Two Months in the Royal Archives, May-June 2017

 By Flora Fraser, GPP Fellow, Researcher and Author


Memories of past years I spent researching books in the Royal Archives are crystal clear. I first went in autumn, just before the end of October 1988, when I was to be thirty. I was awed to be climbing the many stone steps inside William the Conqueror’s Round Tower at Windsor Castle, where the archives are housed. Generations of Royal biographers I admired – James Pope-Hennessy and indeed my grandmother, Elizabeth Longford – had preceded me.

In order to research a biography of Queen Caroline, George IV’s wife. I had been granted a term in the Archives of six months. In the event, I took rather longer to make sense of all twenty-nine boxes of the Queen’s papers. The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline was ultimately published in 1996. By that time I was already hard at work once more in the Archives. Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III – and of Queen Charlotte – was published in 2004.

Portrait of the Washington Family by Edward Savage (1761-1817) (Sourced: Wikimedia, Public Domain)
Portrait of the Washington Family by Edward Savage (1761-1817) (Sourced: Wikimedia, Public Domain)

My next biographies – Venus of Empire: A  Life of Pauline Bonaparte  (2009) and The Washingtons: George & Martha (2015) – led me, first, across the Channel and, then, across the Atlantic. But my affection for the Georgian and other Papers in the Royal Archives was undimmed. I browsed with pleasure Queen Victoria’s digitized journal,  when it went live on the Royal Collection website in 2012, to mark our Queen s Golden Jubilee. And there are a few electrifying moments in one’s research and writing career. One such was when I learnt last autumn of the Georgian Papers Project, and of the imaginative partnering of the Royal Archives with King’s College, London, and, in the US, with the Omohundro Institute, the Library of Congress, the Sons of the American Revolution, and Mount Vernon.

When I was writing about George and Martha Washington’s marriage, I consulted the PGWDE – the digital edition of the  first American President’s papers and the brainchild of Mount Vernon and the University of Virginia – remotely and daily in London for six years. So I appreciate just what a treasure trove  – a bonanza! – digitized papers, copiously and expertly annotated, can be for a biographer.  And now there is the Georgian Papers Project –  a new bonanza for authors, academics, and the world beyond. Avenues of study and exploration online will multiply as the Project proceeds. I was delighted, early this year, to be chosen as the 2017 Mount Vernon Georgian Papers Fellow to research, the Royal Archives and in archives in the US, two book projects: a life of Flora Macdonald, the Scottish heroine who later emigrated to North Carolina and became caught up in the American Revolution; and a life of Nelson on shore and at sea.

Flora Macdonald (1722-1790); Jacobite Heroine 5 1/2x 3 3/8 Portrait of Flora Macdonald seated, holding a miniature of Prince Charles on a ribbon.
Flora Macdonald (1722-1790); Jacobite Heroine 5 1/2 x 3 3/8 in. Portrait of Flora Macdonald seated, holding a miniature of Prince Charles on a ribbon. (Sourced: Wikimedia, Public Domain)

For my biography of Flora Macdonald, I explored, at Windsor, the Stuart Papers and the Cumberland Papers. The former are the – largely 18thC – papers of the exiled House of Stuart, including those of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, Charles Edward Stuart. In the summer of 1746, having failed with a rebel army, including many Highland Scots, to restore the Stuart monarchy, the Prince was in hiding from Hanoverian troops in Hebridean islands off the west coast of Scotland. Flora, a young local girl, was of vital aid to Charles Edward in South Uist and Skye. The latter are the military papers of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, second son of George II, who was commander-in-chief in Scotland and directing the search for the Prince.  I found rich pickings in both Stuart and Cumberland Papers for Flora’s heady week with the Prince in the Hebrides and for her subsequent capture and transportation to London for trial.

For my future biography of Nelson, meanwhile, I looked at a variety of papers in the Royal Archives. Some date from the Revolutionary War in America, where he served as a young naval officer. He provided advice and a degree of companionship to Prince William, later Duke of Clarence and William IV, during that young man’s brief career at sea. Others emanate from the Napoleonic Wars, in which conflict, as a much decorated admiral, Nelson died, victorious, in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Many in the Royal Archives helped to make my research there so productive this May and June. Dr Oliver Walton corresponded with me helpfully in advance of my visit, answered further queries speedily, and gave interesting advice on the Georgian navy. Allison Derrett, an old friend in the Archives, was always ready to share expert advice. Roberta Giubilini, having worked on the Stuart and Cumberland Papers and being at work on the William IV papers, was interested in my two projects and a mine of information about specific boxes. Moreover, the bookshelves in the researchers’ room hold many useful books and published correspondence relevant to Georgian and later Royal history, which I consulted frequently. I am grateful, besides, to all those members of the Archives who hefted into the researchers’ room hundreds of volumes of Stuart Papers and many boxes of Cumberland Papers boxes. Last but not least, I owe much to Lynnette Beech, who kindly scanned documents for me, when I wanted more than pencilled notes and memory to recall them to mind.

May and June 2017 saw extremes of British weather and a stormy General Election. Closeted up in the sky, I never switched my mobile on and generally caught up with the day’s news on the train back to London. But some news permeated the Round Tower’s thick walls. These months also saw extremist attacks in Manchester and London. We stood for an inadequate but sincere minute’s silence twice in two months in the Archives.

Windsor Castle is an idiosyncratic place. A Governor, Poor Knights and the clergy of St George’s Chapel, besides the Royal Family, are just some of its many residents. This has been the case since the days of George III and Queen Charlotte and of many earlier monarchs. The unchanging nature of much about Windsor has its effect. As I walked to up through the Castle to the Archives this summer, I sometimes felt as if I were my younger self and researching there thirty years ago. Up, as ever, I strolled from Henry VIII Gate, and through Lower Ward, looking idly at the Round Tower on the skyline ahead to see if the Queen was in residence. When Court is at Windsor, the Royal standard flies, yellow and red lions streaming in the wind. Up again, as ever, I proceeded, past the Moat Garden, beautifully planted, and now my pace quickened. The door at the base of the Round Tower gives onto that steep ascent inside to the Archives and to WORK. The same impetus to have at the papers made me bound up the steps this summer with quite as much energy as in 1988.

There is the odd diversion in the Archives not usually to be had in muniment rooms, and new to me, since a renovation of the Archives, and change in function of several rooms there. When Court is at Windsor a band marches midmorning  into Upper Ward, to serenade the monarch. The music floats crystal clear up to the new researchers’ room in the Round Tower. ‘Not Coldplay again …’, one of our number muttered absent-mindedly on one occasion. Another researcher looked up and said, ‘The Queen likes them. Prince Harry got her into them’.

Apart from these occasional musical intervals, the quiet of the large researchers’ room is little disturbed. In company with others, I leafed through boxes of papers, squinted at handwriting, and transcribed letters in part or in full. Some pecked at computers. Others, like I, were pencil and paper devotees. Once  the Lord Chamberlain came in unexpectedly to enquire about the scope of our research. Returning from the depths of the mid 18th c, I attempted and failed to give a coherent answer.

I was fortunate enough to be in the Archives also when Dr Carla Hayden, the new Librarian of Congress, and some of her colleagues visited from DC. I consulted the Library’s digital collections at loc.gov extensively when writing about the Washingtons, and the new partnership between the Royal Archives and the Library is exciting to contemplate. Additionally Dr Hayden told me about a Georgian show in contemplation at the Library. She suggested that, when I was on my Fellowship at Mount Vernon in October, I should talk to the exhibition team. Atlantic Studies, rule OK!

I am grateful to many who offered me help before, during and after my time in the Archives. Bruce Ragsdale, my distinguished predecessor as Mount Vernon Georgian Papers Fellow, offered sound practical advice about working at the Royal Archives. Doug Bradburn and Stephen McLeod, Founding Director and Director of Library programs at the George Washington Library, Mount Vernon, respectively, were strong in support. Arthur Burns at King’s and Karin Wulf at the Omohundro are inspiring and enthusiastic academic leaders. Who, besides, would not enjoy discussing Nelson with Laughton Professor of Naval History, Andrew Lambert, as I did, when presenting research at King’s in June?

Most of all, I love the cross-disciplinary connections that are growing up around the GPP. Together, Fellows and institutions from both sides of the Atlantic are considering 18th c politics, warfare, agriculture, trade, material culture  and much else. I lose track, besides, of the number of cups of tea and drinks and meals I have shared with new friends made, since I became a Georgian Papers Fellow.

My two months at the Royal Archives this summer are still inchoate and unprocessed. No doubt with time the narrative will sharpen. However, even at this stage, I am aware that my research at  Windsor has fleshed out greatly for me the part Flora Macdonald played in the Forty-Five. In the case of Nelson, the Georgian papers have made me think hard about both his character and his social standing at different times of his truncated life. But that’s for the future. Now to write Flora! Or even, now to write, Flora …

Understanding the American Revolution using George III’s archives

Professor Andrew O’Shaughnessy was the first Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) Visiting Professor in 2016. The generous support from the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) enables visiting professors to bring new perspectives to the study of texts uncovered by the Georgian Papers Programme (GPP). Here Professor O’Shaughnessy reflects on the highlights of his research during his professorship.


The objective of my research project was twofold. Firstly, it aimed to explain the significance of the archives of George III and the Georgian Programme for our understanding of the American Revolution. Secondly, it examined the personal role of George III in the formulation of strategy in the Revolutionary War.

Why are George III’s archives significant for understanding the American Revolution?

The papers of George III are fundamental to interpreting the British side of the American Revolution. The King was a critical figure because he enjoyed considerable power under the constitutional system of the 18th century. The monarch was still actively involved in politics, selecting both the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet. The King also had much influence over the independent country gentry who made up the majority of members of the House of Commons. This was augmented by the patronage of individuals known as placemen and direct control of some constituencies.

The correspondence of George III was edited and published in 1927-28 as a series of six volumes covering the period of the American Revolution by Sir John Fortescue, who was the royal librarian at Windsor Castle. His later papers were edited and published in five volumes by A Aspinall between 1963 and 1971. The majority of historians therefore did not use the original archive because of the availability of the published letters and the difficulty of obtaining permission to obtain access to the papers at Windsor Castle.

However, the archive is important for historians since it contains a significant volume of information that has not been published. Furthermore, it is always necessary to consult original documents since they may reveal much more with alterations and deletions. It is also possible to identify documents in which George III meticulously listed military information, including details of the French fleet. There were additionally several categories of unpublished papers, important for our knowledge of the American Revolution.

Highlights from the archives

(a) Letters not included in the papers published by Sir John Fortescue:

Fortescue omitted some letters that are in the archive but not in the published volumes. Andrew Beaumont at Hertford College, Oxford, has been examining the correspondence of George III to Lord North for a biography of Lord North. He has certainly found that some of these letters were not included in the printed correspondence. My own investigation was for the correspondence of the actual war years in which the military intelligence and reports of spies were for some reason not included in the published papers by Fortescue. These included the letters of Aristarchus, who reported directly to George III. It may indeed have been the pen name of more than one individual while his reports were clearly based on many sources, especially in Britain and France. There is a book of reports from Brest in France about the activities of the French navy in the late 1770s – ‘George III Secret Intelligence 1779-1782’, which is handwritten and contained in Box 4121-4448. The naval intelligence ultimately failed the British in the months prior to Yorktown. This period is covered in the reports.

There is additionally a memoir by William Knox – former agent to the colony of Georgia and deputy secretary of state for America under Lord George Germain – entitled ‘Anecdotes and Characters of the late Administration 1782’. It is a wonderful source on the personalities of Lord North’s government and the debacle at the Battle of Saratoga.

(b) The letters of Admiral Sir Samuel Hood:

Admiral Sir Samuel Hood was second in command at arguably the most important naval battle of the 18th century, which is known as the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes off Virginia. It was lost by the British and proved decisive in the fate of Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown. Hood wrote regularly to one of the King’s courtiers and officeholders, General J Budé. These documents are unique and have not been examined by the various biographers of Hood. They are not part of those of his papers published by the Naval Records Society. They include important accounts of naval affairs and of the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes.

(c) The correspondence of William, Duke of Clarence:

Prince William was the third son of George III, who assigned him to the navy at the age of 13 in 1778. He was witness to several major naval engagements, and later served under Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. His correspondence includes accounts of British-occupied New York, naval battles and the war in the Caribbean.

(d) George III private papers (undated):

There are miscellaneous volumes of letters that were not included in the papers published by Fortescue. These included personal matters relating to his family, but also include his drafts requesting German mercenaries to the various princes in Brunswick, the Landsgrave of Hesse and Hesse Cassel. There is also correspondence with the admirals, often relating to Prince William.

(e) Maps, engravings and plans:

The maps are not formally part of the digital project of the Georgian Programme, however it was possible to consult them while working at Windsor Castle. They are not for the most part known to historians even though copies have long been available on microfilm at the Library of Congress. They include plans of battles, including one for the Battle of Bunker Hill and the siege of Charleston and are only just in the process of being indexed. They represent possibly the richest trove of unpolished materials for military historians.

What was George III’s role in the strategy of the American Revolution?

My second objective was to attempt to evaluate the role of George III in the strategy of the Revolutionary War. It was apparent to me that some of his language was repeated by Lord George Germain, the Minister most responsible for the war in America. He certainly had a role in the continuance of the war by refusing to countenance the appointment of a ministry committed to peace with America. Indeed, he became a driving force of the war in 1778 in the absence of leadership by Lord North. He threatened even to abdicate rather than permit a government that would not continue the war. He personally wrote to and negotiated the contracts for mercenaries with the princes of various states in Germany.

The research project hoped to find additional correspondence with those members of the government most responsible for the war. The outcome was indecisive. There were no letters that had not been published to Germain and the Earl of Sandwich. However, it is very likely that they were regularly meeting in person with the King, but unfortunately we do not have a source that lists his meetings. It was significant, though, that he copied, in his own hand, many of the military documents that he consulted, including lists of the ships in the respective fleets and the logistics of the British army in Boston in 1775.

Video available for ‘Just Write It, I’ll Make It Work’: King George III Through The Eyes Of Alan Bennett & Nicholas Hytner, 10 October 2016

The opening event of 2016’s Arts & Humanities Festival can now be viewed on YouTube. In the talk chaired by Professor Alan Read, Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner discuss researching archives to write The Madness of King George III, the challenges of translating an acclaimed stage show to a multi-award winning film, and how they see George III.