Archival Travels in Europe

Author: Heather A. Clewell, Delaware Caucus Rep.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation graciously awarded funds toWinterthur Library for staff training and education, the first such grant for the library. Because of this support, I was afforded the opportunity to visit the archives of three English country estates: Hatfield House in Hatfield, Burghley House at Stamford, and Belvoir Castle, outside Grantham. Although there were many country estates with archives on site, these three are relatively close to one another, facilitating a cohesive week-long tour. So contacts were made; appointments were arranged; and bags were packed as I set off in September 2011 for my sojourn.

The Old Palace at Hatfield was built by Bishop John Morton, and it was there that young Elizabeth I enjoyed her childhood. Only a quarter of the palace remains, however, as Robert Cecil, first Lord Salisbury and advisor to Elizabeth, tore down most of it to build Hatfield House starting in 1607. The present house took four years to construct and is still very much a family home for the present Lord Salisbury.

Robin Harcourt Williams is the archivist at Hatfield, and he kindly gave me a tour of the house and archives. Interestingly, the house itself is not climate controlled and was quite humid. On the other hand, the archives, which are not open to the public, are located in an underground vault that is climate controlled. There I saw letters by Elizabeth in a very neat, concise handwriting as well as documents signed by Robert Cecil and papers belonging to Lord Salisbury, who was one of Queen Victoria’s prime ministers. It is this last collection that sees the most activity. The entire archive averages 100 users per year, compared to the more than 200 yearly visitors at Winterthur. Most of the Hatfield archive seems to be processed although there were stacks of unorganized bills that I sorely wanted to sort through.

Burghley House was the residence of William Cecil, Robert Cecil’s father and one of Queen Elizabeth I’s most trusted advisers. The house, built in the mid-1500s, remains a family home and is surrounded by a Capability Brown-designed landscape. John Culverhouse and his assistant, Carolyn Crookall, provided a tour of the archival collection, which is housed in various locations and, as such, is not open to the public without prior appointment. Ms. Crookall told me that all the important papers are processed and preserved, but again I saw numerous items I was itching to help sort. Only one room – a former stable that had shelves full of bags and boxes – exhibited any sort of climate control. The old tack room is also used for archival storage, but there are plans for expansion.

Belvoir Castle, located about seven miles west of Grantham, is situated on a hill, which gives a marvelous view of the Vale of Belvoir. There have been four castles on the site, dating to Norman times. War and fire destroyed the previous buildings, and the present structure was built in the early 1800s. The Duke and Duchess of Rutland and their five children reside in the castle, where they spend most of their time.

Peter Foden, the archivist, and his small corps of volunteers have their work cut out for them. The archival collection was put in some order by the 9th duke, but he died before completing his task. It is a huge collection of various items, most of which have not been processed or preserved. I saw letters by Thomas Hobbes and Benjamin Disraeli. One of the more fascinating discoveries for me was a 12th-century map of Sherwood Forest depicting castle, a deer park, rivers, streams, towns, and villages. The Belvoir Castle collection is not open to the public, and only the duke can grant permission for a researcher to see the papers.

I did not see access to computerized finding aids at any of the three collections although I must say that the Hatfield House Web site does provide access to transcriptions of documents. Although these country estates have a formidable sense of history, our archives at Winterthur are in better shape than theirs – and they have had several hundred years’ head start!

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