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Book Review : Secrets of the National Archives by Richard Taylor ( Ebury Press )


The National Archives are one of the most important and remarkable collections of documents in the world, the material in the archives covers over a thousand years of British history and contains over 120 shelf miles of documents.

The incredible scale and range of the documents make any representive selection problematical, however in the creation of this book, it has benefitted from a good deal of inside knowledge. In 2010, National Archives staff were asked what documents should be included and sent in their suggestions. Richard Taylor, a best selling author used many of the suggestions when he took on the role of  the books curator.

In the introduction of the book, Richard Taylor asks the question, Why do Documents have such a hold over us ?

Seeking to answer this question,  he discusses how documents are alive with insight into historical events. Whether secret, personal, public or bearing witness to historical events, each document has a story to tell that illuminates our understanding. Our curator uses the example of the Magna Carta to  illustrate how a document can take on a life on its own independent of the creators, he remarks ” It is astonishing, really, that a document sealed in a damp field in Surrey, between a little mafia of English barons and a king who would be dead the following year, should resonate down the centuries.”

The rest of the book considers the documents selected in chronological order which gives some indications that a document from one century can have significant importance for the centuries ahead.

The first chapter which covers documents between the 11th and 14th centuries  offers examples of this particular historical significance of documents.  The first document is one of the most famous in British history, the Domesday Book , in many ways little more than an inventory of land and ownership, however for future historians it offers an unprecedented snapshot of life in 1086. It also shows clearly that the Norman victory over the Anglo- Saxons on the battlefield was followed by the creation of a landowner class made up almost completely by the victors.

Other documents in this section include the Magna Carta, The Great Cause (claimants to the Scottish throne), a letter from Edward III and Manorial Rolls that document the devastation caused by the Black Death. Many of these documents may be familiar to many people but three other documents offer real surprises. The Jewish Tax Roll from 1233 illustrates medieval’s England’s financial dependence on the Jews and its hatred of them. The Domesday Abbreviato of 1241 offers what may be the first portrayal of a black person in England. Finally A Clerks Music of 1325 offers the first setting of music in multiple parts in England.

The second chapter that covers the 15th – 16th century shows England on the verge of Empire, the Agincourt Indentures goes beyond the story of Henry V’s great victory to reveal that the gallant English archers were motivated not just by glory but by money. The documents record that Men of Arms were paid 12 pence a day, mounted archers 6 pence per day and foot archers 4 pence a day.

It is the nature of documents that often the least significant at the time can have incredible historical significance, this point is made by An Indulgence issued in 1476 . This document is remarkable as the first printed document in England, printed in Westminster by William Caxton it revolutionised the production of books especially religious works. This had an unintended consequence, the selling of indulgences by the church reached industrial proportions which led to Martin Luther’s protest against Church corruption. On a similar theme, another document in this chapter, the Valor Ecclesiasticus  show how the Church’s wealth was decimated by Henry VIII whose inventory of church property contributed to the dissolution of the monasteries. An angry letter from Richard III and a letter begging for mercy from the future Elizabeth I are other highlights of this section.

The third chapter covers the 17th century, famous characters such as  Shakespeare, Guy Fawkes and Nell Gwyn all make an appearance but one of the most important documents of the period was the transcript of the Trial of Charles I. Written by a clerk, the proceedings are recorded for posterity and offer a viewpoint that the decision was made before the trial began and the King arrogantly believing that the court would not go through with its threats. The irony of the situation was many of the commissioners who signed the document were signing their own death warrant when Charles II was restored to the throne.

If the 17th century was dramatic, the next chapter covering the 18th century show the  British Empire expanding but not without its significant losses. The United States Declaration of Independence documents are the original prints by John Dunlap after the declaration had been ratified by Congress. Only 200 copies of the original prints were made but somehow three copies made their way to the ‘enemy’ and ended up back in Britain and eventually the National Archives. Other documents include Captain Cook in Botany Bay, the grim realities of the slave trade, the killing of Blackbeard, the capture of Dick Turpin, the Mutiny on the Bounty and the strange case of music piracy at the Bach Chancery proceedings.

The documents from the 19th century show that Britain’s problems were not just overseas, within Britain, certain interest groups were pushing for reform. Various documents record this movement, there is an anonymous threatening letter from workers to the gentry, a protest poster against the Workhouse and posters from the Chartists. If workers agitation was rife, the application for British citizenship for Karl Marx indicates that some answers were perhaps closer at hand than many people realised. Documents from two of the most controversial court cases are included, the strange case of the Tichborne Claimant and the visiting card that led to Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment. However the letters to the Police from people who were claiming to be Jack the Ripper is a chilling reminder that bizarre behaviour from the general public associated with high-profile crimes are not a modern phenomenon.

The section on the 20th century show that agitation is still a common theme with documents covering the suffragette to the women workers of Dagenham demanding equal pay.  Royal matters are also covered with the Instrument of Abdication  and Elizabeth II’s Coronation Oath. However the century was dominated by the two world wars, Battlefield Plans and Reports, the declaration of Sigfried Sassoon and the treaty of Versailles  give some insight into the madness of the First World War. Intercepted German reports of the St Naziare Raid, a Special Operations Executive report and the Percentages Agreement enlighten the Second World War. Outside the larger themes , telegrams received from the RMS Titanic and the Ruth Ellis confession make still make disturbing reading.

This well written and informative book, full of wonderful illustrations offers a window on earth shattering events by the viewing of often deceptively mundane and unimpressive documents. But the consequence of these pieces of material has been Empires have risen and fallen, Kings and Queens have being crowned and executed , reforms have been fought over, wars have been won and lost.

This book will appeal to people who would like to view British history from the primary sources and often discover the reality behind many of the myths that take hold over time. Looking at the illustrations of the documents brings you in many ways closer to the people involved, the shaky handwriting or notes in margins often clear indicators of the thought patterns of the authors of the document.

The book is also a reminder that information from the National Archives are constantly being  made available to increase our knowledge of the past. The National Archives really are a treasure trove that keeps on giving, available for anyone to use.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like to find out more about the book or buy a copy, visit the Ebury Press website here

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