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‘There is no aspect of government activity on which the State Papers may not throw light’: the papers of the secretaries of state 1509-1782

The State Papers are the correspondence and papers of the ministers of the Crown during the early modern period. For the first time individuals and personalities emerge from obscurity and we are able to go behind the scenes of government and explore motives, policy-making, and ideas. The State Papers are the backbone of early modern records transforming the historian’s approach to this lively period. The talk begins with an overview of the State Papers, followed by their use over time, and how the State Papers Office was run. The podcast ends with a summary of finding aids available, including what is accessible on State Papers Online.

Dr Adrian Ailes is a principal records specialist in early modern records and is particularly interested in local history, the gentry, heraldry and seals. Dr Katy Mair is an early modern records specialist whose research interests include the Jacobites, the history of reading, and the religious culture of women.

Please note there is a brief dip in the sound quality at approximately 29 minutes due to a recording error.



Talk on State Papers Part 1

Adrian Ailes


[AA SLIDE 1 – DATES ] So what exactly are the state papers – this extraordinary class of documents held here at TNA under the departmental letter code SP?  Well, put simply, they are the papers of the sovereigns’ principal secretaries and principal secretaries of state during the early modern period.  In other words, they are the formal and informal correspondence and papers of the chief executive officers of the Crown between 1509, the first year of the reign of Henry VIII, and 1782 when the Home Office and Foreign Office (names perhaps more familiar to us) were established. They develop into a large class of records fairly early on – about 1518. The state papers cover both the internal governance of the country and the conduct of foreign policy in the form of letters, rough drafts, memoranda and reports, private and government papers, lists, petitions, treaties and treatises, maps, orders in council, depositions, warrants, ciphers and newsletters, and I could go on so varied and diverse is this particular category of records.  For the reign of Henry VIII the state papers contain both domestic and foreign material, but it was later decided that from Henry’s death in 1547 they should be divided into state papers domestic and state papers foreign.


The state papers at TNA are voluminous – the domestic papers alone for just 1547 to 1640 fill over 1100 manuscript volumes. The growth of this vast new collection of archives actually led to the creation of a new office with its own keeper – the State Paper Office, and Katy is going to tell you more about that.  There is nothing like the state papers series for the Middle Ages. A few medieval records of a similar type do exist for the domestic scene, with more for the equivalent to state papers foreign. But otherwise, the state papers are very much a new archive, transforming the approach of the historian. In many respects they reflect the transition of government to modern times; they are the backbone of early modern government. As the eminent Tudor historian, Sir Geoffrey Elton, put it (and I quote), ‘there is no aspect of government activity on which the state paper may not throw light’. Individuals, character, personalities, emerge from relative obscurity. For the first time we go behind the scenes, we are able to detect motives and ideals, and we can discover policy making.


The state papers are thus vast, complex and highly revealing, but their survival owes much, at least initially, to accident. Officials had often retained their papers on retirement.  The archive only exists because certain collections were acquired from individuals, such as those of the ruthless bureaucrat and reformer, Thomas Cromwell, confiscated at his fall in 1540, or were later made up, like those of that arch-information gatherer, Sir Joseph Williamson, secretary of state during the reign of Charles II. The papers of some secretaries have, therefore, ended up in the British Library or in private collections such as those of Elizabeth’s devoted secretary and elder statesman, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, which are now at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.


[AA SLIDE 2 – CHARLES I]  Just about all human life can be found in the state papers from high to low, whether it is a transcript of the trial of Charles I (here we see the dramatic moment when the king demands to be heard after his sentence but is swiftly put down by the judge; ‘noe sir … Guard withdraw your prisoner’), or it could be a record of three ordinary folk [AA SLIDE 3 – DEBATE ] debating the merits of a female sovereign – in this case Mary I (‘If a Woman bere the swerde my lady Elyzabethe ought to bere hit first’ says one).  I remember finding in volume 4 of the addenda to state papers Edward VI [AA SLIDE 4 – ADDENDA]  amongst other things a receipt for a gentle purgation, ‘most pleasant of all purgations’, prunes boiled with manna, closely followed by news of fish stocks off Iceland, and then the wages and entertainments of officers and garrison on the Isle of Wight, names of nobles in 15th century, a grant of arms to the king’s doctor, how to turn base metal into gold and silver, and the virtues of the elixir of life – and that’s just one part of one volume.


The state papers domestic also contain much for family historians: muster rolls, such as [AA SLIDE 5 – MUSTER] here for Derbyshire in 1638, full of names of men between certain ages, also masters and owners of ships, petitions from abused wives, list of officers of the crown, families uprooted and displaced by the violence and disruption of the Civil War, returns of aliens, recusants, funeral certificates of the gentry, military prisoners, and much, much more.


[AA SLIDE 6 – TABLE OF SP DOM] To give a breakdown of all the various series in the state papers would be too long (and frankly very boring) so we have provided a handout listing them.  But very briefly and very crudely the state papers domestic and foreign can be divided into the following areas, beginning with the domestic side:


  • [AA SLIDE 7 – SEYMOUR LETTER] Firstly, the main chronological sequence of successive sovereigns with normally one major series per reign. So we have SP 1 for Henry VIII, SP 12 for Elizabeth, SP 14 for James I (which includes the Gunpowder Plot documents), and finishing with SP 37 for George III.  Here we have a letter in SP 10, the state papers for Edward VI’s reign.  It was written by Edward [Seymour], earl of Hertford, sometime between 3am and 4am on January 29 1547 and sent to Sir William Paget, the king’s principal secretary.  The old king, Henry VIII, bloated and obese, has finally passed away.  Seymour, who was soon to become the new boy-king’s Protector, is keen to hold back news of Henry’s death and to sort out the will, only recently revised.  But particularly revealing is Seymour’s note scratched on the back of this document, just under Paget’s name: it is a clear and unequivocal instruction to the messenger who is to ride through the cold winter’s night to Westminster where the king’s body lay. It reads ‘Haste, Poste haste, Haste with all diligence, For thy life, For thy life’.  There is a great sense of immediacy – something rarely found in the medieval record; the state papers here afford us a rare glimpse behind the scenes of government at this crucial moment in our history.
  • [AA SLIDE 8 – DEPOSITION] Continuing with our breakdown of the state papers domestic, and interrupting the flow of sovereigns’ reigns, we come to the huge number of papers produced by the parliamentary committees and council of state that ran the country during those late troublesome times: the civil war and interregnum.  This is a rather interesting deposition to the Committee for the Advance of Money dated 26 August 1648 from a servant who, having just buried his royalist master following the battle of Lansdown, has now swopped sides and taken up arms for Parliament.  This clearly confused the poor chap taking down his statement since he had assumed the servant would fight for the king (as the servant’s royalist master had done ) and had, therefore, first written ‘the king’ but then had to change it to ‘Parliament’.  It captures rather neatly the confusion and chaos of the times, of traitors and turncoats in a topsy-turvy world.
  • [AA SLIDE 9 – INSTRUCTIONS] Besides the papers for Henry VIII in SP 1 we have several other series for this reign in SP 2 to SP 7. These include theological tracts and papers relating to the dissolution of the monasteries. This is a draft list of instructions to the commissioners sent out in 1536 to visit and survey those monasteries due to be dissolved during the king’s Reformation.

In addition to the series of sovereigns, civil war papers, and Henry VIII collections there are a number of subject or miscellaneous domestic series including the following:

  • [AA SLIDE 10 – GRANT OF ARMS] SP 9 (state papers miscellaneous) is the eclectic papers of Sir Joseph Williamson, whom we saw earlier. They include much heraldic and genealogical material such as this original grant of arms.
  • [AA SLIDE 11 – JACOBITE] Another subject class on the domestic side is the state papers military and naval.  The War Office had not yet been formed and such matters initially came under the principal secretaries of state. Here we see a list of prisoners taken after the 1745 Jacobite rising – it includes the man who ferried Bonnie Prince Charlie over the sea to the Isle of Skye; don’t worry I’m not about to break into song.  The Early Modern Team here at TNA, ably assisted by an brilliant team of volunteers, are currently very busy cataloguing the state papers military and naval as well as state papers domestic for the reigns of George I and II, in preparation for the anniversary in three years time, of the 1715 and ‘45 risings.
  • [AA SLIDE 12 – SP OFFICE]  And finally amongst the subject and miscellaneous series on the domestic side of the state papers are the internal records of the state paper office itself – the entry books, precedents, proclamations – some of these records continued into the 19th century since the State Paper Office (seen here) only closed in 1852.

[AA SLIDE 13 – SP FOREIGN]  State Papers Foreign can be sub-divided into

  • Sovereigns reigns between 1547 and 1577
  • Then individual countries from 1577 to 1782
  • Treaties and treaty papers
  • Printed newsletters, pamphlets and gazettes forwarded by English agents aboard
  • Maps
  • Various letters and entry books
  • Correspondence with embassies and legations
  • and finally ciphers


[AA SLIDE 14 – SP MILAN & COLONIAL] Two further foreign categories should be mentioned though they are not classified as state papers.  You might see in the Map Room and in libraries, published calendars to state papers Rome, or Venetian, or Milan, or Spanish. These are précis in English of material held in archives abroad relating to English affairs and do not refer to documents created by the secretaries of state or by the State Papers Office and held here.  Thus, there is a difference between, for example, State Papers Spanish and State Papers Spain, the former being documents held in the Spanish archives, the latter being public records concerning Spain and held at TNA.  The other anomaly concerns the colonies. In 1768 a secretary of state for the colonies was appointed but following the loss of America in the war of independence the post was abolished and the colonial papers were later amalgamated with those of the Colonial Office, so you will find those records in TNA under CO (Colonial Office) rather than SP (State Papers).


[AA SLIDE 15 – SCOTLAND & IRELAND] Finally, in our breakdown of the various categories that make up the state papers, and in addition to the state papers domestic and foreign, are, neatly sandwiched between the two, the State Papers for Ireland and the State Papers for Scotland; Scotland being a foreign country until 1603.


Well, that was a very quick overview of this particularly diverse class of records so I better stop here and pass on to Katy who is going to speak about how this amazing archive came into being, who looked after it, and early attempts (not always successful) to put it into some sort of meaningful order.



Talk on State Papers Part 2

Katy Mair

In August 1615 the Keeper of the State Papers, Thomas Wilson, paid a visit to Arthur Agard, the Keeper of the Exchequer records, to discuss certain documents that he was hoping to take into the state paper office. The meeting failed to take place for the simple reason that Wilson found Agard dead, ‘the good mans boddy breathless’, [KM SLIDE 1 – AGARD’S DEATH] and instead of discussing the custody of state records, Wilson found himself at a burial. Shock at Agard’s death appears to have been superseded somewhat by professional concerns, as Wilson wrote hurriedly to his son-in-law and joint Keeper of the State Paper Office Ambrose Randolph urging him to sue for Agard’s position, as not only would this ‘make our own office perfect and doe the king and state general service’ but it would also block the advances of Sir Robert Cotton, that avid collector of manuscripts, who ‘alredy by hauing such things as he hath cunningly scraped together doth putt me out of all employment’.


Not only is this incident illustrative of Wilson and Cotton’s lifelong rivalry for the possession of papers of state, but it also gives us some idea of the serendipitous nature of the existence of the State Paper collection, with Wilson and Cotton acting rather like butterfly collectors attempting to net the choicest papers for their collections rather than there being any truly systemic retention of the papers.  The papers Wilson managed to gather now make up the State Paper collection here at The National Archives, those Robert Cotton collected are now at the British Library, while other significant collections remain in private hands, a fragmentation that testifies to the lack of formalised record keeping.


Although a dedicated repository for the papers of the Secretary of State seems to have been in existence from at least 1578,[1] and although Thomas Wilson had taken an oath in 1612 [KM SLIDE 2 – OATH]


to serve the King truly and faithfully as Clerk, Keeper, and Registrar of His Majesty’s Papers and Records for matters of State established at Whitehall, to preserve said papers said Papers and Records from harm and damage, not to suffer any to be purloined, embezzled or defaced; to keep secret such things therein contained  as shall be fit for his Majesty’s service to be concealed, and to do his best to recover such papers as may have been detained or embezzled by private persons’ (SP 14/94 nos 102)


In practice his role was beset by numerous obstacles, and the ‘Paper Office’ as it was frequently referred to, struggled to retain control of those documents of importance to the state. To quote one historian


Before the reign of Charles I, all existing SP are undoubtedly the remnant preserved by accident – the accident of personality or rats[2]


Today I will try and outline the role played by the State Paper Office in the first quarter of the 17th century in the assembling of the State Paper series as we currently know it, and to consider how the problems faced by the State Paper Office are at the root of what makes the state papers such a complicated series.


Early history of the State Paper Office


It is perhaps best to begin with some background to the State Paper Office. As Adrian has outlined in his introduction, the documents in the state papers are the working papers of the Secretary of State, or the Principal Secretary as the position is sometimes known. The roots of this office can be traced back to the 14th century, when the king’s secretary became the keeper of the signet, the king’s private seal, which was used to authorise issues under the privy seal and chancery, and to seal the personal correspondence of the sovereign.[3] As with other government departments, this household office evolved into a public office, and by the reign of Henry the VIII the status of the Secretary of State was formally established by Statute.

They became, as F.G. Evans writes:


the middleman in diplomatic, political and administrative affairs, and as the person in close touch with the king and responsible for his correspondence, the principal secretary was the natural instrument of the royal prerogative

The Secretary was, in the words of Sir Walter Mildmay ‘the eare and mynd of the prince, yea her penne & mouth’.[4]  As well as drawing up the royal letters, the Secretary oversaw the initial stages of formalising grants and pardons, and thereby became the channel through which communication was conducted with the sovereign. They held a position on the Privy Council, advising the monarch on both political and administrative governance, and represented the Crown in the House of Commons. Diplomatic relations were controlled by the Secretary’s office, and as a consequence it became the central hub for intelligence gathering, tracking foreign and domestic threats to security.[5]


The increased influence of this position unsurprisingly caused a proliferation of correspondence and paperwork, and the wide range of responsibility produced a diverse range of records. The development of this office also had an archival impact, as unlike the careful enrolling of business that took place in the Chancery, there was no provision for the official recording of much of the business carried out by the secretary of state. Unlike the papers of other government departments, such as Chancery or Exchequer, the state papers did not take on a formal archival shape until after the Restoration.[6]  Public records had chiefly been considered of use for litigants, landowners and tax payers, and therefore concern about the preservation of documents focused on those useful for this purpose.


The manner in which the business of the Secretary of State was conducted was via letter writing, and the form of document that makes up much of the State Paper series – the letter – may also be partly to blame for the lack of speed with which the keeping of the state papers was formalised. Letters straddled the personal and the public, and although they often dealt with matters of domestic and foreign significance Secretaries were wont to treat their papers their personal possessions, and frequently took them with them upon the resignation of their posts. Letters are problematic sources for historians for other reasons, as in the state papers they do not often have a year before 1550, and the letters are for the most part the letters sent to the Secretary of State, or

in- letters, and we apart from drafts there is little documentation of the out letters, which gives us a rather one-sided view.


Secretaries had rooms in different palaces, and papers would have been kept in each location. Even so the office space provided for the secretaries was less than generous, and this became yet another reason for taking home their papers.


The Paper Office was therefore established to try and counteract the dripping away of the state papers into private hands. However, although the Keeper was bound under oath to collect the state papers, there still existed a lack of political will to really carry through the letter of the law. The failure of the Paper Office to effectively gather and retain the papers of state during the 16th century can be seen from Thomas Wilson’s assessment  at the beginning of James I’s reign that:


‘… there are two sorts of papers, those that have been kept long at Whitehall, and those brought from Salisbury house…far greater in number’.


The Salisbury house collection are the papers of William Cecil, Secretary of State to Elizabeth, and consisted of only a small chunk of his papers – the rest of course remaining with his family and forming the Hatfield House collection. [7]  While the papers at Whitehall are those papers that had been retained by the Paper Office, and we can gain some idea of what these papers were from three lists written by Ralph Sadler, sec of state between 1540 and 1543, which can be tentatively dated to 1551. [KM SLIDE 3 – SADLER’S LIST]  The first is headed:


Bagges of Bokes, Lettres and other Writenges remayninge in the study at Westminster, and in several tilles within the same


And lists the diverse type of documents we would expect from the state papers, kept in a variety of fashion:


A little bag of matuers of Venyce


A litel bag […] touching the kings matuer at Rome with ii other bages of mattuers of Rome and Italye


A bag of letters confessions etc touching the matyer of the last Queene attainted


[KM SLIDE 4 – SADLER’S LIST] The second list list is headed ‘special things in the studye in a till written upon special matyeres’ and contains:


Lettres of patent


A roll of the household of the Prince Arthur and also the Lady Mary


A note of fynes of justice in King Edward the fyrsts days (In Cat of Harleian MSS entry 2068 [746] p.430 ‘Fines from the beginning of Ed I to the end of Hen VIII’. – perhaps the same doc?)


Various passports


A letter with Instrument to the Cardynall of the Kinge Majestys owne hand


From internal evidence they can be dated to 1551, and it is difficult to pinpoint why exactly these lists were made at this point. Ralph Sadler was no longer Secretary of State at this point, he still retained high office, and could reasonably be expected to have access to the state papers. Although several of the documents relate to Scotland and may therefore be Sadler’s own papers, there are significant batches of papers relating to diplomatic missions to France and other incidents that suggest this was not a simple list of Sadler’s papers from his time as sec of state. Some documents in the list have been marked with a cross, indicating the list may have functioned as an inventory. Another list from 1585, not in Sadler’s hand, bears similar markings (SP 12/185 f.190). So it may have been common practice to make these lists. The idiosyncratic descriptions of the documents, and the way in which Sadler has grouped them into topics, makes it difficult to trace the current whereabouts of them. Having briefly attempted this I have found one: ‘A devise of sir Thomas whartons opinion for preservation of peace between England and Scotland and the good order of the marches’ could reasonably be the document found in SP 1.[8] So even if it is not possible to track how far the contents of the State Paper Office 1551 reflect what is now in the state papers, it at least gives us some idea that there was a basic record collection in existence in the second half of the sixteenth century from which our archive must have originated.


So who were the Keepers, and what was their day-to-day role?


[KM SLIDE 5 – HISTORY] According to Thomas Wilson’s account of the office the position had been established under the Great Seal in 1578, when Dr Thomas Wilson was appointed ‘Clerk’ of the Papers, alongside his position as Secretary of State. The office was then held by a ‘Dr James’ who was succeeded by Thomas Lake who held the post until 1606, when confusingly Sir Thomas Wilson succeeded him.[9] Although several articles suggest that he was the nephew of the first clerk there is no evidence to support this, and in his own account the younger Thomas Wilson writes that he helped the elder Wilson order the papers as a boy of 16, and fails to mention any familial relation [KM SLIDE 6 – HISTORY]. In March 1610 a patent re-established the SPO in Whitehall Palace under Thomas Wilson and Levinius Munck.[10] In 1614 Munke resigned and Thomas Wilson became joint keeper with his son-in-law Ambrose Randolph.[11] In 1629 Wilson died and Randolph surrendered it, and in 1633 a joint patent was granted to Randolph and William Boswell. In 1640 it was granted to Thomas Raymond in reversion after the deaths or surrender of two prior patentees, and in 1661 Joseph Williamson succeeded to the post and held it until 1702, holding the position of Secretary of State as well. It is on the career of the second Thomas Wilson that I would like to focus on for the rest of talk, as his numerous letters effectively illuminate the trials and tribulations of the clerk of papers.


As the oath I quoted shows, their role was to preserve and protect the state papers from all threats, and to recover them where necessary. The process was for a warrant to be issued upon the death or resignation of crown officials for their papers to be delivered to the clerk of papers, who was then charged with assessing these papers and ensuring their safe delivery.[12]  The addition of Papers to the SPO should have been an annual occurrence, but in practice it was not, and Wilson complained in 1617  that ‘it is now nearly five years since they had by strong hand been kept from him’.[13] Some officials bequeathed their papers to the paper office, but more often than not they were retained by the family, or passed to the hands of others. [KM SLIDE 7, WARRANT]  For example this warrant signed by the Earls of Suffolk and Worcester, and Sir Julius Caesar, orders Sir Michael Hicks and Robert Kirkham to deliver up the papers of William Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, so clearly papers of state were drifting out of the hands of official custody.[14]


In order rectify the neglect of previous Keepers, Thomas Wilson embarked on a period of acquisition in order to supplement the batch of Tudor state papers left found in the State Paper Office. For example he obtained a warrant to obtain an exemplification of the last will and testament of Henry VIII held in the Treasury, and in 1622 he succeeded in getting the papers of Sir Edward Coke, which had been removed from the Inner Temple upon his arrest, into the State Paper Office [KM SLIDE 8 – Edward Coke] and this set of documents  included documents on ‘the business of the late earl of Essex, the powder treason, the proceedings against Sir W. Ralegh, Brooke etc, the Peachum’s business, and other matters concerning the Countess of Shrewsbury’ into the State Paper Office.[15]


Thomas Wilson’s bill of services done in the office [KM SLIDE 9 – BILL OF SERVICES DONE] gives us some idea of his duties, as he charges for providing ‘transcripts of the treaty of marriage between Queen Katherine and Prince Arthur’, ‘collecting and making [for the Secretary of State]  a book of all the offices under the Lord Treasurer himself’, transcribing previous instructions to foreign ambassadors, translating letters, cataloguing and also ‘writing a discourse for the understanding of the Equinoctial Dial and other of Ralegh’s mathematical instruments’.[16] So he was clearly a busy man.


He tackled the organisation of the papers in the office with an enthusiasm unmatched by any of the previous Keepers. In his description of how he ordered the papers he found in the Paper Office and those passed to him from Salisbury House he tells how he has spent:


Eight years in reducing them out of extreme confusion, and bound up the most part according to their subject heads and years, but now those books must be all       broken up, and the papers thus divided must be made up all in one according to          their heads and countries.


Wilson reorganised the papers and mixed the two archives, splitting the whole run into ‘Domestical or foreign’. He then divided the foreign papers into separate countries, and the domestic papers into seven headings: Regalia, Legalia, Ecclesiastica, Militaria, Politica, Criminalia, and Mechanica. The papers were then bound into large volumes, as Wilson believed this helped to prevent theft, a significant problem for the office as we shall see in a moment. The documents were kept in wainscoted cupboards, and they fires were lit in the rooms regularly to prevent them from rotting.


The organisation of the papers would have helped his day to day role, as he was regularly called upon to search the archives on behalf of the king and council.  This warrant from the Privy Council orders Thomas Wilson to search for such precedents and papers [in the State Paper Office] as concern the King’s power, right and sovereign jurisdiction of the seas, and fishing upon the coast, for his Majesty’s special service.[17]

As anyone who has every carried out archival research knows, searching for documents is an arduous task, and in the pre-calendar existence it must have been a long-winded affair. Therefore it is no surprise that Wilson petitions the Earl of Suffolk, Lord High Treasurer, ‘soliciting the allowance of 40l. per annum, in his Lordship’s gift, which he may assign to those who take pains in searching and abstracting records for his Majesty’s service’.[18] The onerous task of the Keeper as conceived by Wilson is obviously not well renumerated, in another petition Thomas Wilson he asks to be allowed:


a diet of two dishes of meat per meal for himself and servant, or such reasonable           allowance for the same, in consideration of his salary as Keeper of the State   Papers being but bare 30l a year, without diet or other benefit for all the charge    and pains in keeping continually two clerks to transcribe, abstract and collect for        the King’s service, besides all his own pains, and other servants to bind up the      papers into books[19]


So Wilson acted as acquisition officer, cataloguer and conservator, and all for about £30 a year, or about £3000 in today’s money.


Wilson’s petitioning reaches a climax in 1616, when he writes to the King that he has served his majesty for 26 years of his life, appointed to ‘peruse, register, abstract and putt in order, all your majesty’s papers for business of state, which I found in extreame confusion’ and he has spent, [KM SLIDE 10 – ‘NOT TO BE BURIED’]


‘ten painfull yeres’ reducing ‘ them into that due order and forme, that your Majestie […] has approved’ and the the highest bound of his ambition is to do his Majesty acceptable service, more acknowledged, and not bee buried amongst dead papers whereof there is not soe much use made as the treasure therein hidden deserves.[20]


He does eventually get 200 pounds for his services, but continually struggles for payment for his duties.[21] Even after his death his wife continues to petition the king for payment owed to him.


Location of SPO and fire


The paper office occupied the second storey above the Holbein gate from at least 1618. Holbein gate was built in 1532 to connect the eastern and western buildings of Whitehall Palace. Prior to 1618 it is harder to track the exact location of the papers.  Ralph Sadler’s lists of documents are described as being in the ‘study at Westminster’ , and there is an earlier reference which shows that records were kept in a location described in the same way in 1546:


Obligations signed and sealed by the Chancellor and others of the Council […] brought in and cancelled, but ordered to be preserved in the Studye at Westminster’ [22]


There were three studies at Westminster, and the none of the contents of these studies (as taken at Henry Viii’s death) indicate anything like Ralph Sadler’s list, the closest being ‘the studye by the king’s old bedchamber’. In 1597 the office appears to have been situated underneath the Banqueting  House,[23] as there is a note of works to make a chimney in Dr James’ office under the banqueting house.


In around 1618 the King:


‘understanding that the place where His papers are now kept is so weak that it were an easy matter for any to break in and embezzle them, has thought upon a great chamber in the tower at Whitehall as a very fit place for them’[24]


At this point the papers were moved to Holbein Gate, and despite the King’s opinion Wilson believed these rooms were too small and  they would only be suitable if

He could devise to place the business of some particular foreign countries in the            little turrets adjoining[25]
Documents were in fact discovered locked away in these turrets when it came to be demolished in the 18th century!


Holbein gate does not appear to have been far removed from the original location, as a warrant orders that ‘the Office of the Papers’ be moved to the stone tower next adjoining’.[26]  But this move was far enough to prevent the loss of papers in the fire of 1619 which razed Banqueting House to the ground, and Wilson writes joyfully that due to the King’s ‘timely providence’ in ‘removing the papers under his custody into a place of better security’ not so much hurt has been sustained ‘as the worth of a blank paper’.


This was perhaps an excessively positive gloss on the fire, as later Keepers complained  that the papers were lost and damaged as they were flung into blankets and taken to safety. [27] But in contrast with the records of the Offices of the Signet and Privy Seal, many of which were destroyed as they were housed in the rooms underneath Banqueting house, the state papers appeared to have escaped lightly.[28]  The papers remained in this location until 1756, when they moved to the rooms closer to the Secretary of State’s office, and the gate was demolished in 1759.[29]


Use of the state papers


The state papers as kept in the State Paper Office in the 16th and 17th centuries were used first and foremost as a reference library to inform policy making, and the searches I have described Wilson undertaking show it served mostly as the working office of the Secretaries of State. The background to relations with foreign powers was vital for the conduct of diplomatic affairs, and again Wilson was frequently called upon to supply summaries of past negotiations, for example in 1624 he supplied Sir Edward Conway with ‘secret articles of the treaty with Spain concluded in 1604’.[30] In a break from previous practice, when treaties were enrolled on the charter rolls, treaties were kept within the state papers, but due to the lack of any strict archival practice important documents frequently went astray, and in 1706 it was noted that


‘the officer (Mr Tucker)  cannot tell where the Treaty of Ryswick remains’,

though it had been concluded only eight years before[31]


And treaties concluded with Holland and Portugal in 1654 were found for sale – one at an auction and one on a street stall – and luckily purchased and returned to the State Paper Office.[32] Papers could be taken out of the office by state officials, and although Thomas Wilson kept careful lists of documents removed there were inevitable losses when they failed to be returned.


As the interest in history grew in the 17th century, so others wished to gain access to the state papers. In 1623 Wilson was asked by the earl of St Alban’s ‘to have the papers that remain in his custody of King Henry VIII’s time’! Wilson reminds the king that he is ‘tied by strict oath to deliver nothing out of the office unless to the Lords and others of His Majesty’s Council’.[33] But this permission appears to have been given on a number of occasions, in 1670 John Evelyn lent several vols of papers relating to the war with Holland, which he did not return until March 1672.[34] In1679 Gilbert Burnet was given permission to have documents for his research into his ’Reformation of the Church of England’.[35] And other researches consulted them for peerages.


We know of course that Wilson’s arch enemy Robert Cotton made use of the state papers, and there is a note in Wilson’s hand showing how Cotton assisted William Camden research for his history of Queen Elizabeth’s reign’. It reads:


‘papers which Sir Robert Cotton perused and transcribed at divers times out of the office of his majesty’s papers, partly before I had the office and partly which he gat licence for from His Majesty for the verifying of the story which Mr Camden has set forth, or under that pretext, from 1559 to 1589’


And I believe some of these papers are now in the British Library!




The lack of authority of the position of the Keeper of the State Papers in the 16th century goes some way to explaining why state papers can be found at The National Archives, the British Library, as well as in private collections. That the state papers for the period of James I’s reign are sparser than for other periods, has been put down variously to the deliberate removal of papers by corrupt officials, loss due to fire, or even due to less business carried out by the Secretaries of State for that period. It could also be suggested that the personality of the Keeper had a direct impact on the completeness of the records, as one of Wilson’s successors, William Boswell, appears to have had far more success in gaining papers of state, possibly as he was also Clerk of the Privy Council.[36]


The wonder of a tool such as State Papers Online is that it brings a sheen of completeness and simplicity to a collection such as the state papers, but delve any further into the history of this uneven series and it quickly becomes apparent that it is deceptively complicated, and it is wise to bear several points in mind when using it.


First of all, as I have outlined, it was a rather ad-hoc collection of papers for much of the 16th and 17th centuries and does not reflect the State Paper Office archive as it existed then. The series was not stable, as we have seen in Wilson’s letters, collections were continuously being pulled into the office through bequests and seizures, and documents were lost due to carelessness and theft.  Secondly after the State Paper Office became the Public Record Office material was brought from other repositories and the bulk of the papers in SP 1 to 7, such as the confiscated papers of Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey’s correspondence, can be included in this tranche. The third significant point to remember is that under the auspices of the State Paper Commission the papers were re-ordered and had their original provenance broken up, in order to create the calendars that we are so familiar with today.


The value of Thomas Wilson’s letters and papers is that they offer us a tiny glimpse of how and when certain documents made their way into the collection, and I hope this talk has demonstrated how important an awareness of the history of the state papers is for understanding this series.


State Papers – Part 3  

Adrian Ailes


[AA SLIDE 16 – SP PAGE] I want to end by very briefly outlining how to access the state papers here at TNA.  Many, especially the chronological series of sovereigns until 1706, have been calendared, that is concise precise made in English, and those summaries published in various volumes (such as this one, and on the screen you see a page from one of the published calendars for Charles I). You may well, therefore, see footnote references in books to Calendars of State Papers Domestic or to Calendars of State Papers Foreign. If the documents belong to the reign of Henry VIII, the reference might be to one of the 32 published volumes of Letters and Papers Henry VIII which include many of the state papers for 1509-1547.  All these published works are on the open shelves in the map room and should be found in most university and large reference libraries.


[AA SLIDE 17 – BHO] Many of the published Calendars have been scanned and are key-word searchable on British History Online (part of the Institute of Historical Research’s website).  To access certain volumes, including most of the calendars of State Papers Domestic, you or your institution need to subscribe, though the site is freely available in The National Archives.  Incidentally, by key-word searchable I mean that the printed calendars and other finding aids can be searched rather than the documents themselves.


[AA SLIDE 18 – SPO] A much more ambitious online project is State Papers Online published by Cengage and available by institutional subscription.  This is also available free at TNA and covers the Tudor and Stuart periods 1509-1714.  It too includes all the published calendars but the great advantage with SPO (State Papers Online) is that you can actually see digitised images of the manuscripts themselves.  It also brings together related material not only in The National Archives (such as for the Privy Council) but, as Katy mentioned, material in other collections, for example, the British Library.  An advanced search facility on the site means you can narrow down searches to certain years or reigns or collections and you can, of course, print out images of the digitised documents such as this one [AA SLIDE 19 – MACHINE] in SP 16 of a machine for attacking towns and castles. All such images are linked to their entry in the published calendars or existing catalogues.  The site also contains useful essays, reference pages such as a list of principal officers of the crown and state, key documents, and an image gallery, as well as abbreviations used in the published calendars.  Do, however, remember that it does not go beyond 1714 and that not every SP class is included, though most are.  To find out more, why not try the site out here at TNA under online records?  It is an extraordinary achievement and revolutionises public access to this great series.


[AA SLIDE 20 – RESEARCH GUIDE]  Finally, a reminder that there are a number of in-depth researches guides on the state papers on The National Archives website which you can download for free.  So, with Edward Seymour’s great sense of haste very much in mind, and the knowledge that you are now all dying to look up that reference on how to turn base metal into gold and silver, we shall finish.  Thank you very much.




[1] Est, under great seal in 1578 according to Thomas Wilson’s account.

[2] G.R. Elton, p. 71.

[3] Evans, p.2 and Kynaston p.3; Evans p.14-15.

[4] Quoted in Stephen Alford’s SPO essay, ‘State Papers of Ed VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I’.

[5] Evans, pp 6-9.

[6] ‘It is only after the Restoration that the SP assume the characteristics of regular and routine archives which the records of Chancery and Exchequer has acquired as early as the 13th century’. Elton, p. 71


[7] Calendar of Documents Relating to History of State Paper Office, appendix (no. 7 to the 30th DK report), Item 14.

[8] SP 1/179 folio 130

[9] (Andrew Thrush SPO essay) Item 85.

[10] Marshall, SPO ‘The Secs’ Office and the Public Records’

[11] DKR, Item 18.

[12] DKR, p.212-3.

[13] DKR, p213. Item 40.

[14] DKR, p213 and item 11.

[15] DKR, Item 74.

[16] DKR, Item 61

[17] DKR, Item 20.

[18] DKR, item 24.

[19] DKR, Item 25.

[20] DKR, Item 30

[21] DKR, Item 71.

[22] L&P, pt 1 no 684, 27 Apr 1546.

[23] Dr James

[24] DKR, Item 48.

[25] DKR, Item 49 (SP 45/20, no 33).

[26] DKR, Item 51, SP 45/20, no 34. Another record shows a charge for the removing of the records to the gatehouse. ‘As alsoe for woorkes and repairacons in and aboute the kings majesties library in altering and converting the same into lodging for Sec Naunton and removing the Records to the gatehouse’.

[27]DKR,  Item 244.

[28] Survey of London, Banqueting House Section, ref to Cott. Titus B Viii, f.376.

[29] Survey of London

[30] DKR, Item 88

[31] DKR, Wernham, p.28

[32] Item 428.

[33] Item 80

[34] Item 179

[35] [nos. 217, 218]

[36] Andrew Thrush SPO essay. 1 cal covers 8 years 1611-8 – 7 for eight years CH I.