.