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 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 …

George I and George II and the Royal Archives: the missing monarchs?

By Dr Andrew Thompson, Queens’ College, Cambridge


John Michael Rysbrack (1693-1770): King George II (1683-1760) signed & dated 1738, and Queen Caroline (1683-1737) signed and dated 1739. Terracotta or fired clay | RCIN 1412 and RCIN 1411. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

George III is the Hanoverian monarch perhaps most frequently associated with the Royal Archives. The king’s own voluminous correspondence forms an important part of the collection and, in the early nineteenth century, his son, as Prince Regent, was instrumental in helping to secure the two collections that constitute the ‘Stuart Papers’ for the Royal Archives.

When it comes to the early Hanoverian monarchs, however, there are limits to what can be discovered from the material in the Royal Archives. This relative paucity of material for the first two Georgian monarchs can be attributed to two factors.  One reason relates to the relatively slow process by which the Hanoverians became acculturated into their new British possessions. When George I came to England in 1714 he brought with him a considerable Hanoverian entourage of servants and advisors. These ‘outsiders’ were the cause of much local resentment, not least because George I was a relatively private man and his two Turkish man-servants were stout guardians of their master’s privacy. The fact that George set up a separate German Chancery in London to handle his Hanoverian affairs also meant that much of his political correspondence was handled via another route. When the Personal Union (of the thrones of Britain and Hanover) came to an end with Queen Victoria’s accession in 1837 and her uncle acceded to the Hanoverian throne, the records of the German Chancery were returned to Hanover. Moreover, much of the material relating to the royal family’s life in Hanover, which both George I and II visited frequently, remained in the family archives there, eventually finding its way into the Hanoverian State Archives.

Beyond dispersal of material, eighteenth-century elite custom also played a role.  Although it was common for correspondents to keep letters, it was  not unusual for letters to be returned to families on the death of the original correspondent. In addition, contemporary accounts suggest that George II destroyed many of his father’s private letters after his own accession, and it is possible that something similar happened after his own death in 1760. One of the reasons that George II may have been keen to destroy his father’s papers was that he was anxious to suppress his father’s will, which had raised questions about the ongoing desirability of the Personal Union of Britain and Hanover. Some of the material relating to George I’s discussions about the possibility of varying the succession laws in Britain and Hanover to allow for an ending of the Personal Union is included in the second batch of digitized documents unveiled by the Georgian Papers Programme, released today.

Beyond concerns about the political viability of sharing a ruler between two rather different territories, interest in the possibilities of altering the succession reflected the notoriously poor relations between fathers (and to a lesser degree mothers) and eldest sons within the Hanoverian royal family.  Splitting the inheritance offered the possibility of favouring one child over another or providing for younger children who lacked other prospects.  It was commonly thought that George II and his wife favoured their younger son, William, Duke of Cumberland, over Frederick, Prince of Wales. Familial rivalries, therefore, had a discernible impact on patterns of surviving material. This intergenerational tension also had personal and psychological origins. The banishment of George II’s mother, Sophie Dorothea of Celle, following her divorce from his father in 1694, did little to endear George II to his father. Similarly, the fact that George II did not see his own eldest son, Frederick (b. 1707), between 1714 and 1729 hardly helped their relationship.

There were also, however, more serious structural reasons for dysfunctional relationships.  George II’s accession in 1727 was unusual in that it did not see much alteration in the composition of the ministry.  The default assumption for eighteenth-century politicians was that a new reign would bring in new ministers.  Consequently, those who had fallen out with the current administration naturally gravitated towards the heir to the throne as a better bet for the future.  Much of the detailed story of the deterioration of the relationship between George and his son can be found in the manuscript memoirs of John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey (one version of which is contained in today’s release). Hervey enjoyed privileged access to the royal court. He served as Queen Caroline’s Vice-Chamberlain and the memoirs give a strong sense of his loyalty towards the queen and Robert Walpole, who had been chief minister since 1721 and had managed to survive the transition to a new monarch in 1727, and his frustrations with the king. Hervey’s memoirs have been available in print for a number of years, and consequently Hervey’s voice has been important in shaping how we think about George II’s court.

However, despite the scantiness of material on Georges I and II, some of the documents from the Royal Archive, published here for the first time, do serve to add to our understanding of these monarchs and can provide us with new details that both contrast with and complement Hervey’s narrative.

David Morier (1705?-70): George II c.1745, oil on canvas RCIN 404413. Hangs in Grand Vestibule, Windsor Castle. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Financial records, for example, provide valuable insights into both priorities and personality. While the early Hanoverians did not maintain their own theatrical and operatic establishments on the scale of some of their continental counterparts, their patronage of institutions within London was nevertheless important. For the proprietors, association with the royal family was a useful marketing tool and royal attendance at a performance was frequently advertised in advance as a means of drumming up custom. Meanwhile, the royal family could use appearances at cultural events as part of a wider public relations strategy. Attitudes towards money were another area where there were generational differences – George II was careful to harbour his resources while Prince Frederick, by contrast, thought that lavish spending was one of the marks of royal power. This pattern was to repeat itself with George III and his eldest son.

In addition to papers about the kings themselves, the Royal Archives also hold material relating to their wider families: George II’s children Frederick and William Augustus and his wife, Queen Caroline. Caroline’s role as advisor, confidante and patron has received considerable attention recently, both in print and in an exhibition at Kensington Palace. She had a broad set of intellectual interests, which Hervey tended to contrast approvingly with her husband’s less sensitive approach to culture. More importantly, though, the papers of the wider royal circle emphasize the extent to which being royal was a ‘family business’ to which all contributed. It is only through studying the dynasty as a whole, over time and space, that we can understand what was really going on.  Although there are clearly gaps in the surviving material, the archives digitized here offer new and exciting opportunities for exploring the history of the early Hanoverian monarchy.

Dr Andrew C. Thompson is Director of Studies in History at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of the first biography of George II to make extensive use of British and German material, George II: King and Elector, published in the Yale English Monarchs series (New Haven and London, 2011). He has published widely on early Hanoverian politics and religion, including Britain, Hanover and the Protestant Interest 1688-1756 (Boydell & Brewer, 2006).  He is currently editing a companion to Dissent in the long eighteenth century.

Some further reading:

Andrew C. Thompson, George II: King and Elector (2011)




Joanna Marschner, Queen Caroline: Cultural Politics at the Early Eighteenth Century Court (2014)



Hannah Smith, Georgian Monarchy: Politics and Culture 1714-1760 (2006)

The Princess and the Physicians

By Alice Marples, Research Associate, John Rylands Research Institute. She completed her PhD at King’s College London in 2016. Her thesis is entitled ‘Collecting and Correspondence in the Papers of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). 

Hidden within some of the early Georgian papers at Windsor Castle is a collection of letters written by the Princess of Wales, Queen Caroline, to her friend and confidante, Charlotte Clayton. The letters were written between 1716 and 1737, and concern Caroline’s daughter, Princess Amelia. There are no dates on these letters, being copied in French and English seemingly by Charlotte Clayton herself. However, in 1952, John Keevil, then Keeper of the Library of the Royal College of Physicians, rearranged them in chronological order according to his reading of the course of Amelia’s long-running illness.

The letters appear to have been written to reassure Caroline that her daughter was receiving the best care, and to provide an outlet for her fears that she was not. Amelia was being attended to by various royal physicians, including Johann Georg Steigertahl and Hans Sloane (the physician, naturalist and collector who was the subject of my research). Through Clayton, though, Caroline was also secretly consulting with her ‘Esculapius’, Dr. John Freind, often acting against the wishes of both royal physicians and her husband. These letters reveal interesting things about the power dynamics within medical consultations, particularly those within the court, and the ways in which patients and practitioners alike had to engage with conflicting networks and bits of advice, and negotiate with one another in order to settle as much as possible on a course agreeable to all.

Princess Amelia of Great Britain (1711-1786), painted by Jean Bapiste van Loo, oil on canvas, c. 1738.
Princess Amelia of Great Britain (1711-1786), painted by Jean Bapiste van Loo, oil on canvas, c. 1738.

Caroline refused to let Steigertahl (whom she repeatedly called ‘the Butcher’) and Sloane give Amelia emetics or lessen the quantities of kinkana she was taking. In return, they refused to apply various requested blisters and only complied with Caroline’s demands (and Freind’s advice) regarding blood-letting once Caroline had ‘made the Prince speak a little warmly’ to them. Once, when Amelia was particularly suffering with a fever and swelling in her throat, Caroline wrote: ‘Dr Hans & Bussier alltogether blame me & say we have done ill to bleed her. That does not disturb me a moment. I am sure your friend [Freind] is the most capable of any in the world to give advice. What misfortune is it, not to be able with respect to my daughter allways to have his advice follw’d.’ When Steigertahl told the King that he thought repeated bleeding would weaken the Princess, Caroline stated that she believed she could have ‘pull’d his eyes out.’ Such disagreements only increased Caroline’s anxiety and her reliance on Clayton and Freind’s advice. She promised in the fourth letter: ‘I will make them put down in writing the course of the medicines that they would give her & then I will send it to your friend to put down his method, & they shall be given accordingly to his directions.’ In the next letter, Caroline wrote: ‘I have suspended every thing till you my dear friend have spoke with our Esculapius. If He approves of this or any thing else that He thinks proper, I beg you to send before Six for the physicians or rather the executioners will be there then, therefore dont come my dear Clayton.’


Despite such clashes in medical authority and patronage, though, Sloane’s archive at the British Library reveals something of a ceasefire between the three Royal Society physicians and the Royal family. All three continued to serve as royal physicians: in April 1723, Steigertahl wrote to Sloane, informing him that Amelia was to visit the waters at Bath under the direction of Dr Freind. Indeed, when Freind died in 1728, Steigertahl wrote touchingly of his loss. Sloane, meanwhile, was forced to write to Friend’s brother to try and regain the various medical books he had loaned him over the years.