These are a Few of My Favourite Things: My Top 5 UK Archival Collections
Dr Daniella Marie Gonzalez | Aberystwyth University
In my previous articles, I explored what it was like, as a medievalist, to tackle the archive, highlighting the challenges of palaeography and figuring out forgeries, as well as the importance of attending training with record specialists. Without mastering these key skills and developing confidence when visiting archives, I would not have been able to carry out the research that I did or grow my confidence when consulting these materials. In this piece, I’ll shed some light on my own experience, the different UK archives that I both travelled to and used, and, of course, tell you a bit about some of my absolute favourite records, why they’re important, and what I learnt from them.
SC 8 Ancient Petitions, The National Archives
So to start, I’m going to go back to the beginning. All the way back to when I was a first-year PhD student with a lot of ideas but no real sense of what direction I wanted these ideas to go in. When starting my PhD, my focus was actually on analysing the literary texts of well-known figures such as John Gower, William Langland, and Geoffrey Chaucer, but my study soon shifted and, instead, I became rather amazed and puzzled by a set of guild petitions produced in 1388 at the behest of nineteen of London’s guilds held at The National Archives.
This was the first archive I ever visited and the place where I developed my confidence in archives thanks to this set of petitions. Petitions are exciting records that many archives across the country will hold, and these certainly did not disappoint! They told the interesting story of the challenges of living in 1380s London and were a product of the culmination of factional politics that led to the Merciless Parliament of 1388 during Richard II’s time as king. It led me on an inquiry to look further into the lives of Londoners, those at the pinnacle of civic power and those on its margins, and see how politics changed their lives and how these changes sparked discontent. It told the story of both community and city.
Petitions are great sources to look into the lives of various people and what concerns they had. Whilst petitions are formulaic in nature, reading the between the lines and seeing what points certain people or groups raised can tell us lots about wider local and national issues of the world they inhabited. Whether at The National Archives or your county/local record office, these types of records will certainly paint a picture for you of what happened at the local level.
London Letter Books and the Plea and Memoranda Rolls, London Metropolitan Archives
It was the subject matter of these abovementioned petitions that led me to my next London-based archive. Having refocused my research on the story of 1380s London, I quickly set to finding archival material that complemented the story told in the guild petitions of 1388. Unsurprisingly, these sources were situated in London at the London Metropolitan Archives.
Here is where I viewed both London Letter Book H and the Plea and Memoranda Roll for 1384-1386, both of which shed light on the conflict between mayors of London John of Northampton and Nicholas Brembre. Unfortunately, special permission is needed to view the London Letter Books, but luckily there are excellent microfilm copies for researchers to use (and let’s be honest, it feels like you’re a ‘real’ historian once you get the hang of the microfilm reader!). These are both excellent sources to find out exactly what happened on a day-to-day basis in medieval London, what kinds of trials and tribulations its citizens experienced, and how governance functioned in the city. There were both extremely exciting sources to work with and really put my palaeography and language skills to the test to uncover London’s civic history and the root of civic discord.
These are both excellent sources to find out exactly what happened on a day-to-day basis in medieval London, what kinds of trials and tribulations its citizens experienced, and how governance functioned in the city.
The London Metropolitan Archive is a must for any historian interested in exploring London’s past! Like local record offices and county archives, the material found in London Metropolitan Archives will take you on a journey of the city of London, its intricacies, history, the lives of its citizens, and (even!) organisations based in the City with a national and international focus.
MS O 3 11, Trinity College Cambridge
Whilst my focus was on late medieval London, my final source is located further afield, taking me to the realms of Trinity College in Cambridge. Here is where you’ll find a fifteenth-century copy of the Jubilee Book, a book created following the Good Parliament of 1376 that was then burned outside London’s Guildhall in early 1387 due to its contentious nature. It was a text created to redefine what good civic governance looked like. The source may be located in Cambridge but does not contain material relating to this city. Rather, the copy of the Jubilee Book is bound alongside other records relating to the city of London, like confirmation of privileges of the City of London and charters. I’d be lying if I said I saw this manuscript in person but luckily for anyone interested in the collection of western medieval manuscripts held at Trinity College Cambridge and catalogued by M. R. James in the early twentieth century, you can check out the Wren Digital Library, which has 850 of these manuscripts accessible online!
Whilst your research interests may focus on a particular city, region, or kingdom in the British Isles, what this source shows is that it’s worth travelling to different archives and libraries across the United Kingdom, as they may relate material to your topic or local area of study.
The Ronald Baldwin Collection, Special Collections & Archives, University of Kent
Even after submitting my PhD thesis, I just couldn’t stay away from an archive and soon began volunteering at Special Collections & Archives at the University of Kent in February 2020. In doing so, not only was I getting additional experience of cataloguing archives and what to expect when working in the archive sector but, also continuing my passion for researching medieval and early modern collections.
Unlike the above archives, Special Collections & Archives is a stone’s throw away from where I live and (on a crisp, sunny day!) makes for a pleasant walk up the hill to the University of Kent. For this cataloguing project, I worked on late medieval and early modern legal records that formed part of the Ronald Baldwin collection. The items in this collection were collected by Baldwin himself and form part of a wider group of pre-1900 records that focus on the county of Kent’s local history. The records that I was working on ranged in date from the fifteenth century to the eighteenth century and were written in either Latin, English or in both languages.
This is an excellent collection for the legal history, local history, family history, and community history of late medieval Kent and can be used by the experienced researcher or (because of transcriptions and translations that I prepared) the amateur local historian or genealogist interested in crafting a better picture of what happened in Kent in the pre-modern era.
Whilst my in-person experience of volunteering with Special Collections & Archives was cut short because of the pandemic, I had taken plenty of images and was able to continue to cataloguing, transcribing and translating from home – whilst there’s nothing quite like viewing records in person, it was nice to be able to bring the archive home with me!
The legal records that make up part of the Ronald Baldwin collection are just one of several archives and items held by Special Collections & Archives that show just how much archival collections can enhance our understanding of the Middle Ages and what kind of treasures we can find lurking on the shelves within repositories.
For anyone wanting to introduce your students to archival and manuscript collections, your on-campus Special Collections or local archive is a key resource and worth a visit to. In my case, both Special Collections & Archives at the University of Kent and a trip down the hill to Canterbury Cathedral Archives was totally worth the visit and helped boost students’ confidence in both examining and handling original sources. These visits gave students an idea about the production of records, manuscripts, and printed books and the different types of sources they could come across. A personal favourite was the Verbum Sempiternum dating from 1693, a miniature text known as a Thumb Bible that was first written by John Taylor in 1614.
As you’ve gathered, archival collections are pretty awesome and enrich our understanding of the past. Whilst my own research project was very London focused and I have focused mainly on London-centric archives, I thought in this final section I would veer off slightly and highlight 2 projects on medieval records and manuscripts that highlight just how far and wide you can go to find interesting medieval sources.
The Northern Way
The first is the Northern Way project based at the Borthwick Institute at the University of York. This AHRC-funded project examines the Archbishops of York’s register between 1306-1406, shedding light on the political role of the Archbishops, royal government in the North, and life and identity in the North during the later Middle Ages. For any historian interested in the role of the Church in politics more generally, this archive collection is certainly one worth checking out. It’s also a fantastic project that shows how material across different archives interact with each other, showcasing how collections at The National Archives can be viewed alongside various areas of the UK.
Interested? Access the project here. You can also find out more about the Northern Way project on their Twitter profile @tnorthernway.
Manuscripts for Medieval Studies
Another project that anyone interested in medieval manuscripts must check out and highlights an interesting medieval collection outside of the UK is the ‘Manuscripts for Medieval Studies’ project based at Trinity College Dublin. This project showcases 16 medieval manuscripts that are of international esearch significance and is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. From those interested in the history of the book to those interested in the art, culture, history, and literature, this collection of manuscripts immerses us in the Middle Ages and takes us on a journey from St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury to Salisbury Cathedral to see where these texts were produced and kept.
The project also shows just how much we need librarians and archivists, who work hard at cataloguing and digitising these materials to widen accessibility and make the research process far easier for those wishing to consult these items. Find out more about this project on their website and by following @TCDResearchColl on Twitter.
This piece has only offered just shown a fraction of the rich medieval collections that are waiting to be explored, and I hope I have inspired you to discover the wealth of material waiting to be uncovered across the UK and beyond. Whilst this article has focused largely on the medieval records that I am interested in, there’s something for everyone in the archives, something that they can resonate with and continue telling stories from.
Dr Daniella Marie Gonzalez is a Cataloguer on the Prepare & Move Project at the Parliamentary Archives. She is also the Communications Officer for ARA’s Section for New Professionals and Co-founder of MEMSLib. She completed her PhD at the University of Kent in 2020 and researches the history of medieval London, focusing particularly v on political language and civic records. Dr Gonzalez is currently undertaking a qualification in Archive Administration from Aberystwyth University and is pursuing a career as an Archivist.