State University of New York, Binghamton
The interdependent relationships of manuscript creation, transmission, and retention are illustrated in five documents relating to the "Paper Office" maintained by Sir Joseph Williamson (1633–1701), Secretary of State and Keeper of the State Papers—the core of what now constitutes the indispensible "SP" class of documents in Britain's National Archives—and the Royal Library during the reign of Charles II. Williamson's position necessitated his staying well informed about current affairs, both domestic and foreign, and to this end he maintained a special office under his Chief Clerk, Henry Ball, from which manuscript "newsletters" were produced and disseminated to a wide range of well-placed recipients, often in exchange for exclusive access to whatever items of news Ball's "correspondents" could provide in return. One of these correspondents was Sir Richard Newdigate, 2nd Baronet, of Arbury Hall, Warwickshire. The Folger Shakespeare Library holds Newdigate's collection of 3,950 newsletters dating from 1674 to 1715.
A surviving report produced by Ball for Williamson in the Autumn of 1674, outlining "The state of yor Honors Paper Office," provides invaluable evidence that helps us to understand some of the internal workings of a late seventeenth-century scriptorium. Ball supervised a small group of scribes who diligently churned out approximately two hundred letters each week, which were sent out according to a predetermined schedule on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays (London's three "post" days), with a few additional letters posted overseas on Mondays and Fridays. About half of Ball's correspondents received one long letter per week, containing whatever nuggets of news had been collected since the previous week's letter. Other correspondents were sent shorter letters by every post, while a few received a short letter sent each Tuesday followed by a medium-length one posted on Saturday. Ball produced two detailed lists of recipients: one that was included with his report, and a second, undated list that differs in some details from the first. These lists give an idea of the considerable extent of Williamson's national and international network of information-gatherers, though they also include the names of some who, having little news to trade, were willing to pay cash for the privilege of keeping abreast of current events.
Curiously, Sir Richard Newdigate's name does not appear anywhere on either list, although the subscriptions on the surviving letters indicate that he was a direct recipient of the communications from Ball's office, and we know that he was receiving letters on a regular thrice-weekly basis at the time Ball's report was drawn up. Other beneficiaries of Ball's correspondence included Sir Richard Bulstrode (whose letters now reside at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin) and, probably beginning in 1678, Narcissus Luttrell, who appears to have digested much of the information the letters contained into the early volumes of his A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs, a massive chronicle originally compiled for Luttrell's personal use and subsequently published in 1857. Further products of Ball's extensive letter-writing enterprise no doubt exist among manuscript newsletters in other collections, and remain to be identified and collated with the Newdigate and Bulstrode series.
Folger MS. L.c.83 is a typical example of the newsletters that emanated from the Paper Office. Dated 19 September 1674 (a Saturday), it is a bifolium, three pages of which are filled with hastily copied news items—at the end of the third page, the copyist has turned the paper sideways in order to squeeze in two more brief notices. The final, outside page, with its written address (with flourishes), soiled creases, and wax seal retaining a torn stub of paper provides an excellent example of posting practices in late-seventeenth-century England. The letter itself gives a good idea of the mix of domestic news,
commercial and shipping information, foreign military reports, and court gossip that permeates these documents; indeed, they remain an important source of sometimes mundane day-to-day information for historians of the period. This particular letter is interesting in that it notes, on the first page, Williamson's move to a new office at Whitehall Palace, concurrent with his elevation from Under-Secretary to Secretary of State. The promotion followed Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington's appointment as Lord Chamberlain, and Henry Coventry's consequent advancement from the junior to the senior of the two Secretarial positions. In fact, Arlington had recently been under attack in Parliament, and was only too happy to accept the ambitious Williamson's offer of £6,000 for the purchase of the secretaryship. It would seem to be in the wake of this bureaucratic shake-up that Ball's report to Williamson was prepared.
Williamson's position as keeper of the "Paper Office" also made him the official archivist of the Crown and overseer of the state's collective memory as preserved in manuscript form. In this capacity, he was responsible for maintaining government papers in good order, and was often directed to make documents available to high-ranking civil servants and authorized scholarly researchers. An extant 1682 plan entitled "The Order of the Paper office" provides a visual and textual guide to the 35 bookcases in two rooms in which these documents were held. Different "presses" were reserved for documents relating to foreign and domestic affairs, including parliamentary, ecclesiastical, military, and household records, among others; one section even housed official papers of the "Usurpation" or Commonwealth regime. Williamson, who was no longer Secretary when he drew up the report, records the system of sorting papers by subject and then bundling them, either by sub-topic or chronologically by decade. Examples of his annotations include: "Italia. . .All before 1559. as H. VIII Negotiations as his Marriage &c are rather placed in Anglia Vetera"; "Germania. . .All since 1559. with the Emperor are generally if not universally here"; and "Denmarke. Sweden. Poland. Are generally intermixed promiscuously with Germania of the same yeares, sometimes they are Bundled & yeared apart but still Lodged in this Classis."
This fascinating document, subsequently bound as item #49 in what is now known as the "State Papers, Various: State Paper Office Documents, Vol. II," provides a helpful reminder of the spatial qualities of manuscripts: modern scholars cite them in footnotes using numerical shelfmarks or call numbers, sometimes forgetting that they are not merely abstract texts, but tangible, three-dimensional objects that sit, for the most part, on a particular shelf in a particular library or archive along a particular street in a particular city, where they must be protected from loss or damage and ordered for ease of access. This applies to ephemeral documents as much as it does to important papers of state: had Sir Richard Newdigate not filed his thousands of newsletters in a drawer or a box somewhere, and had he and his descendants not chosen to retain these bulky bundles of paper rather than use them to line pie dishes or start a fire on a cold morning, we would not have the invaluable collection so carefully preserved at the Folger today.
Another document provides a telling comment on the ephemeral nature of manuscripts, even those that make up an official archive. It comes from a cover letter prefacing a lengthy report on the Paper Office prepared by the lawyer and author John Brydall, now held at the Folger, in which Brydall writes to Sir Robert Southwell in 1691 concerning the nature and contents of the Office's collection. Brydall discusses the wealth of information available to anyone wishing to explore the documents housed in the Paper Office, but concludes with the startling recommendation that
[the] place would be rendred more serviceable for the public(, ^both^ for the quicker finding out of usefull papers, as <alsoe> also for the makeing of more Roome for other<s> papers of state to be layd up there in time to Come;) If all the Riff Raffe papers by a skilfull, and knowing person ^were^ pickt out, and used as Hereticks were in Queen Maries dayes.
Brydall's glib suggestion may cause the hair of librarians and archivists to stand on end, but it also reminds us that the survival of manuscripts is never assured, and that our vigilant attention is necessary in every case—from the seemingly unimportant personal letter or diary to the contents of great state archives—if we wish to preserve those unique documents that provide an irreplaceable record of our past.
Dooley, Brendan and Sabrina Baron, eds. The Politics of Information in Early Modern Europe. London; New York: Routledge, 2001.
Raymond, Joad. The Invention of the Newspaper: English Newsbooks, 1641–1649. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.