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Making sense of old handwriting

Latin Influence

Until 1733 Latin was an official legal language in England, Wales, and territory controlled by England. In Scotland, the use of Latin also decreased over time, virtually disappearing in the 18th century. In all the countries, however, Latin terms might continue to appear in legal or church documents well into the 19th century. For instance, even if a document is written in English, legal phrases, numbers, and dates might be written in Latin.

For the 16th and 17th centuries, you are most likely to encounter Latin in probate records (wills, testaments, disputes, inventories), court records (criminal, civil, and ecclesiastical), and property records (deeds, manor documents). Several of the documents included in this tutorial contain words or passages in Latin.

Church records often contain a mix of English (or Scots) and Latin. These usually prove the least challenging in that they use just a handful of Latin terms and use them repeatedly. For example, knowing the Latin words for baptism, daughter, son, wife, marriage, and burial will facilitate reading early church records. Being familiar with these Latin words will also help you decipher difficult or idiosyncratic letterforms.

For a comprehensive Latin word list (including numbers and dates), see's Research Wiki:

For additional help with Latin practice, see the UK’s National Archives website:

For additional help with Latin Paleography, see the UK’s National Archives tutorial:


Paleography Introduction