Working at the History Centre a little bit like being a Timelord… with access to the archives you can be transported through time and space.
The strong-rooms are our very own Tardis (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) since despite their relatively small footprint they contain around eight miles of archives.
Over the last two months I have been joined in my “travels” by GCSE and A-level students who have been on work experience at the History Centre.
The first port of call for the youngsters as they ventured into the strong-rooms was 12th century Messina in Sicily. One of the earliest documents in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is a letter (with Great Seal attached) from Richard I – Richard the Lionheart – confirming a gift of land to Stanley Abbey (WSA 473/34PC).
It is dated 3rd April 1191 and was sent by Richard from Sicily just days before he set sail with a fleet of ships to the Holy Land. (He had set out in 1190 to join the Third Crusade.) The letter came at a busy time for Richard who was not only on crusade but was about to be married to Berengaria of Navarre who had made her own epic journey across Europe with Richard’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine to be with her future husband.
The students’ introduction to the archives continued with a jump to the Tudor period via a grant of arms, followed by a brief stop in restoration England and a splendid portrait of Charles II on an illuminated document.
With each new group of students I set myself and the students the challenge of searching our collections for documents relevant to their particular GCSE and A-level courses. The two world wars, the Cold War, and the Tudors are well travelled historical paths but what of 19th century China and Japan or American history?
At A-level, students at the end of Year 12 are making decisions about coursework so a placement at the History Centre was an ideal opportunity to begin their research. We had students who were looking at the American civil rights movement, antisemitism in England during the 19th and 20th centuries, the opium wars in 19th century China and western influence on 19th century Japan and the demise of the Samurai tradition.
In our pursuit of the American civil rights movement we took a detour into the history of the fledgling United States of America. The archive has a number of collections that, through letters and other documents, connect Wiltshire with the English colonies in the Americas, the war of independence and the American civil war and trade with the USA.
We were all rather excited to be handling two particular documents signed by James Madison and John Quincy Adams who served as the 4th and 6th presidents of the USA. Both documents (WSA 1498/4) were passports for Thomas Shorthouse who became an American citizen in 1797. The Shorthouse family lived at Little Clarendon, Dinton and the passports, letters from Philadelphia and citizenship document for Thomas Shorthouse are part of the family papers (WSA 1498/1-6).
The citizenship document was drawn up in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and instructs Thomas to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatever and particularly the allegiance to the King of Great Britain to whom he was heretofore a subject.”
The passports show that Thomas maintained his connections with his family in Britain. The first was signed by James Madison, as Secretary of State, in Washington on 27th September, 1805. Madison, one of the founding fathers of the USA, became President in 1809 and later became known as the ‘father of the constitution’.
In 1815, Thomas Shorthouse received a second passport, this time signed by John Quincy Adams who was then the United States Envoy in London. Adams went on to be the 6th President in 1825.
We could have spent all our time in North America reading letters and documents about rebellion in the colonies, American Independence, the civil war and abolition of slavery, but other countries beckoned.
Our search for documents relating to the Opium Wars yielded instant and fascinating results in the Public and State papers of Sidney Herbert (1810-1861), Baron Herbert of Lea, who from 1841 to 1860 was successively Secretary to the Admiralty, Secretary of War and then Secretary of State for War.
His papers are part of Wilton House and Estate archive and are a fascinating insight into 19th century British political and military history. The journey into this immense collection was brief but rewarding as we discovered a wonderful document that summarised the issues surrounding the opium trade (“Neglect of Government to take steps as to opium trade”, WSA 2057/F8/I/G/1), and several letters and despatches describing the taking of the Peiho Forts – a joint British and French military action in China in the 1860s (WSA 20157/F8/V/B/192ee).
From China in the 19th century we ventured into the 20th century and a world at war.
Wilfrid Gabriel de Glehn has often been described as “one of England’s leading Impressionists” due to his ability to capture variations in sunlight and shadow as well as a painterly style and a feel for colour that perfectly captured his subject. He has been highlighted while researching for Creative Wiltshire, a Heritage Lottery Funded project and we discovered that we hold one of his pieces within the county; a portrait of Dr. Edwin Sloper Beaven dated 1939 and held at Dewey Museum in Warminster. (Ref. WAMDM:D4414)
However, while he was known for his portraits and received regular commissions, it is perhaps his landscapes that inform us of the man; often capturing a sense of place with huge accomplishment and care. He worked in oils or watercolours and travelled widely, so his subject matter is hugely varied and genuinely reflects his love of people and places.
In 1891 he was invited to assist in the murals for Boston library by Edwin Austin Abbey and so began his long association with America, leading to his marriage in 1904 to Jane Erin Emmet, cousin of the novelist Henry James. He also began a lifelong friendship with John Singer Sargent and the three often travelled together, painting side by side as they visited wonderful locations such as Venice, Rome, Corfu, Granada, St. Tropez and areas in the south of France along with locations closer to home, such as Hampshire, Wiltshire and Cornwall. Wilfrid and Jane settled in London, in Cheyne Walk, close to Sargent’s studio, and Wilfrid began to establish himself as a portrait painter, exhibiting at the Royal Academy and other private galleries in the early part of the 20th century.
His painting was interrupted by the First World War when he and his wife worked as orderlies in a French field hospital and this contrast with his earlier pre-war life had an impact on them both. He took time to return to painting after the war but had produced watercolour sketches during his experiences depicting patients resting in the landscape, playing cards and recuperating, and these demonstrate his eye for figures and a wonderful ability to capture a sense of place and nature.
Visits to France became part of the couple’s lifestyle; both had studied in Paris and they regularly returned to the city as well as favouring the area around Chartes, the Seine valley and Provence. Wilfrid’s portraiture work funded these summer trips to Europe and in turn fuelled his interest and love of landscape painting. Both he and Jane travelled with their artist’s tools and regularly set up their easels together to enjoy their painting. A love of the English countryside grew and Cornwall became a firm favourite, as well as Hampshire and the River Avon. A theme of castles brought de Glehn to Wardour Castle in the south of the county, and a visit to Downton led to them renting the rectory at Wilton during the 1920s and 1930s, introducing them both to the Wiltshire countryside. The rectory backed onto Wilton Park which provided de Glehn with more subject matter, and he became fascinated with the Palladian bridge spanning the River Nadder. He also painted Heale, a seventeenth century house owned by a friend and many of these paintings were shown at Wilfrid de Glehn’s exhibition at Knoedlers in 1935.
By 1941 the couple were searching for a new home, having lost Cheyne Walk, London in the Blitz and it was at this point that they bought the Manor House in Stratford Tony where they settled for the remainder of his life while still returning regularly to Provence.
When you think of a garden the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t paper. But in our archive we hold various documents relating to gardens from ranging from plans, accounts, drawings etc of major estate gardens such as Wilton House, to diaries and papers of garden designer such as Harold Peto to interesting individual items like this 1911 inventory of garden tools and late 18th century instructions for growing truffles.
Gardening by its nature is ephemeral and always changing. Sometimes the only trace of a garden is through archival material such as planting lists, sketches, accounts or correspondence. These documents can tell a story not only of a lost garden, but of the friendships and ideas which inspired it.
The first documented garden at Wilton (although there probably would have been earlier gardens associated with the Abbey which was dissolved in the mid-16th century) was created by Adrian Gilbert (half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh) for Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke 1561-1621. No drawings or plans of the garden survives but poet John Taylor recorded detailed descriptions of the garden following a visit in his ‘A New Discovery by Sea, with a Wherry from London to Salisbury’ in 1623. He praised the garden and described the:
‘intricate setting. Grafting, planting, inoculating, railing, hedging, plashing, turning, winding and returning circular, triangular, quadrangular, orbicular, oval, and every way curiously and chargeably conceited: there hath he made walks, hedges, and arbours, of all manner of the most delicate fruit trees, planting and placing them in such admirable artlike fashions… the hedges betwixt each walk are so thickly set, that one cannot see through from one walk who walks in the other: that in conclusion, “the work sees endless, and I think that in England it is not to be followed, or will in haste be followed”’.
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.
I’ve just finished reading the fascinating book ‘My Own Life’ by Ruth Scurr about the life of the 17th century Wiltshire antiquarian John Aubrey. It has left me with such a great impression of both his life and the times he lived in, that I thought I’d share them with you.
Aubrey was born on St. Gregory’s Day, 12th March 1626, the eldest son of Richard, a gentleman, and Deborah. His cousin and patron was Sir John Aubrey, 2nd Baronet, who had homes in Buckinghamshire and the Vale of Glamorgan.
His love of Wiltshire was derived from growing up at Broad Chalke and Easton Piercy, and through his years spent at school at Leigh Delamare, but also from association with some of the county’s major landowners such as the Pembrokes of Wilton House, spending time at their estates. His father’s death caused financial difficulties. Over time Aubrey had to sell off his property, spending the majority of his time moving between friends, patrons and lodging houses.
Aubrey had many, many friends, some of whom appear to have taken advantage of his good nature and his genuine wish to help further their work. Aubrey loved science and learning, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1662, only two years after it had been founded, but he also loved nature and the world around him, especially the Wiltshire landscape, and folklore. He had a belief and interest in astrology, and had correspondence with Edmund Halley.
John was particularly interested in springs, and noted many in Wiltshire, testing their composition and presenting them to the Royal Society. He also had a surprising ability for the age; the ability to talk to anyone and show interest in their views, from Kings to lowly peasants.
Aubrey lived in turbulent times and worried about the lack of care given to historic material, seeing stonework looted, ruins uncared for, old manuscripts used in kitchens and to cover school books. His sense of caring for the past for the future was evident in his relationships with men such as Mr Ashmole who was instrumental in the founding of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He also paid for the etching of the Osney Abbey ruins by Hollar; concerned to document them before they were lost forever.
This year we are celebrating 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, that bane of school children everywhere or one of the world’s greatest poets and playwrights, depending on your viewpoint! As an English graduate who greatly enjoyed studying King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth I am firmly in the latter camp, but as a mother of a teenager forced to wrestle with Romeo and Juliet, (a situation wittily portrayed by Ben Elton in his new BBC sitcom ‘Upstart Crow’ last week) I can certainly also understand the former.
Shakespeare is one of those creative geniuses about whom we know very little outside of their work. What we do know of his life, as is common for most individuals from the Tudor era, comes from archives – the written evidence of our ancestors’ lives. One example is the parish register recording his baptism at Stratford upon Avon on 26th April 1564; another his notorious will, proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in April 1616, leaving his ‘second-best bed’ to his widow, Anne Hathaway, and most of his estate to his daughter. Shakespeare is, of course, most closely associated with Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire and with London, the capital where he and his company of players performed so much of his work.
So how is Shakespeare associated with Wiltshire?
The main connection comes through Wilton in the south-east of our county. William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, of Wilton House, is famously cited as the ‘Mr W.H.’ to whom Shakespeare dedicated many of his sonnets. The first folio of his works published posthumously in 1623 is dedicated to both William and his brother, Philip, the fourth Earl. Patronage of the arts was important to both Herbert and his wife, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, the sister of Sir Philip Sidney (himself a famous poet who wrote ‘Arcadia’ while staying at Wilton in 1580.) In the first folio the 3rd Earl is thanked for his ‘many favours’ to Shakespeare and his company; in other words, considerable financial support.
Dr Siobhan Keenan of De Montfort University states that one of Shakespeare’s plays was performed at Wilton House on 2 December 1603, when the plague shut down theatres in London, and caused Shakespeare’s company of players, the King’s Men, to go on tour. It is not known for certain which play was performed, but historians have long suggested As You Like It. The play was performed in front of the newly crowned King James I, as well as the 3rd Earl, and it is believed the play’s ‘juxtaposition of bawdy wit and more serious reflections on what makes for a good ruler’ might have appealed to the King. It is also very likely that Shakespeare himself performed as one of the actors that night, which is an exciting thought. If only one had a time machine to be able to see that performance!