Garter Day in the Archives

by Rachel Banke, Ph.D. candidate in American History at the University of Notre Dame. She was an Omohundro Institute Georgian Papers Fellow and spent last June researching at the Royal Archives


Have you ever eaten a cake decorated like Henry VIII?  Well, I have. To be sure, a rotund and comical Henry VIII cake does not grace the Royal Archives every day, but I was graciously treated to a slice when the archives staff hosted me as their guest for Garter Day. How exactly does one celebrate Garter Day besides drinking tea and eating cake?  Standing on the battlements of the Round Tower—in the rain, of course—we watched the members of the Most Noble Order of the Garter descend to St George’s Chapel after their formal knighting in the royal residence.

Getting to experience Garter Day at Windsor was especially interesting to me because I study one of the Order’s former members. My research centers on the 3rd Earl of Bute, who was tutor, advisor, friend, and prime minister to George III. My project, “Bute’s Empire: Reform, Reaction, and the Roots of Imperial Crisis,” uses the figure of the Earl of Bute to unpack dynamics of imperial governance and popular political culture on the eve of the American Revolution.

I was especially thrilled to find the Royal Archives holds an immense collection (over 2,000 documents) of George III’s notes and essays spanning from his childhood to near the end of his life. This material provides fantastic insights into key parts of his political philosophy, including topics such as English history, political economy, the system of British government, and the levying of taxes. The chicken scratch of George’s drafts and notes were some of the most interesting pieces because they show how George refined and developed his thought in a collection mostly devoid of dates. The problems of dating most of the material did raise questions for me about how I can use these otherwise rich sources to speak to George III’s thinking during a particular point in his life. However, I was particularly excited to find the Earl of Bute’s comments and corrections on some of these papers.

I also spent a significant portion of my time on family correspondence. Many of these materials fleshed out the full person of George III in funny, surprising, and touching ways. In particular, an affectionate letter from Prince Frederick to his son, the young Prince George, stands out. The letter outlined the humble, principled, and brave way a King needed to approach his duties to his country and people, sentiments which George III took to heart as he ascended the throne intent on removing corrupt influences and producing a reformation of government.

I would like to express my greatest gratitude toward the staff of the Royal Archives and the Omohundro Institute for making this research possible. I would also like to give my thanks to the staffs of the Royal Library, who patiently hosted me during renovations to the Round Tower, and the Royal Print Room, who were exceedingly helpful when I visited to see items in the satirical print and Cumberland maps collections. I eagerly await the launch of the digitization project, which promises to breathe new life into not only our understanding of high political history of the era, but also important aspects of eighteenth-century cultural and intellectual history as well.

 

Researching in the Round Tower: report by Georgian Papers Fellow, Rick Atkinson

Rick Atkinson, freelance military historian, was an Omohundro Institute Georgian Papers Fellow who spent last April researching at the Royal Archives. He is researching the first volume of a projected trilogy about the American Revolution and used his time in the archives to look at the role of King George III in military decisions, specifically those relating to espionage and expeditionary warfare, starting in early 1775 and carrying through the Battle of Princeton in 1777.

 

Atkinson at Henry VIII Gate, Windsor Castle, April 2016
Atkinson at Henry VIII Gate, Windsor Castle, April 2016

 

I’ve worked in some exotic locations—Mogadishu, Mali, Baghdad, Kazakhstan, Riyadh—but none more evocative than the top of the Round Tower in Windsor Castle, where I spent the month of April 2016, as a Georgian Papers fellow. The researcher’s path to this archive is steep: through the Henry VIII Gate and the Norman Gatehouse, up 102 stone steps in the Round Tower and then another 21 wooden steps to the reading room. It’s as close to time travel as I’ve ever experienced.

As an author and a military historian from Washington, D.C., I’m working on a trilogy about the American Revolution. My previous books have been about four 20th century wars, each of them expeditionary, and I’m intrigued by the challenges of waging war at great distance in the 18th century. In the official and private papers of George III, complemented by the vast trove of Treasury, Colonial Office, Admiralty, War Office, and Audit Office documents in the National Archive at Kew, the depth and breadth of those challenges comes clear. So does the extent to which the King is closely involved in all aspects of logistics, politics, strategy, diplomacy, naval affairs, and intelligence collection during the Revolution. His appetite for information is enormous. What he knows is impressive; what he doesn’t know will help cost Britain her American colonies.

The American stereotype of a tyrannical nincompoop quickly dissolves with a little exposure to the Georgian papers. I also spent time examining the correspondence and documents of Queen Charlotte and two eventual heirs to the throne, George IV and William IV. In these papers we see the worries and preoccupations of a husband and father, and of a monarch wrestling with the fretful issue of how to prepare a prince to become a king in a changing world. I also took several days to examine the military maps of George III in the Print Room and to examine some of the King’s personal holdings in the Royal Library.

I couldn’t be more grateful to those responsible for opening up the Georgian Papers and giving us a deeper look at this extraordinary period in our common heritage, particularly King’s College London and the Omohundro Institute. Oliver Urquhart Irvine, the Librarian and Assistant Keeper of the Queen’s Archive, and his colleagues at Windsor Castle, were extraordinarily generous, accommodating, and good-humored. Not least, I was in Windsor for the Queen’s 90th birthday celebration. I told Oliver that the irony was not lost on me that I had interrupted my research on the Revolution to stand on a street curb with thousands of others to sing “Happy birthday, your Majesty.”

This post and others also appear on our sibling GPP site at the Omohundro Institute.