Sunday 3 January 2016

689. England's Approximately Five Hundred Year Old Mail Service.

Sir Brian Tuke, Master of The King's Posts, painted by Hans Holbein.

  Royal Mail will issue a set of 6 stamps and a miniature sheet containing 4 different stamps on 17 February 2016 to commemorate the Quincentenary of postal services in England which are judged to have begun in 1516.
  According to Wikipedia, The King's Book Of Payments of 1512 records that a payment of £100 was made to Brian Tuke as master of the posts. In February 1517 he was officially appointed to the title of Governor of the King's Posts in 1517 having been made a Knight of the King's Body the previous year. In 1522 he was promoted to be French Secretary To the King and on 17 April 1523 Tuke was appointed to be the Clerk of Parliament. In 1528 he was made one of the 4 Commissioners to treat with France and later was made Treasurer of the Royal Household. In 1533 Tuke became High Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire. He died on 26 October 1545.

  The information about Brian Tuke's life published in Wikipedia leaves me perplexed as to why 2016 has been chosen as the Quincentenary Year of Royal Mail given that the Master of The King's Post existed before then and that Tuke's official appointment as Governor occurred in 1517. I turned to my copy of Duncan Campbell-Smith's admirable book, "Masters of The Post The Authorised History of The Royal Mail" (Allen Lane 2011) to see if it would enlighten me.
  The opening chapter gives a marvellously interesting account of how late Medieval English people dealt with sending post to other towns and cities and the beginning of the royal postal service. Quite aptly, given that one of the very best sources, if not the best, of information about modern British stamps is Ian Billings of Norvic Philatelics, based in Norwich, Campbell-Smith points out that our best source of knowledge of late Medieval English mail is derived from the survival of the numerous correspondence of the Paston family of Norfolk. This family regularly corresponded with each other from Norfolk to London and back from c.1420 to 1500 and used one of 2 mail systems - either using acquaintances or family retainers to take mail with them when travelling to places to which post was being sent or by using private mail carriers, "common carriers", who plied their trade from the mid-fifteenth century.
  Apt also to notable anniversaries being commemorated philatelically during 2016, Campbell-Smith also speculates about another important correspondence taking place at the end of the 16th century - that between William Shakespeare living in London and his family and servants in Stratford-upon-Avon in deepest Warwickshire (see below). Campbell-Smith speculates that much mail must have been carried on Shakespeare's behalf by a Stratford-based common carrier and mercer called William Greenway (who lived in Henley Street where Shakespeare's birthplace and the present post office are located) whose mail "service" dated from 1581. It is also known that Greenway took mail to London from Stratford in 1598 to be delivered to one Richard Quiney, a Stratford man, who is the  author of the only known existing letter addressed to William Shakespeare (its existence is due to Quiney never having sent it). 
  Greenway's son, Richard, and Edward Bromley were also common carriers in Stratford who may have carried Shakespeare's mail (from Shakespeare's Letters by Alan Stewart, Oxford University Press, 2008).
  Carriers left letters for collection at a network of taverns and in 1637 The Carriers Cosmography listed dozens of London inns to which carriers delivered mail from all over England. Campbell-Smith points out that the very year of publication of the Cosmography was the year that a separate mail system, the King's Posts did indeed take centre stage.
  Campbell-Smith states that "The King's Posts were .... probably first used effectively during the Wars of the Roses" (50 years before the currently commemorated Quincentenary) and that "Letters between the royal Court and those on the king's business were nothing new: we know of several, for example, carried from France during the Hundred Years War" (100 - 150 years before the presently celebrated Quincentenary). 
  Campbell-Smith mentions royal posts during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, who set up "post stations" roughly a dozen miles apart where "post-riders" carrying the king's despatches could be provided with a fresh horse for the next stage of the journey en route to the place where the king's messages were required to be delivered.
  Campbell-Smith recounts that it was Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII's Chancellor, who appointed Brian Tuke in 1512 to take proper responsibility for the running of regular King's Posts during periods when reliable communications were needed because of a short ongoing war with France. Campbell-Smith writes that "It is easier to sketch this development of the service in conceptual terms than to chronicle it with precise dates". 
  Initially, it was required that all towns in the kingdom should be prepared, at their own expense, to make a fresh horse available to any post-rider travelling on the king's commission and Campbell-Smith points out that that actually involved supplying 2 horses since one would be needed to accompany the post-rider as a local guide and then to return to the town with the tired horses when the rider had arrived at the next stage of his journey. Tuke appointed men who would run a stable for the designated horses in return for a basic state wage. These men were called postmasters and then deputy postmasters and the process of establishing a series of post towns along a given route became known as "laying a post". The deputy postmasters were given exceptional powers to ensure that there were no delays to the King's Post. 
  The items carried by the King's Posts were called "packets" to be passed along from one post to the next without the need for them to be carried by the King's post-riders in person. Important state papers continued to be carried by royal messengers as "through posts" but all other packets were carried as "ordinary posts" by "post-boys".
  In his account of Tuke's introduction of this service, I can find nothing that Campbell-Smith particularly identifies about innovations of 1516 which pick the year out as the beginning of the royal mail. 
  Reading Royal Mail's own publicity about this commemoration, it seems to identify Brian Tuke's knighting in 1516 as the event which is being celebrated 500 years later. This seems remarkably arbitrary and surely can not be as significant as his appointment in 1512 by Wolsey to take charge of the King's Mail or his official recognition in 1517 as Governor of the King's Posts. Referring to Tuke's knighting Royal Mail says, "This act was the catalyst for the creation, over time, of the Royal Mail we know today. The newly-knighted Tuke had the influence and authority to start to establish key post-towns across the country and build out a formal postal network". Yes, but surely it does not represent the birth of the postal service.
  This looks to me like another marketing gimmick similar to the silly idea that 2015 represented the 50th anniversary of the start of Great Britain's commemorative stamp programme which it plainly did not. It seems that someone suddenly realised that Royal Mail had overlooked the events of 1512 and was keen to take publicity and merchandising advantage of the anniversary one way or another (well, you can't blame them can you?) but it does seem like a very contrived anniversary. 

  Six new "Post and Go" stamps will be released on 17 February 2015 which are also on the subject of the Quincentenary of Royal Mail. They depict modes of transporting the post through the ages and make an interesting and attractive issue. I presume that they will be available in 3 formats - from IAR kiosks sited at the Spring Stampex 2016 philatelic exhibition in London and at the 4 delivery offices in various parts of the country, from NCR kiosks sited at various post offices around Britain and from presentation packs sold by the Philatelic Bureau - that's actually 18 new stamps.

  A further issue follows on 28 February 2016 which takes the form of a booklet of 6 stamps which commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Penny Red along with another Prestige booklet.

  Back to Shakespeare. One of the designs of the proposed set of stamps to be issued on 5 April 2016 which will commemorate the quatercentenary of the death of William Shakespeare has been revealed by Royal Mail. I am disheartened by the design which is about as dull and uninteresting as any British stamp design which has gone before. If the published example is anything to go by, the design is nothing more than a piece of calligraphy which quotes a line from Shakespeare's work. There appears to be no pictorial element to the design at all.  
  What a missed opportunity to produce an exciting set of designs featuring some of Shakespeare's immortal characters illustrated by original art or perhaps by photographs depicting great Shakespearean actors in some of those roles (yes I know both of those approaches have been used before but they were highly successful and memorable especially when compared with the upcoming stamps which look like they deserve 2 out of 10 for effort). Perhaps Royal Mail could have used the artist who designed the Star Wars stamps to provide a similar issue but substituting Star Wars characters with Shakespeare's dramatis personae.

  A stamp from the third issue to commemorate the centenary of the First World War to be issued on 21 June 2016 has also been unveiled. This shows an interesting piece of art, "Battlefield Poppy" by the photographer, Giles Revell. My only complaint here is that it is yet another "Poppy" stamp, of which there seems to have been a great number in recent years, and it would be pleasing if we could now have some original subjects featured on the stamps in this continuing series. 

  Finally, Royal Mil will issue one of those irritating "Commemorative sheets" (total face value of stamps £6.30p but sold for £14.95) on 12 January 2016 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Duke Of Edinburgh's Award scheme. It would have been nice to have a couple of stamps actually commemorating this remarkable man's 95th birthday but perhaps Buckingham Palace did not wish Royal Mail to put out such an issue feeling that the set to commemorate The Queen's 90th birthday was quite enough.

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