The joy of working at the History Centre is that every day is a learning day with the added pleasure of discovering treasure!
My latest magical tour through the archives has taken me back to one of the most turbulent and important times in our history – the English civil wars, the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the fight to restore the monarchy.
I was hooked the moment a beautiful chancery document from 1655 appeared in our office. Archivist Steve Hobbs dug out the document for our recent open day and it had not just one, but two remarkable features: a superb portrait of Oliver Cromwell and a complete Commonwealth Seal showing parliament on the obverse (front) and a map of the Commonwealth – England, Wales and Ireland – on the reverse.
The illuminated document (2057/D4/81) is part of the Wilton House archive and relates to the estate of the Earl of Pembroke. I was not too concerned with the content (although it was in English as opposed to Latin). It was the portrait and seal that drew me in to a fascinating period in our history and opened up all sorts of questions about how power and authority are conveyed through images as well as words. Here I was, handling (very carefully) a 361-year-old seal and looking at a contemporary portrait of Oliver Cromwell, the ruler of an English republic!
I would have been happy if this journey into 17th century Wiltshire had stopped there. But it didn’t – it was just the beginning of a voyage of discovery that took me to documents written by a condemned man, heartfelt letters from his wife to Cromwell and then back to a document signed by a king who lost his head.
As the education officer here at the History Centre I look for ways our archives can support learning for all ages. I mentioned the Cromwell portrait and seal of 1655 to an historian friend who has been teaching the English civil wars and interregnum for 20 years. She responded immediately with two words – Penruddock’s Rebellion.
I have to confess that Penruddock and his rebellion had passed me by (my areas of expertise are the 20th century, early medieval and pre-history), and I felt somewhat shamefaced to discover that this short-lived but significant event began in my hometown Salisbury.
So off I went to fill this rather glaring gap in my historical knowledge and was rewarded with a fascinating story and a treasure-trove of documents from our archive and John Penruddock himself. The story is one of plot and intrigue, of secret (or not so secret) societies, and of paying the ultimate price for ones beliefs.
Milbourne House on the outskirts of Malmesbury is a fascinating, rambling old 17th century mansion, almost bewildering with its maze of passages, staircases and changes in floor levels. In December several of us attempted to unravel its mysteries by delving into its myriad nooks and crannies, no mean feat as it is one of the larger buildings that Wiltshire Buildings Record has tackled in a while. We eventually found the central core of two rooms with a rear stair turret that had been built for John Estcourt in the mid-17th century. Looking into the history of the Estcourts reads like a modern-day soap-opera.