Esther Inglis was born around 1569/70 in Dieppe to French Huguenot parents fleeing religious persecution. The exact year is uncertain due to conflicting records. The Returns of Aliens Dwelling in the Cities and Suburbs of London lists the Langlois family in 1571 as having “[come] into this realm about two years past,” which suggests 1569. However, in a manuscript made in 1624 near the end of her life, Inglis refers to herself as 53 years old, suggesting she was born in 1570 (BL Royal MS 17.D.XVI). The Dieppe origin is clear, as she refers to herself several times as “fille Françoise” or as “fille Françoise, de Dieppe.”
Esther Inglis was raised in Edinburgh where she learned the art of calligraphy from her mother, Marie Presot. Her father, Nicolas Langlois, was Master of the French School in Edinburgh, under the patronage of King James VI. Inglis married Scotsman Bartilmo (Bartholomew) Kello around 1596. He seems to have taken a position in Edinburgh as Clerk of Passports and other foreign correspondence, and Esther may have done some special calligraphic work for him. They had moved to London by the summer of 1604, and while we have found no record of Bartilmo’s ordination, he was given the living at Willingale-Spain in Essex in 1607, possibly as payment for a debt owed him by James VI and I. They returned to Scotland in 1615.
Over her career extending from 1586 to 1624, Inglis made at least 63 manuscripts, four of which are currently untraced. Some of her small, jewel-like calligraphic volumes appear to have supported Kello’s involvement with the secret negotiations for the succession of James VI to the English throne. The volumes also figured in the patronage system, where Inglis and her husband hoped for remuneration for her work. Many of her little books are dedicated to members of the Protestant circles in England and Europe, including (in chronological order) Elizabeth I; Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex; Sir Anthony Bacon; Prince Maurice of Nassau; Henri, Vicomte de Rohan; his mother Catherine de Parthenay, Duchesse de Rohan; Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford; Prince Henry; Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury; and King James VI and I.
Inglis was not only an adept calligrapher, using over forty styles of handwriting, but she also illuminated her manuscripts with self-portraits, flowers and birds, or exquisite black-and-white title pages, historiated initials, and printer’s devices copied from printed books. Many of her volumes are bound in velvet or silk which she likely embroidered herself, as her skill with needle as well as pen was remarked upon by a contemporary. One of her last works was a sumptuous copy of Emblemes Chrestiens by Georgette de Montenay, made for Prince Charles in 1624, the year of her death.